China vs the West: a contest that will hurt Africa’s future

Africa’s development depends on global rapprochement and overcoming its own lowest-common-denominator politics.

A new long-term scenario analysis confirms that China will overtake the United States (US) as the most powerful country in the world by mid-century. The West, comprising the US and the European Union (EU), cannot constrain China’s momentum towards great power status.

The study by the African Futures and Innovation team at the Institute for Security Studies assessed the likely future distribution of power worldwide using the Frederick S Pardee Centre’s International Futures forecasting platform. It tested the effect of alternative global futures on Africa, the continent with the greatest development challenges. Four scenarios were modelled – a Sustainable World, a Divided World (the current trajectory), a World at War and a Growth World.

The analysis showed that despite China’s rise, the West would continue to dominate globally if relations between the US and the EU hold. The West is projected to maintain a technological and wealth advantage even over a possible Chinese-Russian axis.

Nothing is pre-ordained, and numerous unlikely but high-impact changes could disrupt this trend. The first is a great power implosion in the US, China or the EU. In the EU’s case, the reverse could also occur, with an expansion to include Turkey and a democratic Russia.

To develop and reduce poverty, Africa needs China and the West – it cannot choose one above the other

Deeper regional integration in Asia could make it the largest and most influential global political and economic bloc, but this would require an end to the divisions between India, China, and Japan, among others. 

Ironically, the greatest threat to China’s ongoing rise is its potential democratisation. In all other countries except the oil-rich Middle East, rising incomes unlocked a push for individual achievement and, eventually, democratisation. Such change would probably disrupt China’s current growth trajectory. That would negatively affect Africa, given China’s importance as a trading partner, investor, and infrastructure builder.

Even less likely is the scenario in which ongoing divisions in the US, if left unchecked, result in domestic violence and armed conflict. So developments in the US, EU or China could decisively tilt the global future. 

But the most likely disrupter is the accelerated impact of climate change. It could force a reassessment of the current global trajectory – towards a Divided World – and provide the impetus for a collective response.

Under the current Divided World scenario, extreme poverty in Africa will be 48% higher by 2043

The orientation of India will also affect the future global balance of power and the nature of that order. Relations between the US and EU are significant for the continued dominance of the West. A resumption of Donald Trump’s disastrous foreign policies – should he be re-elected as US president in 2024 – could see the EU and US going their separate ways.

And although the war in Ukraine has strengthened relations in the EU and between the US and EU, rising energy prices and a likely recession will strain EU unity. Meanwhile, the Ukraine conflict and the fear of China’s growing influence are causing significant collateral damage. The West must differentiate between China and Russia and resist simplistic narratives that pit a benevolent West against bad China associated with evil Russia in Africa. 

For Africa to develop and reduce poverty, it needs China, the EU and the US. It cannot choose one above the other. Compared to the Sustainable World, the current Divided World trajectory means Africa will release 4% more carbon, gross domestic product per capita will be 6% lower, and extreme poverty 48% higher by 2043 (Chart 1).

Chart 1: Comparing scenario impact on carbon emissions, GDP per capita and extreme poverty in Africa

Chart 1: Comparing scenario impact on carbon emissions, GDP per capita and extreme poverty in Africa

Source: African Futures, ISS
(click on the chart for the full size image)

Only under the Sustainable World scenario will Africa have the space to develop and start closing the growing gap with other regions on various indices such as average income. And that in turn depends on a rapprochement between China and the West. But the Chinese Communist Party won’t abandon its collectivist views on politics and development just as democratic countries won’t abandon a belief in individual freedoms and rights.

A determined effort is needed to rebuild relations between the West and China defined by mutual respect and acknowledgement of the differences in approaches to development and governance.

African leaders have just as much work to do. Not all are committed to their country’s development. Some rule in the interests of a clique, family, or ethnic group; in others, state capacity is so weak it renders governing impotent.

Some countries in the Sahel, military-run governments in West Africa, countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, and family businesses like Eswatini and Equatorial Guinea cannot currently be part of an African journey of renewal. African leaders must be bold enough to embark on a two-speed approach where some states commit earlier to higher governance standards and demonstrate the associated advantages. Others can join later.

The idea of ‘leaving no country behind’ is appealing but impractical for advancing Africa’s development

The obstacles to such an approach are immense, given the priority that the African Union (AU) places on continental unity and the emotional appeal of Pan-Africanism. Previous efforts include the Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, and the African Peer Review Mechanism.

All of these started as initiatives with minimum entry requirements. The idea of ‘leaving no country behind’ is appealing but cannot serve as a practical basis for advancing Africa’s development. 

Continuing with current practices of lowest-common-denominator politics – seeking to take all Africa’s diverse countries on the development journey at the same speed – won’t disrupt the continent’s low growth trajectory. It effectively penalises more stable countries with predictable policies and better governance. 

The priority for Africa is to maximise its sustainable development prospects through greater policy convergence among these first-tier countries. Stronger, more effective institutions and the evolution of a next-generation rules-based global system are also important. An authoritative approach that sees key African countries setting standards for foreign investment, insisting on full transparency and resisting political conditionality, is crucial. 

Finally, if the West is to retain influence and assist Africa, it must find ways to de-risk investment in the continent. For their part, Africans need to work much harder to reduce policy volatility and improve domestic stability. Europe, the US and Africa need ongoing communication and greater visibility of Africa’s development prospects.

But most important – if we are to avoid a new era of extreme bipolarity – the West and China need to find a way to reset relations.

Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria

This article was first published in Africa Tomorrow, the ISS African Futures blog.

Image: © Amelia Broodryk/ISS

Exclusive rights to re-publish ISS Today articles have been given to Daily Maverick in South Africa and Premium Times in Nigeria. For media based outside South Africa and Nigeria that want to re-publish articles, or for queries about our re-publishing policy, email us.

Development partners
The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
Related content