Beyond BRICS: The shaping of new development narratives

Efforts by both China and India to deepen cooperation with Africa in the higher education and research space are evident in several recent high-profile initiatives which reveal more about the geopolitical goals and engagement style of the countries.

The leaders of the two countries laid out their visions in speeches made during their visit to South Africa for the BRICS summit held in August. Analysts say BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are seen as seeking to bolster their geopolitical power to counter the often United States-led West in economic and political issues.

Three of the BRICS members – Russia, India and China – have of late been making efforts to expand their influence in Africa and each country holds summits with African leaders during which developmental programmes, including those relating to higher education, are announced.

The second Russia-Africa summit was held in July in Russia; the India-Africa summit has been held once every three years since 2008 in New Delhi; and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which started in 2000, also brings China and Africa together every three years.

Dr Abhishek Mishra, an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based think tank Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in India, said China and India have, for decades, been attempting to tap into the emerging African markets and opportunities, but Russia has followed a different approach.

“Both [China and India] are trying to shape new narratives of engagement and provide African countries with an alternative model of development at a time when anti-Western sentiment is high. India and China are burning their credentials as humanitarian champions and leaders of the ‘Global South’,” said Mishra.

“Russia, on the other hand, has found it difficult to enter African markets through conventional means like foreign direct investment, trade or investments.

“Subsequently, Russia has attempted to fill vacuums of power in unstable parts of the continent, where local and international actors have failed to bring enduring security solutions. In this quest, Moscow has been working with African elites, undermining democracy in various parts of the continent, and enabling authoritarian regimes,” he added.

Africa and China

On the last day of the recent BRICS summit in South Africa, the host country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and Chinese President Xi Jinping co-chaired a China-Africa leaders’ dialogue on ‘Promoting African integration and jointly building a high-level Africa-China community with a shared future’.

In his keynote speech during the round table, Xi said through the Belt and Road cooperation and FOCAC, China will intensify dialogue and communication with Africa at various levels.

The Belt and Road Initiative, launched by Xi in 2013, is underlined by massive infrastructure investments but the scheme has been criticised in some quarters as crippling to African states as it allegedly traps governments in debt.

In his speech, Xi said to chart the course for practical cooperation he has three proposals, one of which revolves around higher education. The proposal encompasses the launch of the so-called China-Africa Universities 100 Cooperation Plan.

“China will launch the Plan for China-Africa Cooperation on Talent Development. China plans to train 500 principals and high-calibre teachers of vocational colleges every year, and 10,000 technical personnel with both Chinese language and vocational skills for Africa.

“China will invite 20,000 government officials and technicians from African countries to participate in workshops and seminars. To support Africa in strengthening education and innovation, we will launch the China-Africa Universities 100 Cooperation Plan and 10 pilot exchange programmes of China-Africa partner institutes,” Xi said.

Some experts have pointed out that China’s main interest in Africa’s universities is (apart from contributing to infrastructure) to roll out its industrial standards to students so that they are familiar with Chinese products and will tender for them when they are in private or government positions after graduation, so it is a market for Chinese products.

Furthermore, ‘strengthening innovation’ generally refers to universities equipping themselves with Chinese equipment, specifically laboratories, for science, technology, engineering and maths, or STEM courses, and attract international students to China who, when they return to Africa, will cooperate with China.

Other focus areas

In addition to his focus on higher education, Xi said in South Africa, China will be launching an initiative to support Africa’s industrialisation, helping the continent to grow its manufacturing sector and realise economic diversification. The third proposal involves a plan supporting Africa’s agricultural modernisation.

A joint statement issued at the end of the dialogue noted that, since its inception in 2000, FOCAC has proved to be an effective platform for South-South cooperation focused on achieving common prosperity and sustainable development.

“Both sides expressed their appreciation for the progress made in the implementation of the first three-year plan of China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, including its nine programmes.

“In this regard, the African side welcomed the Chinese side’s announcement of the Initiative on Supporting Africa’s Industrialisation, the Plan for China-Africa Cooperation on Talent Development, and the Plan for China Supporting Africa’s Agricultural Modernisation, to support sustainable development on the African Continent,” the joint statement added.

As part of the nine programmes, China intends to set up centres for China-Africa cooperation focused on satellite remote-sensing applications; support the development of China-Africa joint laboratories; partner institutes; and scientific and technological innovation cooperation.

It has also said it will establish several China-Africa joint centres for modern agrotechnology demonstration, exchange and training.

Lunar research station

Building on some of these aspects, the South African National Space Agency, or SANSA, in September, signed an agreement with the China National Space Administration, marking the country’s formal entry into China’s International Lunar Research Station programme, according to a press release.

The agreement will see China and South Africa “cooperate extensively on demonstration, mission implementation, operation and application, education and training of the ILRS [International Laser Ranging Service]”.

The deal, said to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and South Africa, plays “a significant role in boosting technology advances and building a high-standard community with a shared future for China and South Africa”, the statement noted.

Analysing China’s geopolitical advances

How do China’s projects fit into its geopolitical advances into Africa? Mishra said that, post-COVID, China is recalibrating its strategy.

According to him, China’s engagement with Africa has been more traditional in nature, focusing on elite-level wealth creation, infrastructure development and resource extraction.

“During the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] days, China invested billions of dollars across various sectors in African countries. [But] these big-ticket projects have yielded varied results.

“While some have led to wealth creation and job opportunities, others have failed to raise the desired revenues. Although African countries owe most of their debt to private lenders, Western banks, bondholders, asset managers and oil traders, there is little doubt China’s investments have created economic dependencies and increased Africa’s indebtedness,” said Mishra.

The focus now is not on large-scale projects, but on much more targeted projects, and a focus on trade facilitation in order to close the massive asymmetry in China and Africa trade.

Global South concerns

Xi’s Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a speech delivered during the BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Dialogue, said discussions at the BRICS summit had focused on the priorities and concerns of the Global South countries.

He said India has accorded high priority to its relations with Africa and, alongside high-level meetings, it has also opened 16 new embassies in the continent. He said that, presently, India is Africa’s fourth-largest trading partner and the fifth-largest investor.

“Whether it’s technology parks in Mozambique, Ivory Coast, and Eswatini, or campuses established by Indian universities in Tanzania and Uganda, India has always given priority to capacity-building and infrastructure development in African countries,” Modi said.

“To bridge the digital divide in Africa, we have provided over 15,000 scholarships in tele-education and telemedicine. We have established defence academies and colleges in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Tanzania. We have deployed teams for training in Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, Lesotho, Zambia, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Tanzania.”

On August 31, University World News reported that BRICS countries had agreed to facilitate the recognition of academic qualifications among members to ensure the mobility of skilled professionals, academics and students.

The countries also committed themselves to strengthening skills exchanges and cooperation, adding that they were embracing digital transformation in education and TVET (technical and vocational education and training) as each BRICS country is domestically committed to ensuring education accessibility and equity as well as promoting the development of quality education.

Mishra pointed out that India emphasises long-term engagement with Africa by improving African productive capacity and diversifying skills and knowledge. The partnership embodies an equal, consultative and collaborative relationship, one that is premised on fulfilling African needs and priorities.

“Unlike China and some other Western donors, India’s engagement with Africa is non-conditional and provides a more relatable model to the challenges Africa faces than even some other Asian counterparts,” he said.

“Health, digital public infrastructure and green growth are the sectors where India and Africa are currently emphasising their partnership. This is in addition to encouraging more participation of Indian private firms in African markets and exploring more innovative ways of financing like public-private-partnership, blended finance, and so on,” he said.

How does India engage?

According to Mishra, India engages with Africa at three levels: continentally through the African Union (AU), regionally through the Regional Economic Communities, or RECs, and bilaterally with individual countries.

India has always vocally propagated having more African voices in multilateral forums like the United Nations Security Council, the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund. The AU’s inclusion as a permanent member of the G20 under India’s G20 Presidency is a testament to India’s desire to emerge as a responsible leader on the global stage and champion the voices, priorities and aspirations of the Global South.

However, added Mishra, much of the success that India has achieved in its engagement with Africa is at the bilateral level when individually dealing with countries. When dealing at the bilateral level, there are fewer bureaucratic and administrative hurdles, inter-agency coordination becomes easier and the leader’s personal and diplomatic touch helps further mutual interests.