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Africa should not take sides in US-China duel

By Mohammed Guleid | February 13th 2020

Great Greek historian and general Thucydides, writing in 5th Century BC, devised the most insightful theory of international relations. It is a theory that is as relevant today, two-and-a-half millennia later, than it was at the time of writing.

Known as the Thucydides trap, and based on his analysis of the Peloponnesian War between the city states of Sparta and Athens, the theory explains that when a rising power challenges an existing power’s dominance, the older force is likely to respond with violence, ultimately resulting in war between the old and the new.

Observers of contemporary international relations will attest to the prescience of this theory. China, the world’s rising power is expected to overtake the dominant power of the past century, the US, economically in the next few decades. By some measures, it already has.

Points of friction

As China rises, points of friction with the US, intended or otherwise, become unavoidable. The ongoing trade war is just one example of the great power tensions we will all have to live with.

Others are political and social. For developing countries such as ours, this clash creates strategic challenges, and to an extent, opportunity.

In the last great power conflict, the Cold War, the world was divided into ‘spheres of influence’ in which countries had to choose between the US and the former Soviet Union. You could have good relations and trade with one of the two superpowers, but not both.

Though in Africa we were thousands of kilometres from the heart of the conflict, it still affected us. Nations such as Angola and Mozambique picked the Soviet path and became virtual ‘client states’ of the Soviet Union, reliant on their patron for their every need. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, these countries had to fight to survive.

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Kenya, in contrast, chose the path of the United States, placing itself firmly in the pro-Western bloc. The fact that the West ‘won’ the Cold War meant we avoided the economic collapse that faced other countries, but we still suffered from having to pick sides. Almost half the globe was largely closed off to us. Former President Daniel Moi (may his soul rest in peace) deserves credit for holding the country together.

With the spectre of a second Cold War, this time between the US and China, looming, it is time for Africa to speak up. As the world’s poorest continent, we will be the hardest hit. Our choices will no doubt bear great consequences now and in the future.

In recent years, Kenya has emerged as the campaigner for African interests on the global stage, advocating, among other things, tougher policies on security, immigration, climate change and greater representation for Africa in international organisations.

Kenya is no longer the timid, inward-looking country. It has come of age; it wants and it is ready to engage with the world.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council Think Tank before his meeting with US President Donald Trump last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta reckoned what it would be like for Africa to have to choose between the US and China.

Needless to say, it will not be business as usual.

“Western countries, and their counterparts in Asia and the Middle East, are returned to competition over Africa, in some cases weaponising divisions, pursuing proxy actions and behaving like Africa is for the taking,” he told the assembled gathering. “Well, I want to tell you; it is not.”

The president must be well aware of the consequences for a second Cold War waged in Africa.

Potential markets

It is a sad spectre of already fragile states becoming overly reliant on one or the other side; countries having to choose between potential markets and of great concern, superpowers backing rival sides in local politics, with the worst possible outcome of endless conflicts, civil war and breakaways. This is not mere speculation. It happened, just a generation ago.

We have learnt from history. While we cannot prevent the US and China from fighting, nothing stops us from sending a clear message that Africa will not choose between them. We can, we will and we must retain strong relationships and ties with both.

Just so that this hits home; consider that the value of China-Africa trade in 2018 was nearly $200 billion (Sh20 trillion). Compare that with at least $60 billion (Sh6 trillion) with the US.

Wouldn’t it make greater sense to keep both of them than do away with one? Let the rest of the world fight if need be. This time, Africa is not up for grabs.

Mr Guleid is the CEO of Frontier Counties Development Council. [email protected]

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