Coming off years of increasing rivalry between the USA and China, the Covid crisis and its reverberations might well have represented the deathblow to the liberal international order. Mutual recriminations over the origins of the pandemic, with virulent rhetoric reminiscent of the Cold War, have exacerbated pre-existing political antagonisms. As in the previous era of superpower rivalry, strategic competition has spanned the Global South (formerly the “Third World”), with Africa and South-East Asia emerging as geopolitical hotspots. At the same time, the US-China relationship brings to the fray many features that were absent in earlier US-Soviet rivalry, including dense economic links between the two superpowers and a new ideational context where universalist, modernizing ideologies of European vintage have fallen out of fashion. In the complex 21st century globalized economy, the increased assertiveness of Asian powers creates a more variegated international landscape, bringing new risks and opportunities for African states, whose external relations continue to provide the fulcrum for the maintenance of domestic order.
Against this backdrop of growing geopolitical competition, cooperation in the health and economic spheres is increasingly enmeshed with forms of power projection. While China’s prowess in taming the pandemic and relaunching its economy has so far proved a boon for its diplomatic outreach activities, there are signs that the acceleration of vaccination campaigns in Europe and the US might soon lead them to step-up their external engagement on the health front. These developments could reshape the geopolitical repercussions of the crisis, feeding into the interlocking economic, military, diplomatic, and discursive dimensions in which Great Power rivalry has so far played out.
The massive economic dislocation caused by the Covid crisis has also reimposed a set of familiar policy dilemmas on African countries. A negative global demand shock and new spending requirements have placed African governments’ finances under stress, undermining their ability to service debt stocks that had already been rising prior to the pandemic. But despite superficial similarities with the debt crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the current situation involves a greater variety of actors, as multilateral institutions and Paris club lenders have been joined by private sector creditors and Chinese state banks as holders of substantial portions of Africa’s debt. These creditors are faced with the challenge of coordinating their actions, while also balancing out different strategic considerations. Conversely, on the African side, this diversified external finance landscape increases the complexity of debt management, but also raises the potential payoffs accruing from deft negotiation strategies.
What are the prospects for African countries in this new global conjuncture? How can they deal with the twin health and economic shocks in the face of unfavourable refinancing conditions and the reining in of China’s financial largesse? How will current geopolitical circumstances affect the international community’s ability to help African countries solve these crises, and how do different actors, in particular China, see the various trade-offs involved? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in the 2021 OUCAN international conference.
Since its establishment in 2008, OUCAN has served as an academic and policy network forging cross-disciplinary and trans-regional links between researchers, practitioners, and officials regarding the evolving nature of China-Africa relations. This year, due to the special conditions created by the COVID pandemic, the OUCAN Conference will be held online, allowing it to engage with a global audience and to bring together a community of researchers and practitioners at the forefront of reflection on global power competition and Sino-African relations.