The history of relations between South Korea and African countries does not cast a particularly long shadow as far as international relations go.
This is easily explained by geography and the fact that both entities, and both at least until the 1950s incidentally, were dominated by colonisers and that in subsequent years,South Korea prioritised its alliance with the US in pursuit of economic growth and military security – thereby going from one of the most economically disadvantaged countries in the world to being among the most wealthy (currently ranking 11th in the world in terms of GDP). And in the Cold War climate that characterised these subsequent post-World War II, post-colonial years, there were high levels of indifference between African states and South Korea as many post-colonial African states honed relations with the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) and communist North Korea. And so the rest of the twentieth century was characterised by relatively little contact between the two entities, going no further than the opening up of formal diplomatic ties and consulates.
But things have changed as of recent. Particularly in the past decade or so, South Korea has increasingly looked at Africa as a viable economic partner. Attracting over 7,000 delegates in the year 2015, the Korea-Africa Forum (KAF), which was formulated in 2006 as a forum for African heads of state and their South Korean counterparts to hold discussions and negotiations, has been largely understood as the two parties’ attempt to catalyse and harness the relationship between themselves in trade, investment and aid terms. Having held just four summits in over ten years, however, the Forum is especially important and will need to hold its sessions more regularly, and will also need to be more ambitious in the goals it sets for itself.
South Korean investment and trade with Africa: trends and patterns – and ways forward
According to a 2014 Chatham House report entitled ‘South Korea’s Engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa: Fortune, Fuel and Frontier Markets’, South Korea’s increasing presence in sub-Saharan Africa is motivated by three factors: “the pursuit of food and energy security; the establishment of new markets for its manufactured goods; and the enhancement of its credentials as a prominent global power, particularly in order to counter the diplomacy of North Korea.” South Korean exports to Africa rose fivefold between 2000 and 2011 and, although South Korea-Africa bilateral trade remains low (being a portion of only two per cent of South Korea’s global trade), South Korean chaebols (multinational corporations/conglomerates) such as Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai are incrementally making a presence in the face of some serious competition in the form of the more established players on the African market such as the US, the European Union (EU), China and Japan. South Korea has also been an active donor to the continent. Tanzania, Egypt, Kenya and Ethiopia have been major recipients of South Korean aid. The aid has been aimed at funding measures for achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs) and the latter-day sustainable development goals (SDGs) by providing much-needed assistance to health and medical services, education, and rural development in sub-Saharan countries and responding to climate change and improving governance in North Africa. In sum, prioritising education (30%), health (20%), and governance (6%) the continent receives more than 55 percent of South Korea’s allotted foreign aid budget.
While difficult to ascertain for sure (a time-honoured custom in international affairs), it can be generally said that in its few years of activity on the continent, South Korea has had a largely positive impact on the continent. Perhaps the best example is Rwanda. In 2013 the Rwandan government announced that an agreement had been reached with KT Corporation, which is South Korea’s largest telecommunications provider, to roll out high-speed 4G internet service to 95 per cent of the population of Rwanda by 2017. With only 8.3 per cent of Rwandans currently online, such an increase in connectivity could mean a 10–13 per cent rise in the rate of GDP growth. The PPP was made possible by the integration of Rwanda’s pre-existing fiber optic network with KT Corporation’s financial resources, as the latter provided around $140 million for the initiative. This partnership has the potential to transform the Rwandan economy, and is likely to become an integral part of the country’s Vision 2020 development programme.
South Korea’s positive impact in Rwanda is largely a result of the Korea International Cooperation Agency’s involvement there. The Chatham House report further adds that “as well as being involved in the planning stages of the 4G scheme, the agency is also currently financing a $5.6 million ICT innovation centre in Kigali. KOICA’s commitment to Rwanda is further evident in its agricultural development programmes, police training and its partnership with UNICEF Rwanda, which uses SMS technology to reduce maternal and new-born deaths in the country.”
But there have been setbacks in the relationship; including most infamously the controversial and blatantly unfair land-lease deal with Madagascar wherein 50% of that island-nation’s arable rice land was to be leased to South Korea for some 90 years in exchange for ambiguously defined infrastructural improvements by South Korea to the island; the unpopular deal was arguably seen as corrupt by the citizenry of that country and led to the toppling of the government of Marc Ravalomanana in 2009 – upon which it was scrapped when Andry Rajoelina came into power. South Korea’s involvement in illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on African shores has also been a serious blot on the country’s relations with the continent as it has taken away potential jobs in West Africa and even threatened relations with the EU (which gave South Korea a “yellow card”).
One of the key responsibilities of African leaders in the Korea-Africa Forum should be to convey and relay public opinion so as to avoid similar pitfalls from occurring again in the future. Clearly, for a South Korean presence and interchange to continue to receive popular support African leaders and South Korean leaders will need to work hard to shape the relations along the lines of a moral and legal framework that does not compromise adherence to domestic and international laws and protocols because this will hurt business and relations in the long-run.
And this speaks to another matter: good governance. While not necessarily being intrusive, South Korea may need to harness the Agenda 2063 goal of good governance in the continent – South Korea itself stands to benefit most from this. For example, South Korea may prioritise those African states that are leaning towards democracy. It is more prudent to do so not only for the moral stance but also because those regimes that are democratic are also more likely to be stable and have a good investment climate. The Arab Spring in North Africa, the civil riots and general dissatisfaction in the undemocratic states of Burundi, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Uganda in recent years over presidents who wanted unwarranted, unconstitutional additional terms in office is a prime example of this. To what extent can South Korea risk the chances of having their investments and infrastructure tarnished and destroyed in a civil riot? Or of a sudden regime change revoking previous agreements (as was the case with a Nigerian deal)? Or of having its name associated with the malpractices of undemocratic regimes?
Naturally, among of the key discussion points in any upcoming Korea-Africa Forum summit are the security threats that currently plague the continent. As a country that has had to live with the threat of attack by an unpredictable government in its neighbourhood in the form of North Korea, South Korea is uniquely placed among the nations of the world in terms of speaking from experience in offering counsel and advices on dealing with force at the hands of unscrupulous, ideologue leaders. Africa itself is currently faced with a number of these. The Central African Republic has for a long time been torn asunder by rebel forces that use religion as a benchmark for their violence; likewise Somalia cannot be brought to a state of functionality due to much the same problem in the form of al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, which has also terrorised Kenya (most notably in its 2013 attack on Westgate mall in Nairobi). Nigeria has only recently rendered Boko Haram ineffective but that is no assurance that they will not rise up again. Likewise the government of Mozambique had previously believed RENAMO to be neutralised when they invited them into the government but since 2014/15 the right-wing group has “gone back to the bush”. The same can be said of South Sudan which is torn along lines of ethnicity; the result being a dysfunctional, failed state born just 6 years ago. In light of South Korea’s own experiences, the East Asian republic has a lot to offer in way of mediation and strategy formation.
The question of good governance speaks to another issue of institutional arrangement on the African continent. In spite of the many movements for balkanisation worldwide (Brexit, the Catalan, Quebec, and Kashmiri questions to mention a few) by 2030, the African continent wants to have carved out a form of unity in line with its vision of a pan-African arrangement of the continent’s political interface. South Korea must therefore be supportive of African integration movements and policies for practical reasons as it will be easier and less demanding to deal with a single political entity than a constellation of them. Also, active and close involvement in the process of structuring of alternatives of what a “united Africa” may look like will be a learning experience for South Korean statesmen and stateswomen who may use this accumulated expertise to work out possible ways in which Greater Korea itself may be re-unified after being divided some seven decades ago. In other words, Africa may become for Korea a ‘petri dish’ in which political unison is experimented with.
South Korea and Africa’s exchange of ideas and experience can go further. An avenue which would allow the fulfilling of both the cultural and economic aspirations of the relations could be the formation of sister-cities; pairing each of South Korea’s major cities’ governments with those of Africa and forging a kind of ‘Mayoral Korea-Africa Forum’ as well accompanying that with population exchange programmes. As the author suggested to the South Korean and South African delegation in a meeting with students in 2016 in Pretoria, while heads of state who attend the Korea-Africa Forum summits do connect with their nations, this lower-level platform would allow not only for a more meaningful, grassroots kindling of cultural promotion for both sides but would also allow for a more precise intelligence-gathering tactic for investment opportunities. Increasing the number of direct airports would also be beneficial as that could allow for South Korean goods to reach specific African metros easier – especially those which are land-locked, of which Africa has a high number.
Among others, the African Union Foundation describes one of its 2060 goals as “developing Africa’s youth to take their rightful place on the global stage, by promoting science and technology education among young people”. This goal may well have been written with South Korea in mind. The extent of access to technology and science in South Korea – where almost every household is computer literate and connected to the internet – is the world’s envy, whereas there is an incredible paucity of even a fraction of this in Africa. South Korea’s niche as a technology hub in the world should, in its relationship with Africa, mean that it could be able to form technology apprenticeships as well as sci-tech scholarships for African students. In the long-run, this will pay for itself as computer literate citizens are likely to purchase more and recent innovations from South Korean producers. In the very least, nonetheless, the model applied in Rwanda should be replicated elsewhere on the continent.
While having taken steps to relatively solve the rural-urban divide in the Saemaul Undong movement (whose policy methods, in 2008, the Economic Commission for Africa selected as the model for its own Sustainable Modernization of Agriculture and Rural Transformation program) of the 1970s, South Korea is increasingly running out of land in which to produce its food. While the deal with Madagascar may have failed, it would be possible to carve out newer ones with African countries, one of whose Vision 2063 goals is to “[work] with women and youth in agriculture towards modernised agriculture and food production.” South Korea has agricultural expertise, with each South Korean farmer producing on average 40 times more than their Chinese counterpart, Africa has both land and human capital (and also, a low human density thanks to the sheer geographic size of the continent). Bringing in the South Korean expertise would bring about larger quantities of produce; enough for South Korea to import and ultimately resolve the food insecurity threat for both parties.
As both South Korea and many African states are part of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a free trade deal between the two entities will also be ideal for some, if not all, goods and services as has already been being done with the Korea Southern African Customs Union Free Trade Agreement (KSACUFTA). South Korea has shown the benefits to be reaped from a free market engagement with its own development trajectory. And frankly, Africa can benefit from the realisation of true multilateral free trade. But so far, while African countries have a number of bilateral free trade agreements with the US and the EU, these are almost rendered meaningless by the number of constraints and preconditions posed – and in many instances the continent opens up to these partners but they close their own markets in turn. Indeed, the EU has such high regulatory measures that Africa cannot access the European market. And Africa’s agricultural produce is blockaded by the common tariff that is imposed by the EU on agricultural produce in order to protect failing, subsidised EU farmers – the WTO Doha Round only managed to get a tariff-free agreement on a single agricultural produce: the banana. Meanwhile, potential niche goods such as coffee have such high tariffs placed on them that there is almost no incentive to produce them on a large scale.
Both South Korea and Africa have a lot to gain from one another, and must look to do just that without denying the other fairness. And so, coming onto every negotiation table, each entity’s representative must come in good faith and with willingness to carve out a truly mutually beneficial relationship. South Korea has the opportunity to get it right; to be Africa’s first true friend in a non-exploitative, fair relationship. And in the long-run, Korea will be immensely rewarded for this. As the first major economic entity to willingly and openly seek to sit down and co-plan and co-strategize a way forward together with African leaders and African citizens beforehand, South Korea, if nothing else, grasps that there are moral, legal and institutional implications to international relations and trade. It is up to Africa now to make the most of this.
The Taliban seek cooperation with China?
How to deal with Afghanistan after the removal of US forces has become a subject that many countries are grappling with. And because Afghanistan and China are linked through Xinjiang, the Afghan Taliban aspire to cooperate with China. According to sources, on July 28, Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s Political Committee, visited China and met with Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
During the meetings, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a personal plea to the Taliban in Afghanistan, expecting that the Taliban would draw a line with terrorist organizations like the East Iraqi Movement and actively battle them, removing barriers to regional growth and cooperation. Since the United States made it apparent that it intends to withdraw its troops, China’s position toward Afghanistan and the Taliban has become the center of all countries’ attention.
Prior to that, China simply repeated its long-standing foreign policy of non-interference in domestic matters, — in other words, China does not intervene in Afghanistan’s internal problems and expects Afghans to handle their own internal affairs. China, on the other hand, is very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. China has not only made substantial investments in Afghanistan, but it has also sponsored several dialogues in China between Afghan parties.
Only because of the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan does China lack a clear answer. China has stated its particular needs more explicitly this time than in the past. China has far too many considerations when it comes to Afghanistan. However, in comparison to the behavior of many other nations, China’s demands for the Taliban this time have been well thought out, fair, and controlled.
First, China has maintained its previous favorable policy. Despite the fact that the Afghanistan problem is unique, China has not broken its foreign policy of non-interference in internal matters. On the basis of this strategy, China has had interactions with all parties in Afghanistan, ensuring that participation is not only voluntary, but also sufficient to ensure that all parties understand China’s position in order to avoid misunderstandings.
Second, China has stated its opinion on the subjects that most worry it. China has no space for compromise when it comes to national security. China has not raised this matter in the past, but it still needs to voice its viewpoint at the proper moment. As a result, China has the guts to demonstrate its stance, which will aid in the resolution of the situation.
Only when this issue is settled will future collaboration between China and Afghanistan be simple. The Taliban further said that no troops will be allowed to utilize Afghan territory to conduct activities that harm China. Atta regards China as a reliable ally and thinks that China would contribute to peaceful rebuilding.
Furthermore, China has not permitted certain ill-intentioned groups throughout the world to flourish. Following the withdrawal of the US troops, there was speculation in Western culture that China might become engaged in this issue and become the next growing power to enter the “empire’s tomb.” The Indian army’s recent intervention in Afghan politics appears to demonstrate that, as a powerful country around Afghanistan, it is hard to stay out of the issue.
China avoided the urge to intervene and managed its interactions with all sides sensibly, laying the ground for the next phase in the development of China-Afghan relations. So far, China has not fallen into the West’s trap, nor has the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan harmed its relations with all parties.
As China expands its global presence, it will eventually come into contact with nations with very difficult political and economic situations, such as Afghanistan. However, China will not flee because of obstacles, because the majority of the world’s developed countries are Western countries with strong biases against China, and those wanting to have good relations with China are frequently developing countries with varied challenges. nation. As a result, China has no option.
Will US-China Tensions Trigger the Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis?
Half a century ago, the then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger flew to Beijing in the hope of seeking China’s alliance to contain the Soviets. His visit culminated in the U.S. agreement to recognize Beijing as the only legitimate government of China instead of Taipei, going back on the promise he had made to the president of the Republic of China, Chiang Ching-kuo, merely one year previously that Taiwan would never be abandoned by the US. The realistic American diplomat may have never thought that one day Taiwan, once ruthlessly forsaken by the US, would become the latter’s most important strategic fortress in East Asia to contain a rising China.
In 2018, the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act encouraged more high-ranking American government officials to visit Taiwan and vice versa1. The US Undersecretary of State Keith Krach landed in Taiwan two years later, rendering him the highest-level State Department official to visit the island since 19792. The Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, announced the cancellation of all restrictions on official contacts between the U.S. and Taiwan in January 20213 – an action that was vehemently denounced by the Chinese government as Trump’s “last-ditch madness” that would “push the Taiwan question deeper down the road of no return”4.
Just when the world thought of Joe Biden’s ascension to power as a harbinger of softer attitudes toward Beijing, especially regarding Taiwan issues, the diplomatic muscle flexed by the newly elected US president is as eye-tingling as his aviator shades – first, his Secretary of State, Blinken and Secretary of Defense, Austin made an explicit announcement of the U.S. support for Taiwan; second, he sent former Deputy Secretaries of State Richard Armitage and James Steinberg and former senator Chris Dodd to Taiwan in honor of the 42nd anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act.
America’s incremental interest in the island is not confined to actions from its executive branches, but it has permeated its legislative system. The introduction of the confrontational “Strategic Competition Act of 2021” in April signals the anti-Soviet-style containment of China which was backed by The Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This bill echoes the “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance” released by the Biden Administration in March, and it emphasizes the urgent need to “achieve United States political objectives in the Indo-Pacific” and back closer ties with Taiwan5. With strong bipartisan support, the bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden and to serve as a legislative compass to counter China at all levels. In that respect, Taiwan Strait is more likely than ever to become “ground zero” by the U.S. and China.
On the other hand, the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement under the new National Security Law by Beijing proved to be successful due to the limited backlash received from the West. On top of that, Beijing’s handling of Xinjiang cotton issue seems to have managed to incite nationalism among Chinese people on a short notice to boycott “anti-China forces”6. With a record of 380 incursions into Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese air force during 2020, there is reason to believe that Hong Kong and Xinjiang were “guinea pigs” used by Beijing to test its capability for the fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, the probability of which has been enhanced by Xi Jinping’s attempt to seek reappointment and Beijing’s need to divert domestic attention away from the escalating social conflicts brought about by the stagnant economy.
So, the pertinent question is: if the fourth Taiwan Crisis does break out, when will it happen? It could be sometime after the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games7 as it is unlikely for China to discard the opportunity to showcase its image and test its comprehensive strength8. This could be déjà vu in light of Russia’s successful Blitzkrieg-style invasion of Ukraine in 2014, which occurred only three days after the end of Sochi Winter Olympics. However, China is not the only one who can learn from history. When the rest of the world anticipates China’s intent with regard to Taiwan, preemptive precautions will be taken. The game-theory-type strategic interaction may hence spur China to launch its attack before the upcoming international sports gala.
Another critical timing could be prior to the 20th National Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022. Xi Jinping’s abolishment of term limits through constitutional amendment may pave the legal foundation for his reappointment, but the “widespread opposition within the party”9 renders the legitimacy of his extended tenure unlikely. That is why some may find it hard to conceive of Xi’s attempt to “start an unnecessary war with Taiwan” before his re-appointment10, but his insatiable desire for a 3rd term may push him over the edge. For the time being, Xi seems to be seduced by his burgeoning self-confidence that China is charging into an epoch of opportunity where “the East is rising and the West is declining,”11 and what time is better than now to consolidate his authority in front of dissidents with a military show-off targeting Taiwan?
As Henry Kissinger12 said, “The historical challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire.” When the leaders of the two greatest powers both see their own countries as the future “Leviathan” of the world, the definition of failure can no longer be merely confined to internal mismanagement, but being surpassed by international competitors. Kissinger may have overestimated some leaders’ senses of honor to bear the responsibility of the “historical challenge”, but he can be right about the catastrophic consequences of their failures. But this time, failure is not an option for either side across the Taiwan Strait nor across the Pacific Ocean
- Chen, Y., & Cohen, J. A. (2019). China-Taiwan Relations Re-Examined: The “1992 Consensus” and Cross-Strait Agreements. University of Pennsylvania Asian Law Review, 14(1).
- Mink, M. (2021). The Catalyst for Stronger US-Taiwan Ties. https://keithkrach.com/the-catalyst-for-stronger-us-taiwan-ties/
- Hass, R. (2021). After lifting restrictions on US-Taiwan relations, what comes next? Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/01/11/after-lifting-restrictions-on-us-taiwan-relations-what-comes-next/
- Global Times. (2021). Pompeo may toll the knell for Taiwan authorities. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202101/1212378.shtml
- Zengerle, P., & Martina, M. (2021). U.S. lawmakers intensify bipartisan efforts to counter China. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/us-lawmakers-look-advance-sweeping-bid-counter-china-2021-04-21/
- Cui, J., & Zhao, Y. (2021). Boycott of Xinjiang cotton use opposed. China Daily. https://www.chinadailyhk.com/article/161495
- Everington, K. (2021). Former US security advisor says Taiwan in “maximum danger” from PLA. Taiwan News. https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/4189160
- China Daily. (2021). Preparing for Winter Olympics promotes quality development – Opinio. China Daily. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202101/22/WS600a131ba31024ad0baa44f1.html
- The Guardian. (2020). China’s Xi Jinping facing widespread opposition in his own party, insider claims. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/18/china-xi-jinping-facing-widespread-opposition-in-his-own-party-claims-insider
- Roy, D. (2021). Rumors of War in the Taiwan Strait. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/rumors-of-war-in-the-taiwan-strait/
- Buckley, C. (2021). Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/world/asia/xi-china-congress.html?_ga=2.178218534.2000768907.1619749005-1359154941.1599697815
- Kissinger, H. A. (2020). The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coronavirus-pandemic-will-forever-alter-the-world-order-11585953005
Quad Infrastructure Diplomacy: An Attempt to Resist the Belt and Road Initiative
Over the years, the competition between the great powers in the dual space of the Indian and Pacific Oceans has been rapidly increasing. In the face of the aggravation of relations between the PRC and the United States, the defence dimension of the rivalry between the two contenders for global leadership traditionally comes to the forefront. However, in today’s context, the parties will most likely not engage in military action for the strengthening of their dominance in the region, but they will try to achieve the goals by expanding of economic influence. In this context, along with the well-known trade wars, there is an infrastructure rivalry in the region, which is enforced on Beijing by Washington and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).
The role of Infrastructure in Indian and Pacific Oceans’ countries
The countries of Asia traditionally drawing the attention of the world community due to the high rates of economic, technological, and social development. In less than three decades, their per capita income has increased by 74%, millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, as well as a growing middle class has emerged in the region. All this became possible due to the multilateral cooperation institutionalization and the integration of the economies of the Indo-Pacific. However, the strengthening of trade and economic ties and the future prosperity of Asia largely depends on the infrastructure (ports, highways and railways, airports, pipelines, etc.), which contributes to a more active movement of goods on a regional and global scale. Moreover, back in 2009, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) published a report according to which collective investments in infrastructure in the amount of US$8 trillion will be required to maintain rapid economic growth in Asian countries.
The most prominent infrastructure initiative in recent years is the «Belt and Road Initiative» (BRI), which was launched by China’s leader Xi Jinping in 2013. The BRI helped to fill numerous infrastructure gaps, but the United States and its partners increasingly paid attention to the geostrategic aspect of China’s actions. It’s no secret that the Belt and Road plays an important role in the development and integration of China’s provinces with neighboring countries. However, with the growing number of countries participating in the BRI, as well as the strengthening of China’s influence on a regional and global scale, criticism of the strategic tools for expanding Beijing’s economic influence gradually increased. The Belt and Road has faced a number of critical remarks, including those related to accusations of purposely involving the regional countries in the so-called «debt traps». Regardless of the degree of truthfulness or study of the issue, from year to year, media reports have contributed to the building of a contradictory attitude to China’s BRI among the residents, experts, and political elites all over the world.
Moreover, as soon as Donald Trump became the U.S. President in early 2017, Washington modified the nature of its policy towards China to greater confrontation. This trend has become a direct expression of the intensified great powers’ rivalry and their struggle for hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, as well as a motivation for the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes the United States, Australia, India and Japan. However, the interaction of the Quad has long been built on the basis of defence.
This trend continues nowadays, as evidenced by the frequent exercises and the growing Quad naval presence in the Indo-Pacific but in 2021 the Quad countries expanded their range of issues on a multilateral basis. Now the agenda includes vaccine diplomacy (providing 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific countries, climate change, technological cooperation, maritime security, cybersecurity, and external development assistance. According to Kurt Campbell, Indo-Pacific policy coordinator at the National Security Council, Washington is looking to convene an in-person fall summit of leaders of the Quad countries with a focus on infrastructure in the face of the challenge from China.
Quadrilateral infrastructure diplomacy as the continuing vector of the Trump’s administration
The infrastructure agenda also became an important part of the last summit of the G7 countries’ leaders, during which the parties expressed their willingness to establish a BRI counterpart called Build Back Better World (B3W). In total, there are 22 mentions of infrastructure in the final G7 Summit Communiqué. Even despite the traditionally restrained position of India, which took the time to «study the specifics of the proposal», infrastructure diplomacy of Quad is becoming a new area of geostrategic competition in the Indo-Pacific.
There’s one exception: the activities on the infrastructure track are not a new trend of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, but a continuation of the foreign policy vector set during the presidency of Donald Trump. It was he who turned Sino-U.S. rivalry into a geo-economic level. Back in 2017, the Foreign Ministers of the Quad countries stated the need for high-quality infrastructure development in order to ensure freedom and openness of sea routes, as well as improve intra-regional ties. In 2018, MoU was signed between the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, aimed at implementing major infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the Quad countries raised the question of the BRI countries’ growing debt during their official meeting in Singapore.
It was clear that the Belt and Road Initiative is perceived by the Quad countries as the main factor in expanding the economic and political influence of the People’s Republic of China, as well as China’s influence of the domestic political processes in the countries of Indo-Pacific. At the same time, the combination of economic and defence rivalry enforced on Beijing by Washington, as well as Quad’s efforts to build a balance of power in the region actually indicates the explicit anti-China nature of the Quad.
In this case, it’s important to note that each of the Quad countries has its own levers of influence, which they can combine in infrastructure competition with Beijing. For example, in 2015, in response to the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) by China, Japan made the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI). The United States, in turn, announced the infrastructure project Blue Dot Network (BDN), as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia established a new Partnerships for Infrastructure (P4I). All these initiatives are united by a commitment to inclusive economic growth, «quality infrastructure», climate change, disaster response, and social development. The capitalization of the Japanese, American and Australian initiatives is US $110 billion (US$50 billion from Japan and over US$50 from the Asian Development Bank), US$30-60 million, and US$383 thousand (including access to US$4 billion of foreign aid and $US2 billion from the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific), respectively. Given the ongoing discussions about debt traps, the emphasis on «high-quality infrastructure» may give special features to the initiatives of the Quad but even the total amount of funding will not be able to compete with the US$770 billion investments already made in 138 countries of the world and announced by China.
Anyway, Quad is stepping up its infrastructure diplomacy in at least three areas, including Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the Indian Ocean. For example, Australia, Germany and Switzerland have already allocated US$13 million to the Mekong River Commission For Sustainable Development (MRC) to assist Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and, Vietnam «to respond to pressing challenges while safeguarding the ecological function of the Mekong River and improving people’s livelihoods».At the same time, Australia signed US$300 million MoU with Papua New Guinea, aimed at the ports reconstruction in the major state of Oceania (the ports of Vanimo, Kimbe, Motukea, Lorengau, Oro Bay, Daru, Lae, etc.). It is important to highlight that the increasing economic and infrastructural presence of China in the countries of Oceania, energize Australia’s policy in the South Pacific, which is a traditional zone of influence of Canberra. At the same time, the expansion of Australia’s aid and investment to the broader Indo-Pacific is due to the commitment of the current Australian government to the U.S. foreign policy.
In turn, the reaction of the Southeast Asian countries to the intensification of Quad infrastructure diplomacy will be more restrained. According to the latest Pew Research Center survey, the most unfavourable view of China is in the United States (76%), Canada (73%), Germany (71%), Japan (88%), Australia (78%), and South Korea (77%), while in Singapore — the only country representing ASEAN in the survey — the percentage of unfavourable views on China is at a low level (34%). Moreover, considering the aspects of infrastructure diplomacy in the region, we should definitely refer to the survey of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) of the political elites of the region «Powers, Norms, and Institutions: The Future of the Indo-Pacific from a Southeast Asia Perspective», published in 2020. Despite the intentional exclusion of Russia from the survey, it approximately reflects the trends in the Indo-Pacific countries at the present stage. Thus, as a result of the survey, American experts revealed that the political elites of Southeast Asia positively assess China’s activities in the field of infrastructure development, which has brought tangible benefits to most Southeast Asian countries.
China is actively reacting to verbal attacks from the United States and Quad. The infrastructure agenda was no exception, but China responded by modernizing its global Belt and Road Initiative. In response to criticism about the involvement of the countries in debt traps, Beijing has developed a new Foreign Policy White Paper «China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era». The document was published in early 2021. According to the provisions of the new White Paper, China will pay closer attention to the process of implementing projects within the aid framework, take an active part in evaluating projects in order to monitor their quality, maintain an appropriate level of confidence in its projects to China, as well as conduct bilateral consultations to identify difficulties with debt repayment and make sure that partners do not fall into a debt trap. It’s possible that the new vision of the PRC will appear especially quickly in countries where the Quad will primarily try to implement their infrastructure projects.
China is the first country in the region, which pays significant attention to the issues of large-scale infrastructure development. Moreover, Beijing has a number of advantages over its opponent — Quad. First, the Belt and Road initiative is more structured and aimed at intensifying trade, economic, cultural and humanitarian cooperation with neighboring countries, while the emerging Quad infrastructure agenda is «dispersed» among numerous individual initiatives, doesn’t have the same level of stability as the BRI, and even after 3.5 years of building the agenda is considered through the prism of expectations.
Second, China’s initiative is aimed at a single infrastructure connection between the PRC and the rest of the world and acts as a potential basis for the intensification of global trade in the future. At the same time, today’s projects of the Quad are of a “sporadic» nature and can’t contribute to the infrastructure linkage between Europe, Africa, South and Southeast Asia on a global scale.
Third, China can already offer the Belt and Road members not only logistics infrastructure but also the opportunities in the field of green energy. At the end of 2019, China produced about a third of the world’s solar energy and retained a leading position in the number of wind turbines. Within the foreseeable future, the Quad countries, and especially the United States, will have to compete with China even in the field of the climate agenda, which is so close to the new administration of the U.S. President Joe Biden.
Finally, during his recent speech on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), PRC’s Leader Xi Jinping confidently declared the great revival of the Chinese nation, its contribution to the progress of human civilization, and its readiness to build a new world, which undoubtedly indicates China’s decisiveness to respond to challenges to its address, including from the Quad.
The ongoing transformation of the regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific, both in the defence and economic areas, will be an important aspect in the post-pandemic era. China has repeatedly stated about the «covered» Quad activities to deterrence Chinese policy in the region, but the expansion of the Quad’s agenda by infrastructure diplomacy allows us to speak about the evident vector of the Quad strategy against the PRC.
However, nowadays the Quad countries had been left behind. China already has the world’s most numerous land forces, the largest navy, as well as an ambitious global Belt and Road initiative that includes almost 140 countries and a capitalization approaching US$1 trillion. Of course, Quad is moving towards the institutionalization of its infrastructure cooperation and the potential expansion of the number of participating countries to the Quad Plus format. However, to reach China’s achievements for the period 2013-2021, the new alliance will need at least a decade.
At the same time, the rivalry of the Belt and Road with the Quad’s infrastructure initiative will help the countries of the region to diversify their infrastructure ties but will make their choice even more difficult, since it will primarily be regarded as support for the foreign policy vision of one of the parties, and not a pragmatic estimate of economic benefits. All this makes the regional environment in the Indo-Pacific increasingly complex and forces middle powers and smaller countries to adapt to new geostrategic realities.
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