US and China in Africa’s Digital Sphere: A Research Group Concept

• Introduction
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 providing African responses to such competition. Within the broad framework of Africa-US-China digital engagements, scholars and intellectuals in Africa, China, and the US, are invited to contribute ideas to the initiative and be involved in the initiative in a collegial and co-creation spirit.
This initiative responds to China’s rise in the global sphere, its implications for the United States, which has remained the sole superpower for nearly three decades and what this means for Africa. In particular, the initiative seeks to focus on the unfolding competition between China and the US for a share in Africa’s ICT and digital sector, a development that has come into sharp focus in recent months. However, while the competition in Africa is evident in African media and in the statements issued by US and Chinese leaders and officials, there hasn’t been a concomitant body of knowledge that would shed light on this phenomenon from an African standpoint. This initiative seeks to redress these gaps by undertaking a multi-year study across the five regions of the continent – Southern, Eastern, Central, Western, and Northern.
Such an initiative may help foster deeper understanding and knowledge sharing between the two regions. Currently the competition has resulted in a lack of clear global leadership and governance of emerging digital technologies as China and the US battle on critical issues of ICT deployment and use. This has in turn resulted in digital technology being one of the major domains of the geopolitical friction between the powers, with impacts on and in Africa.
Partners to the Initiative
The initiative is a partnership of organization in Africa, the US and China. At this early stage, the partners are: The African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at University of the Witwatersrand (Wits); the Chinese in Africa/Africans in China Research Network; the African Studies Center, Michigan State University (MSU); the Georgetown University Africa-China Initiative (ACI), and University of Johannesburg’s Department of Politics and International Relations. Discussions are ongoing to bring on board Chinese organizations. The specific knowledge dissemination partner Good Governance Africa (Africa in Fact and The African Governance Papers). ACSUS at Wits University will serve as the hub of the initiative.
• Background and Context
2.1 Perspectives on US-China Digital Competition in Africa
Literature on the US-China digital competition has risen over the last decade. Making sense of these literatures will be a central interest of this initiative. For now, it is sufficient to provide some pointers in lieu of the research group delving deeper into field. Analysts have pointed out that the US-China digital competition has taken the form of a global “tech war” with differing opinion and perspectives from either side. The more tangible and visible aspects of the tech war are seen trade disputes underlined by mutual imposition of sanctions, penalties, fines, and blockage of the operations of tech companies on either side. The competition has been seen as a struggle between democracy and autocracy with the US as the normative leader on one side and China the leader on the other. This has introduced the narrative of Geotech – the link between geopolitics and technology – in which there is an ostensible strive for a balance of power globally and which has morphed into a putative cold war. Strategies for the US and China to woo other regions of the world into aligning with either side have been conceptualized as digital diplomacy and “cyber diplomacy”.

Against the background of the global digital competition between the two powers, perspectives on their implications for Africa have emerged. In other words, the tech war between the US and China has spilled over onto the African continent. Commentators agree that the tech war in Africa is a continuation of that competition intensified since 2009 when China overtook the US to become the leading trading partner . On the one hand is the view that China is helping African countries establish internet or information societies by financing projects and offering affordable ICT technologies whilst the US specifically and the West generally are less supportive in these respects. This constitutes a positive or techno-optimistic for China emphasizing economic benefits for Africa and propounding African dimension of China’s “digital silk road”. On the other hand, is the view that China is exporting its “authoritarian version” of ICTs, particularly the internet and that the US specifically and the West broadly should work with African counterparts to stem emerging governance problems.
The upshot is that the question of the impact of Chinese and US ICT investments and engagements in Africa is a contested and a far from settled matter. Since Africa is literally in the middle of the US and China tech war, Africa faces dicey technological choices to make between the offerings of the two powers. Africa is considered a large ICT market for US and Chinese products and services because of the continent’s low level of ICT penetration. Both the US and China see the digital divide in Africa as an opportunity to structure mutually beneficial deals. This initiative will contribute African perspectives to the debates thus filling extant gaps.
• Objectives
The following objectives inform the initiative:
• 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.
• Disseminate research findings in popular media, online platforms, electronic mailing lists, special academic journals, and books.

•   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 a consideration of the impact of the tech war in the African ICT sector. 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 captured. A pertinent question is, “What are the impacts of the competition of US and Chinese state and non-state actors in selected countries in these regions?”
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 show more benefits and less risks or vice versa?
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?
• Geographic and Thematic Representation
To help answer these questions and the factors informing the competition, the initiative is calibrated on geographic representation and overarching thematic inclusion. Thus, the “Africa-China-US Digital Technologies Research Group” is being established through targeted invitations and an open call. The geographic representations are the five regions of Africa, China, and the US. Thematically, the initiative will undertake analysis based on the following interrelated themes:
• Comparison of strategies used by the US and China in Africa’s ICT sector across investment sectors.
• Comparison of the geopolitical dimensions of the competition as they relate to Africa, including digital or cyber diplomacy and soft power. 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.
• Comparison of technologies being deployed in Africa by US and Chinese entities including those relating to 5G technologies, surveillance, e-commerce, financial technology (e.g., digital currencies), telecommunication infrastructure, digital gadgets Artificial Intelligence, space technology and social media apps.
• Analysis of 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.
• Analysis of the link between US and Chinese technologies and their link to issues of peace and security in Africa.
• Collection and collation of views on African perspective on the differences between the US and China in the global governance of digital technologies.
• Exploration of the linkages between US and Chinese technologies and African non-state entities such as universities, the media, civil societies, etc., including social responsibility initiatives.
• Study US and Chinese linkages with African governments, regional economic communities, and continental bodies, particularly the African Union.

•   Activities

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 the US-China tech war on Africa”. Panellists drawn from the five regions of Africa, China, and the US, to 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.
• Publication on the following platforms: Good Governance Africa (Africa in Fact) in South Africa, Chinese in Africa Africans in China Research Network, the Africa-US Forum.
• The above-mentioned will be converted and published as a special journal issue in the following publications: The Digital Studies Journal (University of Johannesburg) and The African Governance Papers (Good Governance Africa, South Africa).
• Create an online portal where news and information on the US-China in Africa ICT issues will be published and archived.