One of the hallmarks of the 47th G7 Summit held in the United Kingdom (UK) in June 2021 was the initiation of the Build Back Better World (B3W), a global geopolitical brush aimed at painting out the gains made by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Primarily, the B3W is a geostrategic infrastructural development initiative targeting low and middle-income countries located across the Indo-Pacific, African, Caribbean and Latin American regions.
The B3W aims at ensuring that infrastructural development is premised on the following guiding principles: values-driven, good governance and strong standards, climate-friendly, strong strategic partnerships, mobilising capital through development finance and enhancing the impact of multilateral public finance.
In narrowing the more than $40 trillion infrastructure deficit in developing countries, the B3W has identified four strategic areas; climate, health and health security, digital technology and gender equity and equality.
The conceptualisation of the B3W reconfigures the post-Cold War landscape that has been dominated by the United States of America (USA) – arguably until 2008 – but has also witnessed the re-emergence of China as a global power.
My postulation regarding 2008 as the breaking point of America’s global unilateral hegemony is based on the solid arguments by Martin Wolf and Michael Mandelbaum.
Wolf notes in his book, When China Rules the World, that the 2008 global financial crisis precipitated the rise of China creating what he terms as the Chinese World Economic Order. Loosely, the Chinese World Economic Order refers to the epoch of globalisation anchored on China's geopolitical ambitions. Understandably, the Chinese economy, as stated by Wolf, was hardly hit by the global financial meltdown, unlike the American, European and Japanese economies that were battered and almost broken by the crisis.
Mandelbaum writes in his book, Mission Failure, that the global financial crisis brought to an end the period of high growth that characterised the post-Cold War order. With the Chinese economy posting relatively high growth rates post-2008, Beijing would inherently call the shots in the global political economy.
In the post-2008 era, China’s grand, global geostrategic ambitions are exemplified by the institutionalisation of the BRI which currently stretches across 126 countries and 26 international organisations. Africa is one of the key strategic fronts of Beijing’s global geopolitical offensive as illustrated by the formulation of China’s first Africa policy paper in 2006 and China’s second Africa policy paper in 2015. More importantly, in a bid to stay ahead of the geopolitical and geoeconomics curve during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing published a white paper – China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era – in January 2021. The white paper aims at fostering China’s relations with the Global South.
For the USA and her allies in Europe, Japan and Australia, the post-2008 era has been a treacherous path marked by slow and unequal economic recovery and the emergence of populist political movements.
America, in particular, has gone through the motions intensively by enduring the histrionic Trump presidency. President Donald Trump’s administration, seeking to rediscover and reestablish America’s greatness, was abrasive in its foreign policy approach especially towards China resulting in the US-China trade war. Before Trump, the Obama administration assumed office at the height of the Great Recession and although the domestic policy was prioritized in order to revive the battered economy, its foreign policy funnelled instability in a host of regions around the world especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Additionally, the Obama administration facilitated the creation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that would have given China a run for her money especially in accessing the European and American markets.
The Trump administration did not carry on with the TTIP and instead elected to institutionalise the Better Utilisation of Investment to Development (BUILD), a programme aimed at enhancing infrastructural development and alleviation of extreme poverty in low-income and middle-income countries. The formalisation of BUILD was characterised by the transformation of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation into the US International Development Finance Corporation.
Later in November 2019 during the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in Bangkok, Thailand, the Blue Dot Network (BDN) was established by the US, Japan and Australia. The BDN is an initiative that aims to bring together the public, private and civil society sectors to “promote quality infrastructure investment that is open and inclusive, transparent, economically viable, financially, environmentally and socially sustainable, and compliant with international standards, laws and regulations”.
Billed as an anti-thesis of the BRI, the BDN is branded around the debt-trap narrative which is common in the West. The debt-trap narrative paints China’s BRI as an imperial geopolitical tool that interferes with the sovereignty of host countries. What’s more, the BRI projects are mostly criticised by the West on the account of ignoring labour, construction and environmental standards in addition to poor transparency in the financing of these projects. This narrative has barely gained much currency, especially in the African political arena primarily because China hardly intervenes in political affairs.
BDN was barely in the limelight in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Upon his election as America’s president on the ‘Build Back Better’ agenda, Joe Biden embarked on a mission to reposition the country as the leader of the international community and champion of multilateralism.
The B3W initiative is premised on the ‘Build Back Better’ agenda and operationalises the vision of the BDN. Its institutionalisation portrays the global geopolitical ambitions of the Biden administration to compete against China in the low-income and middle-income countries where the latter’s geostrategic footprints are visible.
Formulation of the B3W is one thing and its implementation is a different ballgame. Amid all this, Africa remains a strategic front for the BRI and B3W. So, what lies ahead for Africa?
To begin with, it is not certain that the B3W will take off given the uncertainties created by the Covid-19 pandemic. In as much as the Biden administration seeks to reposition the USA's leadership in a multilateral world, domestic policy focusing on the recovery of the American economy will be given priority. This is not to suggest that the BRI will be on a smooth path as there are indications of its progress having been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The BRI, however, enjoys the first-comers advantage with African countries having benefited in terms of infrastructural development. As such, African countries have already established strong ties with China which may not be easy for the B3W to break.
Additionally, the B3W aims to capitalise on the latecomers' advantage by trying to avoid the negative press associated with the BRI thus the former's intention to promote sustainability and transparency in its dealings. This is, however, far-fetched in the African context because African governments are hardly moved by the colour of a cat provided it can catch mice.
Relatedly, the B3W proponents will relish spinning the anti-BRI narrative along the lines of debt-trap diplomacy. Early indications regarding the continuity of the debt-trap narrative by the Biden administration are visible in the remarks made by the Secretary of State Antony Blinken; "If someone is coming along and saying I'm going to invest a lot of money in your country, but it's a loan, so, that means you have a debt and you're going to have to pay it back someday and if that is too great and you can't pay it back, then I'm going to own the asset in question”.
The debt-trap diplomacy narrative is a myth and largely soothes the ego of the anti-Chinese entities. This does not imply that China, in her quest for global dominance, perfectly conducts its affairs in Africa. There are valid concerns about its commitment to environmental sustainability and upholding high labour standards, especially in Africa.
The debt-trap myth is based on the case of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka and convincing arguments about the port and rogue lending by China are presented by Yunnan Chen writing in the Italian Institute for International Political Studies’ blog, and Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire as published by The Atlantic.
Kevin Acker, Deborah Brautigam and Yufan Huang deconstruct the Chinese debt-trap myth noting that China has cancelled about $3.4 billion of debt – mostly for zero-interest loans - for African countries between 2000 and 2019. Furthermore, they state that in the case of interest-bearing loans, “China has restructured or refinanced approximately US$ 15 billion of debt in Africa between 2000 and 2019”. In addition, Acker, Brautigam and Yufan, in demystifying the prospects of Chinese debt-trap in Africa, indicate having “found no "asset seizures" and despite contract clauses requiring arbitration, no evidence of the use of courts to enforce payments or application of penalty interest rates”.
Moreover, Acker, Brautigam and Yufan note that the purported lack of transparency among Chinese lenders especially in debt restructuring is alluded to their preference “to address restructuring quietly, on a bilateral basis, tailoring programs to each situation”. This contravenes the provisions of the Paris Club where arrangements on all debt restructuring are expected to be communicated publicly.
China has also offered debt relief in the Covid-19 era to several African countries under four frameworks, namely the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the IMF’s Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust, and ad hoc debt relief arrangements.
The China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) notes that “Chinese lenders have provided at least US$12.1 billion in global debt relief in 2020 and 2021”. Data by CARI indicates that 16 African countries have so far been accorded debt relief by China under the G20 DSSI framework. Furthermore, CARI notes that 15 African countries had their interest-free loan debts cancelled in 2020 under the FOCAC framework. What’s more, China has also “contributed US$8 million to the IMF’s CCRT debt service relief program”.
Fast-forward, attempts by the B3W proponents to advance the debt-trap narrative in Africa may not be successful considering strides made by China in offering debt relief. I also argue in the book The Future of Africa in the Post-COVID-19 World that the debt relief arrangements for African countries by China will strengthen the Sino-African relations during and after the pandemic.
Beijing is expected to craft and spin an anti-B3W narrative based on its tradition of non-interference with the internal affairs of African countries unlike the USA and other Western countries whose lending is mostly pegged on implementation of economic and political reforms.
From experience, African governments would be wary of the lending conditionalities of the B3W initiative and may still prefer Chinese lending. This could force the B3W proponents to scale down on the reforms conditionalities in an attempt to compete with China on equal footing.
Lesser and fair conditionalities for the B3W implies that African countries will be spoilt for choice with regard to infrastructural development. However, in the development world where free lunch thinking is more of a myth, more lending for African countries would mean losing more in terms of natural resources and markets thus furthering deindustrialisation and creation of meaningful jobs. This would put at risk the implementation of noble initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
African countries are used to the habit of playing into the schemes initiated by foreign states and are yet to learn from it. Presently, no African country is bothered by the B3W initiative. It would be wise for them to engage with African think tanks and intellectuals to map out the possible course of action needed to avoid any haemorrhage that may result from the scramble between the BRI and B3W proponents.
The actualisation and longevity of the B3W are doubtful with some describing it as a paper tiger based on the failure of the Trump administration to roll out similar initiatives. Additionally, the complexities created by the Covid-19 pandemic may prompt countries supporting the B3W to be more inward-looking. The targeted private lenders could also be taciturn about financing the B3W projects primarily due to economic difficulties created by the pandemic and having learnt crucial lessons from the BRI regarding the returns on investment and possibilities of debt restructuring.
Equally important, the B3W may not compete favourably with the BRI considering the dynamics of the American and Chinese political spaces. In the case of China, the country’s economic philosophy and geopolitical ambitions are safely guided and supervised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The CCP has a tradition of institutionalising the visions of its leaders to dictate the direction of the country domestically and internationally.
The Mao Zedong Thought, the Deng Xiaoping Theory and the Xi Jinping Thought are perfect examples, and they guarantee continuity of China’s ambitions. On the other hand, America’s domestic and foreign policies tend to change with a change in administration between Democrats and Republicans. In essence, this dims the prospects of the B3W beyond the Biden administration.
African countries cannot afford to watch while sitting on the fence as the B3W is mooted. Its implementation will certainly compete against the BRI and Africa risks remaining a pawn at best in such a geopolitical chess game. Africa needs to be bold enough!
By Sitati Wasilwa
Sitati Wasilwa is a political economist, a consultant on geopolitics and governance affairs, writer and moderator. He is a youth leader at Kenya YMCA, a member of the Local Solutions Youth Panel at the Global Youth Mobilization and a contributing writer for The African Executive Magazine. He writes in his personal capacity. Twitter: @SitatiWasilwa LinkedIn: Sitati Wasilwa Blog: The Kavirondo Facebook: Sitati Wasilwa