The Look East policy which Africa as a continent embraced so tightly at the beginning of the 21st Century has a long and winding history. It is also very significant in explaining Africa’s pivotal position in international politics, with the ability to swing from West to East as the tides of world politics change.
The Look East Policy in Historical Perspective
If much of history has to be kept away, then the most important starting point for any discussion on the history of Africa’s look east policy would be the Cold War. This would also involve ignoring the epic journey of China’s General Zheng He to the east coast of Africa in the 15th century. China refuses to ignore this piece of history when drumming its historical ties with Africa. Beijing has recently signed an agreement with Kenya to search for wrecks of this ship.
Throughout the period between Zheng He’s explorations and the Cold War China explored trade possibilities with Africa and many Chinese migrated to eastern and Southern Africa. Even during the Cold War, China’s influence in the continent was still marginal as Russia was the more important eastern power in the continent, wrestling with another superpower – the United States. Look East was therefore more towards Russia.
It’s marginal influence notwithstanding, Beijing laid a solid foundation for what would later woo the entire continent. China exploited Africa’s grievances with former colonial powers in Europe and openly supported liberation movements in the continent. Chinese infrastructural projects in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s made a big difference; Beijing sent doctors and dished out aid in many forms, including the training of Africans in diverse fields. Africa started taking China seriously.
Significance of the Look East Policy
The Look East policy marks a significant revolution in African diplomacy. In every sense, it is a negative vote against any alliance with the West and a logical outcome of European mismanagement of Africa throughout the colonial period. For China, the Look East policy is both an opportunity and the fruit of seeds sowed in the second half of the 20th century when Africa was wrestling its way out of European grip.
How China makes use of this opportunity is now an issue of intense debate. Beijing insists that it is living up to its commitment to its “southern partner,” transforming the physical and economic landscape of the entire continent. These calls have, in many instances fallen on deaf ears as critics in the West consistently blame China supporting corrupt regimes in the continent. These voices have significantly toned down as the world looks to China for economic salvation.
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