President Hakainde Hichilema has been invited for a meeting with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House while in the US attending the United Nations General Assembly. This is rather unprecedented for a newly elected African President, hardly a month in power.
During the same period, whilst in the United States, he will hold high level meetings with the International Monetary Fund Managing Director, Ms.Kristalina Georgieva, World Bank President Dr. David Malpass, World Bank President, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Mendez, and other high level meetings.
Zambians are proud of the White House invitation and the other high level meetings our President will hold because it shows the general recognition by the international community of the rare feat of the peaceful transfer power from an Incumbent to the Opposition that we have achieved for the third time in 30 years. However, care must be taken by not looking at these gestures from the superficial angle but rather recognize the underlying motivations. These are undoubtedly geopolitical and economic in overtones involved, and it is that context that the visit should be looked at also.
The United States of America has paid insufficient attention to the African continent at the highest levels of government in recent years. China has taken full advantage of this and emerged as an economic and political power house on the continent. In Africa, China’s growing economic influence is there for all to see. Beijing has mobilized its vast government financial resources and invested in infrastructure projects in exchange for natural resources. China has extracted multiple layers of benefits from these investments which include service contracts for Chinese firms, creation of jobs in China through raw material supplies for projects, creation of a market for Chinese finished goods, political favours from African governments on foreign policy issues at multilateral forums such as the United Nations, and a positive international image of China being a friend of Africa who provides aid with no strings attached. China’s approach to Africa has posed a challenge to U.S. interests in promoting democracy, good governance and sustainable development in Africa.
On taking over, the Biden administration recognized this increased Chinese influence in the World including Africa. And in response, they have enacted the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 and are resetting the US African Policy. The Strategic Competition law is designed to counter China’s growing influence around the world. It frames Beijing as a “political, diplomatic, economic, military and ideological power” and a strategic competitor to U.S. and its partners
The entire US government machinery has been uneasy about the Chinese influence in Africa and Zambia is no exception. President Biden outlined his concern about China’s influence in the World during his first press conference after being sworn in.
“I see stiff competition with China. China has an overall goal — and I don’t criticize them for the goal. But they have an overall goal to become the leading country, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world,” Biden said. “That’s not gonna happen on my watch,” he said.
He was supported by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Robert Menendez, the Democrat of New Jersey, who described the Strategic Competition legislation as an unprecedented, bipartisan effort to mobilise all American strategic, economic, and diplomatic tools to enable the US government to compete effectively with China and the challenges it poses to its national and economic security for decades to come.
“China is strategic competition. China today is challenging the United States and international community across every dimension of power – political, diplomatic, economic, innovation, military, even cultural – and with an alternative and deeply disturbing model for global governance,” said Robert Menendez, and the committee’s chairman who is one of the people that President HH will have a meeting with.
In view of China’s success in Africa, there appears to be a growing realization in the U.S that Africa is more than conflict and poverty but it represents important opportunities in trade and investment.
The African American Congressman who has been concerned and very vocal about Chinese influence in Africa and wanted US to be more involved in the continent to counter China, is Congressman Gregory Meeks of the New York’s 5th District who is the Chairman of House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“The United States sees strengthening US-Africa economic ties as a priority. America’s capital markets, pension and investment funds, and financial institutions are leaders among their global peers, and are uniquely positioned to play a key role in meeting Africa’s capital needs. In our absence, African nations will continue to seek capital, assistance, and technology from those who do not share our values and priorities for democracy, good governance, human rights, and environmental protection. America has every economic, strategic, and national security reason to prioritize our relationships with Africa,” he said.
The World has seen the erosion of democracy and human rights in the past five years as autocratic leaders have been emboldened by the former President Trump’s administration and China. Zambia has been one of the countries whose democracy was under threat before the August 12, 2021 elections.
According to Varieties of Democracy Project based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, Zambia had been one of the fastest eroding democracies in the world. The country registered a remarkably rapid decline in the quality of democracy since 2016 until the PF lost this year’s elections.
It is common knowledge that the US has made the promotion of democracy and human rights as the number one foreign policy objective as part of its competition with China which supports Authoritarianism. In July, 2021 the Secretary of State Antony Blinken was reported by Politico to have issued a cable to all embassies to make the promotion of human rights and democracy a priority, even in countries with abusive governments that happen to be U.S. allies.
Zambia happens to be one of the closest countries to China in Africa. The Chinese influence in Zambia went up a few notches in the past ten years. The level of Chinese investment and debt has increased. There are more than 600 Chinese companies operating in Zambia employing about 50,000 locals. The Chinese population in Zambia was estimated at 80,000 in 2019, according to the UN World Population study.
The Chinese influence was also demonstrated by the Zambian government attempt to recruit Chinese Nationals in the Police service in 2017.And more recently, in 2020, the enforced apology of former Lusaka Mayor, Mile Sampa to the Chinese community for trying to make them abide by Zambian laws was further evidence how China held sway in Zambian affairs. These events and other events did not go down well with Zambians. The local cynics even nick named Zambia as “Chambia”. There are also some international analysts who have called Zambia as China’s poster Child in Africa. Although the issue of China did come up on the campaign trail, it was clearly there under the radar and in voters’ mind. There is no doubt that one contributing factor to the PF’s loss was its perceived capture by the Chinese.
It against this background of the geopolitical ecosystem obtaining currently, that the invitation of President Hakainde Hichilema should be seen. And in the light of Zambians’ successful removal of the Lungu dictatorship through democratic elections, and the peaceful transfer of power, the US saw this as part of its success in the promotion of democracy and human rights and its fight against authoritarianism. The US invitation of President Hakainde Hichilema to the White House, is therefore, in a nutshell, simply the implementation of the Strategic Competition Act of 2021 and the US Reset of African policy to counter Chinese influence.
President Hichilema has made good governance through the promotion of democracy and human rights, rule of law, fight against corruption and the freedom of the press as the centre piece of his administration. The President’s speeches since he was elected, have been well received in the democratic world and by the financial markets. Zambians are also feeling freer no longer in fear.
There is a word of caution, however, that the new dawn administration of HH should be aware of. It would be unwise to give the impression that Zambia is expressly taking sides between China and USA/West. Zambia should welcome the competition for influence between the United States of America and China as it can bring a lot of developmental benefits to the country. We should not choose one from the other as the two are complementary. Zambia ought to develop its own development model based on copying and adapting the good features from both models – Washington Consensus and the Beijing Consensus-to fit in its unique environment.
Although, it may appear as self-promotional, as a Patriot, I would be failing in duties to make certain timely recommendations to our President. I would edge President Hakainde Hichilema, Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo, Special Assistant to President Antony Bwalya and other Senior government officials in the foreign service to read a few selected and relevant Chapters in my book: China-West battleground in Africa: Debt ridden Zambia, before they go to the United States.
The book will provide them with fast track knowledge on how to handle Zambia’s relationship with the current economic super powers – China and the USA- based on very current information as demonstrated by this article’s attributions. The book has been accepted to be catalogued in the United States Library of Congress, the largest library in the World with 170million publications. The library does not just stock any publication unless it is adding value to the body of knowledge that it currently has. It follows that the book’s credibility cannot be doubted.
By Mwansa P. Chalwe snr