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China and the West Battle over African Development

In April we learned that Italy planned to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). That decision has generated a lot of online commentary. The tone of comments seems to fall into two equally erroneous categories. On the one hand, there is the inference that Italy is somehow pulling away from the great Western post-war consensus. On the other hand, there is the implication that contributing to the BRI is forwarding an illegitimate, almost imperialistic, Chinese usurpation.

When I lived in Tanzania my house was about 15 kilometers east of Arusha just off the main Dar es Salaam to the Nairobi Highway. That’s one of the principal thru-roads of the entire continent. When I moved in it was a potholed and two-lane road, when I left it was a smooth high capacity dual carriageway. During the renovation, the Chinese ran a construction camp on the access road leading to my place and I drove by it every day. Four acres of temporary housing, heavy equipment, Tanzanian workers and Chinese engineers.

Locally around Arusha the equation was very simple. Ongoing construction in or out of town was an inconvenience but the need for a real north-south road was too obvious for complaints to have any weight. No matter how many times the engine noises woke me up at dawn, it was somehow an honour to be inconvenienced by such an important job.

My point here is this job just had to be done. The fact that the Chinese partnered up to help the Tanzanians build the road was a good thing. You might argue that it would be better if a Western development agency helped. I might agree. But they didn’t. The Chinese did it and it’s good for Tanzania. We want Tanzania to grow and develop and the road will help. So we need to be positive about an important constructive step having been taken.

When you think about development money moving from the developed world to the developing world to build highways you usually think of Western democracies, their foreign departments and the international development entities that the West has put in place through their international leadership. It’s part of the post-war defacto deal, in which the West assumed world leadership and maneuvered the less developed, and undeveloped, into assuming the position of followers.

But if the nature of the Chinese support is clear, and both parties agree, the relationship isn’t wrong. At the same time, if the structure can’t, or won’t, support an important development step, then the developing country has an obligation to do it another way. Of course, Tanzania agreed to work with China. They are building the road for their own future, not to satisfy the neediness of Western democracies.

But the key point here isn’t the way developing countries like Tanzania follow up on the opportunities available for their development; it’s the nature of the deal itself. In the post-war period when the architecture of these arrangements was mapped out, the West had a clear vision forward. You might call it neo-colonialist, or you might call it benevolent, but it was there: backed up by an international bureaucracy and the power of the purse.

Twenty-five years ago the populations of the West believed in that plan. They might sometimes resent paying the bill, but they accepted the resulting international leadership. But that’s not so today. There is uncertainty all across the Western world and in the United States, the pillar of strength towards which so many look for direction, the light of hope has dimmed.

It would seem self-centered for the West to argue that developing countries should adhere to an exclusive deal when the West’s apparent commitment is fading away. If developed countries want an exclusive relationship then they need to demonstrate some degree of commitment. But that is not the message being sent. Until the West gets its act together and proposes a renewed understanding, the Chinese Belt and Road option will be attractive and the West should not complain.