I was fortunate enough to host a talk by a guest speaker, Professor Shirley Ze Yu, at African Leadership. Professor Yu is Director of the China-Africa Initiative at the London School of Economics’s Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa. Her work has never before been more relevant to Africa’s socioeconomic path forward in what she calls an “increasingly deglobalized world.”

Over the last 20 years, China’s trade with Africa has multiplied 20 times and foreign direct investment (FDI) has ballooned 100 times. As China transforms itself into the world’s largest importer and begins to lose the labor premium essential for the World’s Factory, China-Africa dynamics increasingly show mutual complementarity. Infrastructure lies at the heart of China’s engagement with Africa, and such infrastructure is essential for Africa’s trade, industrialization, and digital economy. 

Of particular interest is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. The BRI is China’s infrastructure development plan to invest in nearly 70 countries and organizations worldwide as a centerpiece of China’s foreign policy. It is a grand strategy to deliver infrastructure connectivity and strategic prowess across the developing world. The BRI has expanded in scope and substance over the past decade. It started with physical infrastructures, including rails, roads, and ports, to digital infrastructures, from 5Gs, digital services, to fintech. The BRI currently also incorporates renewable energy infrastructure as a new strategic component.

Africa is the most strategic region in China’s Trillion-Dollar BRI. What has a decade of China’s BRI brought to Africa economically and strategically? In which direction is the BRI leading? How does the Chinese vision fit into Africa’s future?

These are the questions Professor Yu explored with the ALU community.

Africa is at the heart of China’s foreign policy hierarchy.

China defines the relationship as the “China-Africa Common Destiny,” which Professor Yu compared to the American notion of manifest destiny. Insightfully, she juxtaposed democratic peace theory, the idea that no two democracies go to war with each other, with her conception of development peace theory. For the latter, if countries are economically developed enough, the cost of war becomes so high that they will avoid armed engagement at all costs. She posits this as the Chinese model for creating global stability, through economic growth.

She voiced opposition to austerity measures and emphasized that African countries would do best by taking out strategic, reasonable, and well-managed loans that they can pay back. Only through efficient use of loans can developing countries improve their GDP and outputs.

She demonstrated that seven of the ten largest corporations in the world are Chinese, that overland transportation routes by rail across China could offer better transport routes than current maritime pathways, and the role Special Economic Zones may play in facilitating economic activities, particularly in landlocked countries. She emphasized the importance of African regional coordination (e.g. AfCFTA) in ensuring Africa’s equal negotiation stance with China. Below is a video overview of China’s BRI to give context to the talk.