Checkpoint Asia

China Built 70% of Africa’s Internet, and Lent the Capital to Do It

If the continent had to wait on western investors it would still be offline

“The moment the networks are up, they kick off a whole host of other economies”

The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has made huge inroads in Africa in recent years even as the United States urges its allies around the world to avoid working with the firm over cybersecurity concerns.

Huawei has built about 70 percent of the continent’s 4G networks, vastly outpacing European rivals, according to Cobus van Staden, a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. The construction is often accompanied by loans from Chinese state banks, which are approved faster and with fewer conditions than loans from international institutions.

While concerns about Huawei are shared by other countries around the world, in Africa they are largely overshadowed by the imperative for greater internet access. The continent is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and its population is expected to double by 2050.

“At least for the time being, Africa doesn’t have any other cost or competency alternatives,” [ie, the Europeans and the Americans won’t build at the same price, and certainly not on credit] said Howard French, who teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism and has been the New York Times bureau chief in West and Central Africa and in China.

The United States believes Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies that build critical infrastructure around the world might be installing so-called backdoors and using them to spy on behalf of the Chinese government. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened to withhold intelligence from countries that use Chinese networks. [With AFRICOM running 36 different military operations in Africa that is highly unlikely.]

Huawei’s founder has told the Wall Street Journal that his company has never spied for China. But some experts are skeptical.

“This idea that Huawei would never reveal anything to the Chinese state if asked is implausible because any Chinese company has to operate within the rules of the Chinese state,” said French, the author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

In January 2018, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that Beijing had bugged the headquarters of the African Union—whose construction was paid for and built by China. Every night for five years the entire contents of the building’s computer systems—which were installed by Huawei—were reportedly transferred to China. Microphones were found embedded in the desks and walls, according to the report. Both China and the African Union dismissed the allegations.

“Most policymakers and politicians in Africa, they don’t really care,” said Emeka Umejei, who teaches journalism at the American University of Nigeria. “Africa is a pawn on the global chessboard in the ongoing geopolitical context. Everybody spies on Africa,” he said.

David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, said that for many Africans, the suspicion is, “if the Americans are peddling this argument, they have their own vested interests.” [How common-sense of them.]

In Africa, where internet penetration lags behind the global average at 35.2 percent, Huawei’s compact rural cell towers have brought internet access to remote regions while the M-Pesa cellphone banking system, run on Huawei’s Mobile Money platform, has been lauded for helping millions in East Africa move into the formal financial system.

“The moment the networks are up, they kick off a whole host of other economies,” said van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Source: Foreign Policy