“At a time when China is pressing on the brake pedal in Africa, Europe is increasing its investments”

Chronic. Barring a new pandemic unforeseen event, the summit between Europe and Africa will be held in February 2022. With a year and a half behind schedule because of the Covid-19, but whatever. Already, the customary formulas outline the promise of a new zenith in relations between the two continents. As France prepares to take the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), Emmanuel Macron has announced a “Economic and financial new deal” and a partnership of equals, based on “Solidarity” and an “Common strategy”.

Caution is required as grandiloquent expressions carry with them the germ of disappointment. But Europe fully intends to project itself more towards its African partner, and not only out of charity. This neighboring continent is seen as a source of challenges and opportunities. Challenges linked to demographic, economic and climatic trajectories that fuel the fear of migration. Opportunities highlighted by China’s action in the region, which has invested there like no other country for two decades. Europeans are far from being second-rate players there, whether in the field of peace and security or development aid, but their presence is struggling to impress. Their “new strategy for Africa” is not exempt from a form of competition.

Pendulum movement

In some respects, however, a pendulum swing seems to be taking place. After having covered Africa with roads, rails and bridges, distributing loans with a vengeance even if it means feeding the corruption of the elites and inflating the debt, China is stepping on the brake.

The last Forum on Sino-African Cooperation (Focac), at the end of November in Dakar, devoted this recalibration. Beijing has not brandished a huge envelope there as in previous editions. While some states are struggling to repay their debts, various financing solutions to support ongoing infrastructure projects have been put on the table. All for smaller amounts, part of which must come from the private sector.

Read also Article reserved for our subscribers “Chinafrique”, the hour of disillusionment

At the same time, Europe is showing itself to be a conqueror. In early December, it unveiled its new 300 billion euro project, “Global Gateway”, intended to compete with China’s “new silk roads”. The aim is to increase investments in digital technology, energy and transport outside the EU, and in particular on the African continent. “As China’s engagement in Africa begins to look more like that of the West, Western countries are starting to emulate China,” summed up the British weekly The Economist December 2, adding that “Some Western leaders must privately rejoice over China’s withdrawal, which they see as a blow to its influence”.

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But Beijing is far from having said its last word. At a time when the Omicron variant was pushing Europeans and Americans to suspend their flights with southern Africa without warning, President Xi Jinping made an impression by promising the continent, in conclusion of Focac, a billion doses of anti-Covid vaccines. This initiative, supposed to take place over three years and take the form of donations or support for local production, should help to “Bridging the vaccine gap”, pleaded the Chinese leader.

The same imperative has long been defended by Europeans, but the results are mixed. The double vaccination rate in Africa is less than 10%, compared to almost 70% in the EU. Faithful to its multilateral ideal, Europe makes its donations through Covax, an international mechanism for sharing doses. But the machine is heavy and it has hiccups: Africans complain that they are delivered too slowly, at random, and only receive the types of vaccine that rich countries do not want for themselves.

Meanwhile, China deploys its health diplomacy, quietly and with a consummate art of staging. If they do not want to see their own efforts discredited, it is up to the Europeans to set up a credible strategy to deliver the vaccine everywhere and give substance to the “Solidarity” they are calling for.

Also read Alice Ekman’s op-ed: Article reserved for our subscribers “For China, to occupy the ‘dominant position’ requires a new division of the world, where the United States and its allies would be progressively marginalized”

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“At a time when China is pressing on the brake pedal in Africa, Europe is increasing its investments”