Opinion & Analysis

Climate collaboration in multipolar times. The European Union and China as energy transition partners to African countries

The G7’s Just Energy Transition Partnership agreements with Senegal and South Africa aim to help these economies to become less carbon-intensive while creating new opportunities for cooperation, at a time when the rise of China and growing multipolarity are complicating Africa’s external relations.

On 25 October 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen convened the Global Gateway Forum with a call to action:

“The fate of present and future generations depends, more than ever before, on
the quality and quantity of the infrastructure that connects us all. Investment in
affordable, clean energy. Investment in digital infrastructure. Investment to
better equip our workers with skills that match the jobs of tomorrow.”

This call for renewed investment in the context of the European Union’s (EU) Global
Gateway happened a week after China reinvigorated its own global connectivity programme: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the Belt and Road Forum of 17 and 18 October 2023, clean energy took on an outsized significance. Citing “open, green and clean cooperation” as a core principle of the BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: “China will continue to deepen cooperation in areas such as green infrastructure, green energy and green transportation.”

A focus on green energy and digital connectivity was not the only similarity between the
speeches. Like von der Leyen, Xi focussed on future generations: “Let us advance modernization of all countries, build an open, inclusive and interconnected world for common development, and jointly build a community with a shared future for mankind.”

For both the EU and China, Africa represents these future generations’ yearning for development and the jobs of tomorrow. Africa’s demand for energy and its vulnerability to climate change are well-documented. What receives less focus is the continent’s emerging role in a global landscape defined by competition between the US-EU alliance and China. Africa is a key part of the Global South, the Group of 77, and what is becoming known as the New Non-Aligned Movement. The reality of this shift became clear during the 2022 United Nations (UN) vote on condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in which many African countries’ positions diverged from those of the United States and Europe, to the dismay of

While the vote was widely discussed as a landmark challenge to the Western coalition’s
unipolar ability to set global agendas, it was also arguably the result of years of building
alternative relationships with emerging global powers such as China. China’s setting up of engagement platforms such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, its rise as a global lender on par with the World Bank, its establishment of alternative institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and its encouragement of new multilateral groupings such as the BRICS group6 have all contributed to a new landscape in which African countries have more options for partners in development and strategy.

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About the Author:

Dr. Cobus van Staden is the managing editor at the China-Africa Project and a research affiliate at South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

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