Friend or Foe: Israeli and Chinese Involvement in Africa

 /  April 9, 2019, 7:44 p.m.


Recently, Africa has increasingly caught the attention of global investors, and so the enhancement of diplomatic relations with the continent has made its way onto the agenda of some national initiatives as well. While attempting to comprehend the purpose of these nations’ partnerships with Africa, there seems to be a tendency to draw a clear-cut distinction between economic and political motivations. However, a closer analysis demonstrates that the geopolitical agenda and economic interests are inseparable and always align with each other. In the case of China, it is evident that although the country has long emphasized economic profit on the basis of “non-interference policy” the nation’s geopolitical ambition is carried out via the deployment of peacekeeping forces in South Sudan. In the case of Israel, while the country’s partnership with Africa has long been perceived as a means to seek geopolitical support, its projects in Africa have actually become vital for its private industries and domestic entrepreneurship. It is evident that foreign operations should not be rigidly categorized as exclusively economically or politically driven but as the hybrid of both causes. Instead of examining the two cases independently, we can draw a comparison between the focused industries, actors, and geographical layout of their respective operations and analyze the possibility for potential competition in the future.

According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), locational distribution of Chinese investments in Africa differs from Israel’s. As implied by the Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, China’s investments are largely concentrated in Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, and Kenya. While the latter two countries are also involved in the MASHAV (Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation) projects, Israel pitched in projects in Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal, South Sudan, and Uganda, where Chinese presence is not prominent.

There are also differences between Israeli and Chinese economic approaches in Africa. Chinese investments mainly focus on traditional industries, such as infrastructure-building and energy. According to the Brookings Institution, China is currently backing two major standard-gauge rail projects: one is a line from Lagos to Kano and the other is a coastal railway from Lagos to Calabar, which may potentially improve the transport of oil (another key interest of China in Africa) in the Niger Delta region. On the energy front, Chinese investments mainly target traditional energy such as oil and gas, with steady growth in the promotion of renewable energy.

In contrast, Israel, famed as the “start-up nation,” aims to export innovative technologies. With Africa’s fast-growing economies, the need for these technologies has drastically increased. Unlike China’s specialization in infrastructure and energy, Israel and its expertise are to be involved in various fronts in the continent’s development, ranging from agriculture, health, to water, education, and clean energy. One significant example would be the Grand Challenges Israel (GCI), which is a part of a global program to support the employment of innovative technologies to promote public health and food security in developing countries. The project has attracted Israeli scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs with various expertise to tackle the latest challenges in agriculture, water management, food security, and health.

It is important to point out that the participants in the two nations’ initiatives are also drastically different. While Chinese projects are mainly governmental projects conducted by state-owned corporates, Israeli projects rely more on private companies led by entrepreneurs and non-profit organizations. Naturally, the identification of the direct players would lead to the investigation of the motivation and driving force behind these foreign investments.

The core of this question lies in the fact that the two states both operate on the basis of a combination of economic motivation and political strategic, a fine line between geopolitical agenda and economic interests. These two areas seem to be inseparable in China and Israel’s respective operations. In the case of China, the public perception has been somewhat stuck with the branding of “non-political engagement,” which means that Chinese investments generally do not come with political attachments as long as they generate mutual economic benefits. However, if one takes a closer look at the distribution of Chinese peacekeeping missions in Africa, this general impression may seem outdated. According to China News, the majority of Chinese peacekeeping personnel are deployed in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mali. While many may argue that the Chinese peacekeeping missions aim to further promote and protect sites of Chinese economic engagement in Africa, the areas of its troop deployment do not map onto the locational distribution of its investments, as suggested by the aforementioned AEI report. Moreover, the fact that African political instability has profound economic roots affirms the dualistic nature of China’s engagement in Africa. As observed by the Crisis Group, “the Chinese state could use its unique capacity to direct assistance, investments, and loans to ensure they spread their benefits more widely, promote employment and corporate social responsibility” as a means to promote stability.

While Chinese political involvement in Africa is overlooked, the Israeli campaigns’ economic engagement has also not been closely examined. While many see the collaborations with Africa as Israel’s method of seeking geopolitical support, these diplomatic relationships have a tremendously positive impact on its private sectors and the boost of innovative entrepreneurship. As a matter of fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the Israeli private companies are the driving force behind the exported technological support. For example, African water management projects are mainly conducted by Waterways, a channel for Africans to access Israeli technology; SunDWater, which cleans water in off-grid locations using condensation made from solar rays; as well as Tahal and Anyway Solutions, global leaders in providing soil stabilization products to the infrastructure and development sectors, according to Israel 21c. On many fronts, it almost seems like the private companies are able to bypass the government and directly engage in local African markets. This means that the generated profits are destined to flow into the Israeli domestic economy, creating a sphere of influence parallel withindependent from the geopolitical one. Thus, the geopolitical needs and economic driving forces are inseparable in the case of Israel.

Overall, a few differences overpower commonalities in Israel and China’s business approaches in Africa. There are no significant geographic overlaps between Israeli and Chinese investments, which makes any impending competition unlikely. The two countries have distributed their resources based on their individual strength, with China more specialized in the traditional industries, such as infrastructure, oil, and gas, while Israel seeks to satisfy the needs of African development with innovative options in a more diversified range of societal sectors. However, the two do share a common ground in the sense that there is no clear-cut between their economic profits and geopolitical agenda. As their efforts progress, it has become increasingly evident that Israel and China’s investments will impact the economy and geopolitics simultaneously, both in the domestic sphere and in Africa.

Since China and Israel have developed their respective strategies based on their individual strengths, the emergence of an immediate competition in Africa seems unlikely. However, the issue of renewable energy may be an exception to the status quo. While Israel focuses on the market of clean energy, China is also increasing its investments in the field. According to the Brookings Institution, China has started promoting hydropower in addition to oil and gas. Moreover, China is one of the leading investors in renewable energy on a global scale, having invested $3 in renewable energy for every dollar the United States invested. It’s likely that China and Israel may have to confront each other in competition for the African energy market as China diversifies and innovates its energy technologies as well as further advances its clean energy initiatives.

Valerie Zhu

Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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