The European Union recently concluded a two-day summit with Africa and pledged US$170 billion aid package to African countries in an effort to push back against Chinese influence.
Beijing has made major inroads into Africa, however, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant departure in China’s Africa policy.
Amid the burgeoning criticism related to the debt trap diplomacy, China has now been investing less in the continent, the Hong Kong Post reported.
At the last Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Meeting that took place a few months back, President Xi Jinping pledged about US$40 billion worth of investments for Africa, a third less than Beijing’s previous commitments.
Even with regard to the Chinese loans, there was a significant drop in the number compared to the previous years.
According to the data given by John Hopkins University, Chinese loans amounted to US$7.6 billion in 2019 as compared to US$29.5 billion in 2016.
Beijing has been nevertheless offering assistance in the realm of other assistance programme such as the COVID-19
vaccines. Notably, COVID-19 vaccines have also been a sore point in the relations between EU and Africa because of the bloc’s refusal to waive intellectual property rights that would have allowed for cheaper production in African countries.
In a bid to highlight the cooperative, anti-colonial narrative in the China-Africa relationship, President Xi has underlined Europe’s colonial history with Africa.
In contrast, he noted that “over the past 65 years, China and Africa had forged unbreakable fraternity in our struggle against imperialism and colonialism”.
He also referred to phrases like the “big family of Belt and Road cooperation”.
Europe, alarmed by China’s deepening engagements in Africa, is hoping to reassert its influence on the continent through massive development assistance, targeting particularly the telecommunication sector.
The assistance is a part of the Global Gateway Initiative (GGI) that was unveiled by the EU last year as an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
This involves a range of projects such as green energy initiatives, disaster relief and the improvement of the public health infrastructure.
The projects also aim to improve digital connectivity and build new transport links.
Telecommunications would also receive a special focus under the initiative and EU proposes to build a US$6.8 billion high-speed satellite communication network which will also include Africa.
European representatives have also been visiting the continent, for instance, EU Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager recently visited Abuja where she announced a substantial support for Nigeria’s digital economy and emphasised a “human-centric, democratic governance framework” for technology.
Incidentally, the Nigerian government had imposed a national ban on Twitter after the social media platform had deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari threatening a violent crackdown on secessionists only to revoke its later.
On its part, China has maintained good relationship with African dictatorships for the past 15 years.
A number of authoritarian governments in Africa limit or block internet use.
While, EU leaders look to project democratic values, such as freedom of expression and communications together with the economic aid.
Significantly, according to a report by Foundation for Investigative Journalism, Nigerian government officials, including the President’s Chief of Staff visited Beijing to learn more about the Great Firewall, China’s nationwide cyber-censorship and surveillance – just before the ban was imposed.
The EU and US are increasingly alarmed by China’s aggressive investment in the African continent.
For the past two decades, Beijing has used its deep pockets to fund massive infrastructure projects in the region.
Differentiating itself from China’s approach on the continent, EU will emphasise sustainability and transparency in the projects that it plans to pursue in the area.
They have reiterated that they will not forgo principles such as labour, environmental and anti-corruption standards in their projects unlike Chinese financing which has no conditions attached.
As per plans laid out in the GGI, Brussels is also eyeing a secure international submarine fibre cable connecting the EU with Africa along the Atlantic Ocean coast.
The new connections will foster the digital sovereignty of the two continents by diversifying existing links and ensuring the highest infrastructure and cyber security standards.
This clearly depicts the growing unease of EU with China’s expansion of digital connectivity with parts of Africa.
On the other hand, Chinese telecom provider Huawei Technologies is nearing completion of a cable project linking Asia with Eastern Africa.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, appealed to African leaders to collaborate on the principles of “mutual respect and shared interests as equals”.
EU hopes to bring about consensus with the African Union leaders for a “common future, as closest partners and neighbours”.
This is a clear effort on the part of the EU to provide the African continent an alternate to Chinese coercive ‘support regime for African development’ which would involve ethical investments and challenge China’s deep inroads in the continent.