Why Africa Should Be Concerned With Increasing Tensions in the East and South China Sea

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Why Africa Should Be Concerned With Increasing Tensions in the East and South China Sea

For African countries, tension and instability in East Asia might seem far away, but its potential to adversely affect African development ambitions is real.

Why Africa Should Be Concerned With Increasing Tensions in the East and South China Sea
Credit: Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas Huynh

This year has seen growing geopolitical and geoeconomic tensions in many parts of the world, and no place is this more visible and acute than in the Asia-Pacific region. Rising confrontations between the United States, China, and other regional and extra-regional actors can lead one to argue that Asia has become the leading spark plug to a potential great power conflict.

For African countries, such tension and instability might seem geographically far away, but its potential to adversely affect African development ambitions is real.

Tensions on the Rise

The geopolitical tensions in Asia have been brewing for years, with great and major powers struggling to find common ground on important issues and becoming more antagonistic and hostile toward one another. The territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas have the potential to ignite armed conflicts between the world powers. Most analysts have identified the primary antagonist in this saga to be China, with its growing material capabilities leading to growing global ambitions. Beijing claims 80 percent of the South China Sea, while claiming Taiwan as an inherent and inalienable part of China that must be reunited with the motherland by 2049.

China has gone beyond rhetoric, using its growing military capabilities and economic largesse to alter the status quo in the region, mainly through coercion. Beijing has been building artificial military islands in the South China Sea, violating small neighboring countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) through paramilitary actors, disregarding an international tribunal ruling against it, and on various occasions threatening military action against Taiwan. While China has been echoing its adherence to peaceful relations with its neighbors, it still is a great power that appears to adhere to Thucydides’ famous quote: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In 2010, former Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi echoed Thucydides by stating that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact” in response to complaints about China’s activities in the South China Sea.

The consequences of Chinese aggressions have been swift. As per balance of power theories, China’s actions have invoked counteractions by regional and global powers. The Quad coalition was reignited in 2017, while global military powers such as the U.K., France, and Germany have deployed military assets to the region. Japan and the United States have strengthened their alliance, while the U.S., U.K., and Australia recently signed a nuclear submarine deal. Countries around the region have also sought to strengthen their military capabilities, leading to a possible security dilemma that can spark interstate conflicts.

The ailing cross-strait relations between China and Taiwan are the most likely cause of a major great power conflict that ropes in regional and extra-regional players. China’s increasing aggression toward Taiwan under the Xi regime has reached a record peak in 2021, from rhetorical threats by Chinese officials and state media to all-time high incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). There have been estimates that China might invade Taiwan sooner than later due to its rapid military modernization; Taiwan’s Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng expects China will be ready to launch a full-scale invasion of Taiwan by 2025.

To counter these trends, some countries have pledged to assist Taiwan, most notably the United States but also Japan, due to expectations that Tokyo’s involvement will invoke Chinese military action against Japan as observed in a widely circulated video. Conflict across the Taiwan Strait might also bring in actors such as NATO and potentially Russia.

Such a conflict would go beyond the confines of military loss and victory. As a RAND report argued, “[W]ar planners are concerned mainly with how to gain military advantage, not how to avoid economic and political damage. Yet the consequences of war could go far beyond military success and failure: The world economy could be rocked, and international order, such as it is, could be shattered.” In a globalized world, conflict in Asia will affect the economies within Asia and be disastrous for the global economy as a whole. This is more so with Asia becoming the center of global economic activity and growth, expected to account for more than 50 and 40 percent of global GDP and consumption, respectively, by 2040.

What’s at Stake for African Countries

For African states, such conflicts are unlikely to reach African soil, but the socioeconomic impact is bound to be profound for two reasons. Firstly, Asia serves as an important source of trade, investment, aid, development, and growth for many African economies, and, secondly, African economies are highly vulnerable to external disruptions in the global economy, particularly those dependent on the resource sectors.

According to data from the World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS), in 2019, East Asia and the Pacific accounted for 28.14 percent and 19.8 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s imports and exports, respectively, second behind Europe and Central Asia. In terms of investments, Asia’s share of investments into Africa increased from 5 percent in 2002 to 23 percent in 2018, second behind Europe, whose share of FDI in the region has been declining. As highlighted by the KIEL Institute for the World Economy, Africa’s economic relationship with Asia is crucial for the former’s economic diversification and movement up the global value chain (GVC). Therefore, any disruptions to Asia will harm Africa.

For the most part, African countries’ growth is driven by exogenous factors instead of endogenous factors. Hence, they are more vulnerable to unfavorable external political and economic conditions. An Africa Development Bank (AfDB) report states that two-thirds of African economies are highly vulnerable to external shocks. The 2008-09 financial crisis and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the adverse effects that disruptions to the global economy can have on African economies, which are still trying to achieve moderate levels of development. Taking COVID-19 as an example, a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report argued that for African countries, “in the long term, however, the combined COVID-19 shocks will act as a multiplier of the development challenges that countries faced prior to COVID-19,” with the economic effects being expected to persist through to 2040 and 2050. The combination of COVID-19 and the ensuing instability in the Asian-Pacific region poses a dire cause for concern for many African economies.

Such negative economic consequences will also threaten political and social stability in various African countries. This is a result of various African states’ lacking the resources needed to kickstart an economic rebound. Ahunna Eziakonwa, the director of the UNDP’s regional bureau for Africa, stated that in terms of recovery, Africa “is at a big disadvantage. Many African countries are still lifting the key basic things, people out of poverty, providing basic education and health services. Now spending and investment are drying up, and that translates into distress and destitution.”

Through its Agenda 2063, Africa aspires to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth and development, good governance, democracy, and human rights and become a strong and influential player in the international system. Achieving these goals requires not only internal reforms but also global peace and stability.

For African countries, this is cause to use their voice on international platforms to advocate for peace and stability in the Asian-Pacific region. As a “neutral” party whose interests are linked to Asia, African states, through the African Union (AU), should openly encourage the de-escalation of tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. This would not be seen as choosing sides but a call for involved parties to not risk global peace and stability to pursue narrow interests wherein there will be no winners at the end of the day.

Nevertheless, little has been heard from the continent regarding their position on the matter. Three possible reasons can explain such silences. First, Africa has a history of non-alignment that started during the Cold War, and their refusal to speak up on the matter results from a desire to maintain neutrality in the current China-U.S. great power competition. Second, Africa has its own problems to deal with in terms of peace and security. According to the 2021 Global Peace Index, more countries in the region saw their level of peacefulness decrease (22) compared to those who saw an increase (21). At the same time, the 2020 Global terrorist Index highlighted that seven out of 10 countries with the most significant increase in terrorism were in sub-Saharan Africa. Lastly, only the kingdom of Eswatini recognizes Taiwan as an independent state, as per the “One China” policy. Therefore, there might be a feeling that cross-strait relations have nothing to do with Africa; however, this is far from the truth.