U.S. vs. China? Cooperation in Telecommunications in East Africa

3. Mai 2022

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Do we see a “Tech Cold War” playing out between China and the U.S. in Africa? For some Western political strategists, the use of Chinese equipment through China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR) initiative [1] implies economic losses for the West and the promotion of an authoritarian, China-led global order.[2] Since its emergence in 2015, the DSR has been the umbrella of Chinese digital expansion across the Belt and Road Initiative network of 145 countries, 42 of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa.[3] Most prominently, this includes fiber-optic cables, data centers, and so-called smart cities, as well as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities by companies like Huawei.[4] Analyzing two cases from East Africa, this article argues that a Cold War frame fails to capture the reality of information and communications technology (ICT) cooperation in Africa.[5] Characteristic for the continent is the general conviction that ICTs are key to leapfrogging development and the fact that Chinese companies have a strong — if not dominant — position in the telecommunication market.[6] Instead of searching for “China-free” actors in these regions, the West should focus on the rationale of projects to gauge its interests. This refers both to the purpose of individual investments and their wider business rationale.

Ethiopian Network: A victory for the U.S.?

In 2021, a U.S.-backed consortium won the license to operate telecommunication services and build a wireless network in Ethiopia. In the consortium, Kenya’s Safaricom holds a 51 percent stake.[7] The competing bid came from the South African mobile network operator MTN, which had financial backing from China. The U.S.-backed consortium managed to outbid MTN by USD 250 million because the U.S. International Development Finance Corp’s (DFC) promised to provide a concessional loan of USD 500 million on the condition that no Chinese equipment would be used.[8] U.S. commentators celebrated DFC’s low-cost credit as a “new weapon against Huawei.”[9]

However, sorting MTN into a China-labelled box and Safaricom in a U.S-labelled box would be an oversimplification, because Safaricom finds itself in an undeclared strategic partnership with Huawei. In Kenya, Safaricom uses Huawei’s equipment for its mobile networks (2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G) extensively,[10] and its mobile money system M-Pesa runs on Huawei software.[11] Together, the companies installed 1800 CCTV cameras in Kenyan cities,[12] and Safaricom was quick to back the partnership when the U.S.-China trade war erupted.[13]

Konza Technopolis: A victory for China?

In 2019, Kenya secured a Chinese loan to have Huawei set up a data center and smart city facilities at the greenfield Konza business park.[14] With a volume of USD 168 million, this marked the biggest single loan provided by a Chinese policy bank to the Kenyan ICT sector.[15] However, this project cannot be grasped with a U.S. vs. China logic.

Neither the project rationale, the planning process, nor the related university partnership point directly towards China. Contextualizing the rationale, the Kenyan government looked towards Western companies to outsource ICT services to Konza to profit from having English as its official language. The main bodies assisting the planning of Konza were the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the U.S. company Tetra Tech.[17] For research and development, Kenyan policy planners looked at the major research institutions in Silicon Valley for inspiration[18] and eventually settled for a partnership with South Korea to erect a “replica” of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.[19] In sum, the wider business rationale of the biggest project of the DSR in Kenya is far from being solely a Chinese project.

Conclusion: Project paradigms, not binaries

What lessons do we draw from this? First, Western analysts should drop the Cold War perspective and the related search for “China-free” actors in Africa where Chinese ICT companies are generally dominant.[20] Secondly, it is essential to consider the rationale of such projects instead of merely looking at the origins of funding,[21] because not all China-backed projects are detrimental to Africans or undermine Western interests. A yardstick that looks at each case individually not only leads to a more nuanced image of Chinese ICT investments but also allows more Western participation in these projects. Staying engaged means maintaining influence in the trajectory of ICT industries. This increases the likelihood that new projects will contribute to a free global digital economy — a much more attractive prospect than an emerging “Tech Cold War”.

 

References

Photo by Namnso Ukpanah on Unsplash

1 Jacob Helberg, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2021); Jonathan E. Hillman, The Digital Silk Road: China’s Quest to Wire the World and Win the Future (New York: Harper Business, 2021); Francis Schortgen, “Weaponizing Globalization: Chinese High-Tech in the Crosshairs of Geopolitics,” in Huawei Goes Global: Volume I, eds. Wenxian Zhang, Ilan Alon, and Christoph Lattemann (Cham: Springer, 2020), 41–64; Nicol Turner Lee, “Navigating the U.S.-China 5G Competition,” Brookings Institution, Global China, 2020, accessed February 5, 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/research/navigating-the-us-china-5g-competition; Satoru Mori, “US Technological Competition with China: The Military, Industrial and Digital Network Dimensions,” Asia-Pacific Review 26 (2019): 77–120.
For a more cautious view, see Iginion Gagliardone in “The China in Africa Podcast: China, African and the Future of the Internet,” China-Africa Project, accessed February 5, 2022, https://chinaafricaproject.com/podcasts/podcast-china-africa-internet-iginio-gagliardone/.

2 Sanne van der Lugt, “Exploring the Political, Economic, and Social Implications of the Digital Silk Road into East Africa: The Case of Ethiopia,” in Global Perspectives on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, ed. Florian Schneider, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021), 315–46; Maya Wang, “China’s Techno-Authoritarianism Has Gone Global,” Foreign Affairs, 2021, accessed February 5, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-04-08/chinas-techno-authoritarianism-has-gone-global; Michael Keane and Haiqing Yu, “Communication, Culture, and Governance in Asia: A Digital Empire in the Making,” International Journal of Communication 13 (2019): 2683–701; Matthew J. Slaughter and David H. McCormick, “Data Is Power,” Foreign Affairs, 2021, accessed February 5, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-04-16/data-power-new-rules-digital-age; Samuel Woodhams, “China, Africa, and the Private Surveillance Industry,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 21(2020): 158–165; Sheridan Prasso, “China’s Digital Silk Road is Looking More like an Iron Curtain,” Bloomberg.com, 2019, accessed February 5, 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-01-10/china-s-digital-silk-road-is-looking-more-like-an-iron-curtain; Hong Shen, “Building a Digital Silk Road? Situating the Internet in China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” International Journal of Communication 12 (2018): 2683–701.

3 Christoph Nedophil , “Countries of the Belt and Road Initiative,” Green Finance & Development Center, FISF Fudan University, 2022, accessed March 01, 2022, https://greenfdc.org/countries-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative-bri/. 

4 Hong Shen, “Building a Digital Silk Road? Situating the Internet in China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” International Journal of Communication 12 (2018): 2683–701; Kevin Hernandez, “Achieving Complex Development Goals Along China’s Digital Silk Road” Institute of Development Studies, K4D Emerging Issue Report, 2019, accessed February 5, 2022, https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/14396. 

5 See also Iginio Gagliardone, China, Africa, and the Future of the Internet (London: Zed Books, 2019); Samuel Woodhams, “China, Africa, and the Private Surveillance Industry,” Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 21 (2020): 158–65.

6 Yun Wen, “Huawei’s Expansion into the Global South: A Path Toward Alternative Globalization,” in Huawei Goes Global: Volume I, eds. Wenxian Zhang, Ilan Alon, and Christoph Lattemann (Cham: Springer, 2020), 147–169; David Ehl, “Africa Embraces Huawei Technology Despite Security Concerns,” Deutsche Welle, February 8, 2022, https://www.dw.com/en/africa-embraces-huawei-technology-despite-security-concerns/a-60665700. 

7 Jackson Okoth, “DFC Delays Funding to Safaricom-led Consortium in Ethiopia,” The Kenyan Wall Street, November 2, 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=KNSTR00020211102ehb2000b6&cat=a&ep=ASI; Stu Woo, and Daniel Michaels, “US Foreign Aid Challenges China’s Belt and Road,” The Australian, July 17, 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=AUSTLN0020210716eh7h0003d&cat=a&ep=ASI.

8 See No. 5; Robert Clark, “US Wields a New Weapon Against Huawei: Low-Cost Credit,” LightReading.com, May 26, 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://www.lightreading.com/4g3gwifi/us-wields-new-weapon-against-huawei-low-cost-credit/d/d-id/769783.

9 Robert Clark, “US Wields a New Weapon Against Huawei: Low-Cost Credit,” LightReading.com, May 26, 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://www.lightreading.com/4g3gwifi/us-wields-new-weapon-against-huawei-low-cost-credit/d/d-id/769783. 

10 Lilian Mutegi, “Safaricom Launches Advanced 4G Network in Kenya,” CIO East Africa, December 5, 2014, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=AFNWS00020141205eac5000bi&cat=a&ep=ASI; Safaricom, “Safaricom Switches On 5G Across Kenya,” 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://www.safaricom.co.ke/about/media-center/publications/press-releases/release/1039. 

11 TM Forum, “Kenya Safaricom Successfully Migrates M-PESA to Huawei G2 Platform,” InForm TM Forum, 2015, accessed December 21, 2021, https://inform.tmforum.org/news/2015/04/vodafone-mpesa-huawei/; Huawei, “Huawei and Vodafone Achieve a Major M-PESA Milestone in Kenya,“ n.d., accessed December 21, 2021, https://carrier.huawei.com/en/success-stories/carrier-software/solutiontopic01/safaricomkenya. 

12 Frankline Sunday, “Police Surveillance, Huduma Cash Slashed,” The Standard, June 11, 2019, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=STNKEN0020190611ef6b0002t&cat=a&ep=ASI; Timothy Kaberia, “Magic Bullet: Is Safaricom Cover for China’s Huawei?” The Star, June 10, 2014, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=AFNWS00020140610ea6a000w4&cat=a&ep=ASI. 

13 Jevans Nyabiage, “Kenya Says It Supports Chinese Tech Giant Huawei Regardless of US Policy,” South China Morning Post, July 25, 2019, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=SCMCOM0020190725ef7p00032&cat=a&ep=ASI; Frankline Sunday, “Kenya Left in Dilemma Over Huawei as US-China Trade War Threatens to Spill Over,” The Standard, May 21, 2019, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=STNKEN0020190522ef5l00012&cat=a&ep=ASI. 

14 Interview with Senior Huawei Official, Nairobi, Fall 2021.

15 China Africa Research Initiative and Boston University Global Development Policy Center, Chinese Loans to Africa Database, Version 2.0, 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://chinaafricaloandata.bu.edu/. 

16 Interview with Senior Konza Technopolis Development Agency Official, Nairobi, Fall 2021.

17 Muthoki Mumo, “US Firm Bags Sh2.1 Billion Konza City Deal,” Daily Nation, February 14, 2014, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=DAYNA00020140213ea2d00033&cat=a&ep=ASI. 

18 Interview with Senior Konza Technopolis Development Agency Official, Nairobi, 2021.

19 James Kariuki, “Korean Sh10bn Konza University to Open in 2021,” Daily Nation, February 13, 2019, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=DAYNA00020190213ef2d00005&cat=a&ep=ASI; Jackline Macharia, “Kenya, South Korea Sign Sh9.4 bn Konza University Deal,” Daily Nation, April 27, 2021, accessed December 21, 2021, https://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&NS=18&AID=9STA010100&an=DAYNA00020210427eh4r0002y&cat=a&ep=ASI. 

20 See for example Kwame Ohene Djan and Wilberforce Achiaw Owusu-Ansah, “Assessing the Impact of the Huawei Brand on the Information Communication Technology Infrastructure of Ghana,” in Huawei Goes Global: Volume II, eds Wenxian Zhang, Ilan Alon, and Christoph Lattemann (Cham: Springer, 2020), 187–205; Bianca Wright, “Made in China: Africa’s ICT Infrastructure Backbone,” CIO.com, 2020, accessed February 5, 2022, https://www.cio.com/article/193170/made-in-china-africas-ict-infrastructure-backbone.html; Rebecca Arcesati, “China’s Evolving Role in Africa’s Digitalization: From Building Infrastructure to Shaping Ecosystems,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 2021, accessed February 5, 2022, https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/chinas-evolving-role-africas-digitalisation-building-infrastructure-shaping-ecosystems-31247.

21 The Institute of Development Studies scrutinizes the rationale of Digital Silk Road projects and recommends traditional donors to position them in regard to it; see Kevin Hernandez, “Achieving Complex Development Goals Along China’s Digital Silk Road” Institute of Development Studies, K4D Emerging Issue Report, 2019, accessed February 5, 2022, https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/14396. 

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Jonas Pauly

Jonas Pauly is a graduate student of International Relations at the University of Bremen and Jacobs University. For his MA thesis, he spent the fall of 2021 as a visiting fellow at the Kenya ICT Action Network in Nairobi. His research interests lie at the intersection of Africa-China relations and ICT politics.