China Digital Competition Concept Note
This concept note lays out initial thoughts and proposals for a new project on Africa-US-China engagements in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector. It focuses on the competition between the US and China in Africa’s digital sphere while also infusing African responses to the said competition.
This initiative devolves from the global rise of China which has been interpreted as challenge to the long-established American superpower status on multiple fronts. Over the last couple of years, the global competition between the two powers has played out on the African continent in the Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) sector, also referred to as the tech or digital sector. Between them, the US and China account for 90% of the market capitalisation of the world’s 70 % largest digital platforms. While the US and the West more broadly enjoyed a dominant position in the global digital sphere for many years, China has in recent times challenged this position. The competition has resulted in a lack of clear global leadership and governance of emerging digital technologies as China and the US duel on critical issues of deployment and use. This has in turn resulted in digital technology being one of the major domains of the geopolitical faultiness between China and the US. The competition between the two powers has come into sharp focus on the African continent thus inspiring the current initiative. While the competition in Africa is evident in the daily lives of Africans and in the statements issued by US and Chinese leaders, there hasn’t been a concomitant body of knowledge that would shed light on this phenomenon on the African continent. This initiative seeks to redress these gaps by undertaking a multi-year study across the five regions of the continent.
About the ACSUS
The initiative is being managed at the University of Witwatersrand’s African Centre for the Study of the United States (Wits ACSUS) in partnership with partners across Africa, in the US and in China. ACSUS’s primary mandate is to find new ways of understanding the US through research, teaching, publishing, and public engagements. Since the Centre’s establishment in March 2018, we have covered the different facets of Africa-US relations from society, nation, and global power. With the inception of the “US and China in Africa’s Digital Sphere” project, we extend focus from focus on Africa and the US alone, to include China, thus potentially providing a more nuanced picture of the global state of play. Often, discussions and developments between Africa and the US inevitably bring in China perspective and this has become an inescapable reality for leaders, scholars, journalists, civil society organizations, supranational organizations, and everyday people.
Background and Context
3.1 US-China Competition
Analysts have pointed out that the US-China digital competition, recently taking the form of a “tech war” took an elevated stance because of a trade dispute between the two countries. Over the past decade, the US imposed has imposed a series of sanctions on Chinese tech companies with these actions enhanced during the Donald Trump administration and being sustained in the Joe Biden administration. Other factors that fuelled the tech war have been penalties and fines, and the blocking of access to core US-controlled technologies. For instance, China’s giant telecoms ZTE was accused of selling US technology to Iran. In addition, there have been attempts by both the Trump & Biden administration to restrict the use of TikTok and WeChat which are Chinese owned social media networks. Under the Biden administration, U.S companies have been restricted from selling electronic parts to Huawei. Biden has cast U.S – China tech competition as an essential front in the generational struggle between democracy and autocracy.
In response China has equally imposed sanctions on US tech companies and started implementing a 10-year blueprint of transforming from a manufacturer market to a world manufacturing power in the sector. For instance, China blocked Facebook and Google from operating their social networks and search engines in retaliation. To alleviate the impact of U.S actions, China has relied on self-sufficiency, and China has unveiled its five-year plan of nurturing new digital technologies.
3.2 The African Perspectives
The tech war between the US and China has spilled over onto the African continent. African countries have long used US digital technologies with brands such as Apple and Facebook having been inscribed into governmental, corporate, and everyday use. On the other hand, however, African countries have over the past two decades become are heavily dependent on Chinese telecommunication technology as seen in the fact that China is the largest cell phone provider in Africa. As such the tech war between the US and China has a significant impact on Africa. For instance, the barring of the use of American software by the Chinese tech giant, Huawei, left many Africans with devices that had lost most of their essential functions. In addition, most African governments, and institutions like the African Union (AU) have benefited from the Chinese government’s donations and are wary to side with the US on account of these relations. Since Africa is in the middle of the U.S and China tech war, this creates a vast technological barrier in Africa.
Against the background of the evolving US-China tech war, another factor that draws in Africa is the fact that the continent is considered a large ICT market for ICT products and services. Africa is also lucrative to both the US and China because it has low level of ICT penetration. The digital divide in Africa therefore seen as an opportunity for both powers to structure deals beneficial to their respective economies.
Three objectives inform the initiative, namely:
• Generate new knowledge on Africa-China-US relations in the ICT sector to inform scholarship and policymaking.
• Provide new data and information on the social, political, and economic impact of the US-China competition in Africa.
• Provide information on African responses and perspectives on the US-China digital competition in Africa.
• Explore new conceptual, theoretical and methodological frameworks for researching and studying the Africa-US-China digital relations and engagements.
• Make recommendations on how Africa should relate with the US and China in the ICT sphere.
The Focus and Approach
The US-China competition has various dimensions that can be analysed from various African perspectives. First, while the tech war can be analysed and studied from an entirely US-China competition prism, this would fall short of African perspectives. Thus, one of the areas of focus for this initiative is to consider the impact of the tech war in the African ICT sector. But this would have to be done on a cross-continental scale, ensuring similarities and differences in the western, central, southern, eastern, and northern parts of the continent are grasped and included. Just how do US and Chinese state and non-state actors “compete” in selected countries in these regions and what is their impact?
Second, it is evident that Africa is being courted by the US and China to take sides in the evolving and dynamic tech-based rivalry. This raises two questions around the strategies that the US and China are directing towards the continent? Which specific technologies and companies have been affected by the counter-imposition of sanctions by the US and China and what does this mean for Africa? Relatedly, do the American and Chinese digital technologies being deployed in more benefits and less risks or more risks and less benefits?
Third and perhaps more importantly, how are African countries responding to the strategies being directed towards it by the tech actors from both powers? In other words, from the viewpoint of Africans, which US and Chinese strategies are succeeding, and which are failing? In which ICT sub sectors is African being drawn towards the US or China and why? What relevant role can Africa play in the global governance of ICTs given the tech battle between the US and China?
To help answer these questions and the factors informing the competition from an African viewpoint, the initiative will undertake analysis based on the following interrelated themes:
• Comparing the strategies used by the US and China in Africa’s ICT sector across investment sectors.
• Analysis of US and Chinese handling of the tech war as a crisis management issue in African markets and countries.
• Analysis of the implications of US and Chinese ICT with regards to Africa’s socio-economic development.
• Comparing the technologies being deployed in Africa by US and Chinese entities including those relating to surveillance, e-commerce, financial technology, telecommunication infrastructure and digital gadgets.
• Analysis on the implications of Chinese and US ICTs on Africa’s policy, regulatory and legal framework priming the question of the capacity of African nations to withstand the new technologies particularly with regards to privacy, cybercrime, transparency, and accountability.
• Collect and collate views on African perspective on the differences between the US and China in the global governance of digital technologies.
We are rolling out the following activities in February 2022.
• Establish an Africa-US-China Digital Technologies Research Group and commence discussion sessions including themes, methodologies, theoretical approaches, and inception write ups.
• Convene a hybrid webinar under the theme “What is the nature and implications of US-China tech war on Africa”. Panellists drawn from the five regions of Africa will discuss the above-mentioned issues.
• Commission and produce thought leadership articles and policy briefs grouped into two: the first ten focusing on broad and overarching themes and topics and the second batch focusing on specific ICT cases and issues.
• Submit a proposal to a peer-reviewed journal where the above-mentioned will be converted and published as a special issue.
• Create an online portal where news and information on the US-China in Africa ICT issues will be published and archived.
• Potential Partners
• Wits Africa-China Reporting Project.
• African Studies Center, Michigan State University.
• Chinese in Africa and African in China Research Network/Georgetown University.
• The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center
• Communications University of China