China in Africa: A Force for Good?

Joshua Mathew

Introduction

The rather low-profile Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, concluded recently, saw a reaffirmation of China’s commitment to the region. Africa provides a smorgasbord of economic benefits to China: it is a source of raw materials and agricultural produce, and is an external market for Chinese construction firms. With the demographics of Africa consisting of mostly young consumers, there are lucrative opportunities for Chinese private capital to conduct business in the region. In addition, in terms of political value, Africa is a key partner – as a crucial voting bloc in the United Nations, there is a strategic dimension to the relationship.

One aspect that deserves further attention is the development of telecommunications platforms in Africa. The main focus will be on the Chinese involvement in this area as well as its potential security implications. Some mitigating strategies to deal with the risks will also be provided. 

Modern Communications Technology in Africa

China has astutely grasped the opportunity to equip Africa with modern 3G and 4G telecommunication: 70 percent of Africa’s 4G networks are built by Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company. Amidst growing privacy concerns about Huawei in the US and the EU, it has instead pivoted to the African market. Due to its extensive economies of scale and state subsidies, Huawei is able to undercut other market players. This has enabled Huawei to secure additional projects: Huawei has signed data centre deals with Kenya, Egypt, Ghana, Senegal and Cameroon, among others. This signals great progress for these countries: transiting towards a digitised society might improve governmental record-keeping and possibly promote greater public accountability. However, one must be aware of the cyber-security risks arising from the structural integrity of such systems. Given that critical data, essential to the running of nations, will be uploaded to these data centres, it would be wise for African countries to adopt protective measures.

Protecting Cyber Sovereignty

In my opinion, a key step towards a strong cyber defence for Africa is the regional implementation of codified commitment to data protection. Of the 55 countries comprising the African Union, only 8 have ratified the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. Multilateral action needs to be enacted in order to promote African cooperation. This is important because China tends to prefer bilateral partnerships. It is hence important to commit to a united African Union stance on cybersecurity.

A Force for Good?

China sees the economic and strategic benefit of a strong partnership with Africa. With its aggressive lending scheme, it is well-positioned to continue to outpace the West and the G20 in terms of development assistance to Africa. Taking this into account, this does not mean China cannot be trusted – adopting protective measures for national cyber systems is a matter of safeguarding national sovereignty against any cyber threat, no matter the source.

Ultimately, China deserves credit for strategically filling a vacuum in Africa’s technological development, at a time when it was not the foremost objective of the West. The US, under President Biden, has re-emphasised a strong desire to enhance its global influence and commitments. It is hence no surprise that the US is attempting to play a game of catch-up with China[KA10] , with Africa as one of the arenas of competition.

References

“About Prosper Africa.” Prosper Africa. Accessed December 7, 2021. https://www.prosperafrica.gov/about/

African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. LIST OF COUNTRIES WHICH HAVE SIGNED, RATIFIED/ACCEDED TO THE AFRICAN UNION CONVENTION ON CYBER SECURITY AND PERSONAL DATA PROTECTION. 2020. https://au.int/sites/default/files/treaties/29560-sl-AFRICAN%20UNION%20CONVENTION%20ON%20CYBER%20SECURITY%20AND%20PERSONAL%20DATA%20PROTECTION.pdf

Hruby, Aubrey. “The Digital Infrastructure Imperative in African Markets.” Atlantic Council. Last modified April 8, 2021. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/africasource/the-digital-infrastructure-imperative-in-african-markets/

Nyabiage, Jevans. “Huawei Continues to Play Leading Role in Africa.” South China Morning Post. Last modified June 28, 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3138917/african-nations-continue-put-trust-huawei-data-management.

The 8th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Accessed December 19, 2021. http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/

To, Lee L. “China, the USA and the South China Sea Conflicts.” Security Dialogue 34, no. 1 (2003), 25-39. doi:10.1177/09670106030341004.

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