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2023-12-18 10:38China Daily

Strengthened cooperation in African infrastructure projects would be good for the continent and China-US relations

Since the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, the cooperation between China and Africa on infrastructure has further developed. China has become an important fundraiser and constructor of African infrastructure projects. It has made tangible contributions to help Africa improve its infrastructure, playing a big role in the continent's growth and transformation.

However, as China's influence rises in Africa, the claims that China is luring African countries into debt traps have become a chorus among some Western media. This allegation has even become a policy reference for the United States to promote a new model of infrastructure cooperation.

The US' new initiatives and plans are interpreted by some Western media as a counterweight to the China-led BRI and China's growing influence in Africa. Since 2021, the US has successively proposed the Build Back Better World initiative and Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. US Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh visited Senegal and Ghana in November 2021 and identified 10 large potential infrastructure projects. At the second US-Africa Summit, the Joe Biden administration pledged to strengthen the US-Africa partnership and invest $55 billion in Africa over three years. In 2023, its joint efforts with the European Union in promoting the Lobito Corridor that connects Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola, was seen as a new template for cooperation in Africa.

Developing infrastructure is one of the core needs for African countries, and the infrastructure gap is also a structural challenge that hinders their development. In 2022, the African Development Bank pointed out that the annual shortfall in infrastructure financing in Africa still exceeds $100 billion. African countries welcome the increased attention on its infrastructure needs and investment from the international community. Of course, these countries neither accept politicized and conditional infrastructure development models nor want excessive competition among major powers to undermine their own development agendas.

Exaggerating the China-US competition is also continuously reducing the possibility of cooperation between the two countries in Africa. Compared to highly political issues such as political security, infrastructure is a relatively easy area for the two countries to engage in cooperation. In fact, China and the US have also formed a structural relationship of "natural division of labor and complementary advantages" in Africa through long-term practice. From 2005 to 2019, the two sides held multiple rounds of consultations on African issues through the high-level dialogue mechanism on Africa-related affairs. Especially during Barack Obama's tenure as US president, trilateral cooperation among China, the US, and Africa received attention from all parties, and they even had good communication and cooperation on issues such as peace, security, and public health in Africa. Although there are significant differences in economic cooperation between China and the US toward Africa, Chinese and US enterprises still engage in some cooperation in infrastructure, such as the cooperation of a consortium formed by General Motors from the US, Power Construction Corp of China, and Italy's Salini Impregilo Group on the Batoka Gorge Hydro Electric Project for Zambia and Zimbabwe.

As Africa's important international partners for development, China and the US have a complementary foundation for jointly improving infrastructure in Africa. The commitments and plans put forward by the two countries in the development of African infrastructure constitute an important external driving force for the continent's growth. If the two countries can work together, the infrastructure in Africa will be greatly improved. If not, it may lead to resource mismatch and waste.

China and the US should redefine the positioning of Africa in their relations. From the perspective of supporting Africa's development, the continent should be regarded as a key area for China-US cooperation. Based on the continent's practical development needs, infrastructure should become a key field of cooperation between the two nations, and should not be misled by one-sided or even ideological competition rhetoric. Africa should become a major stage for China-US partnership, rather than an arena for rivalry.

The two major powers should strive to create a global pattern of infrastructure cooperation with Africa. The emerging fractures in infrastructure development in Africa, including the fragmentation between developed and emerging countries, as well as the Global North and Global South, are not conducive to solving Africa's infrastructure dilemma. The better choices are to complement each other's advantages, integrate resources and coordinate cooperation. These require China and the US to lead a new trend of cooperation.

They should actively explore new topics and models for cooperation. From the perspective of traditional issues, infrastructure cooperation between China and Africa covers key areas related to national development such as electricity, transportation and energy, as well as social infrastructure such as education, health and water. China has such projects with many African countries, while the US mainly focuses on social infrastructure.

Based on Africa's own needs, China centers on investing in African economic infrastructure and cross-border large-scale projects, promoting independent development of African countries through technology transfer and personnel training. Compared to China's investment in "hard infrastructure", the US places more emphasis on rules, standards and "ecological chains"; namely "soft infrastructure". This difference can certainly be viewed as a reason for both sides to compete with each other, but it would be better seen as a condition for both parties to learn from and complement each other.

As for emerging issues, such as energy transformation, the digital economy, sustainable financing, and economic and social governance rules, these can also become important areas for dialogue and cooperation between China and the US in Africa. In 2021, driven by the climate change agenda, the US launched the Just Energy Transition Partnership. China announced that it would not build new overseas coal-fired power projects any longer, but instead increase support for green and low-carbon energy development in developing countries. In 2022, the US-Africa Leaders Summit proposed the Digital Transformation with Africa. At the China-Africa Internet Development and Cooperation Forum in 2021, China pledged to jointly develop and implement the China-Africa digital innovation partnership program. In addition, compared with the US' concern for ESG (environmental, social and governance) standards and transparency in Africa, China has also increased its attention to ESG by formulating policy documents such as the Guiding Opinions on Promoting Green Belt and Road Construction.

How to transform the parallel participation and contribution of China and the US in Africa into a collective force should be a focus of the two countries' current policies toward Africa. In fact, the US Department of the Treasury and the People's Bank of China have jointly chaired multiple rounds of the G20 Sustainable Finance Working Group meetings on global sustainable financing. Both countries should address global challenges through joint efforts and collaboration. Africa can become a focal point for China-US global cooperation.