500-year trade cycles
I blogged at the start of the month on Martin Jacques’ observation on the extent to which China was now more significant than the US in the politics of Asia in all aspects other than military. Since then, I’ve noticed a post on the IFTF blog which argued that as China and India become the dominant trading partners across Africa and Asia that we are reverting to the trading patterns seen before European colonisation.
The IFTF blog picked up on an article by Gregg Zachary in Project Syndicate on what he called “the browning of African technology”:
Africa boasts the world’s fastest-growing market for wireless telephony, and [Chinese telecoms equipment company] Huawei – with offices in 14 African countries – is running away with the business … Huawei is outpacing American and European rivals through lower prices, faster action, and a greater willingness to work in difficult environments. According to Chris Lundh, the American chief of Rwandatel, “That’s the way things work in Africa now. The Chinese do it all.”
Well, not quite. Across sub-Saharan Africa, engineers from India – armed with appropriate technologies honed in their home market – are also making their mark. India supplies Africa with computer-education courses, the most reliable water pumps, low-cost rice-milling equipment, and dozens of other technologies.
The sudden influx of Chinese and Indian technologies represents the “browning” of African technology, which has long been the domain of “white” Americans and Europeans who want to apply their saving hand to African problems.
“It is a tectonic shift to the East with shattering implications,” says Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor at Harvard University who advises the African Union on technology policy.
Zachary’s article makes some interesting points about the shifts in higher education – talented Africans are now as likely to find themselves studying in Beijing as Boston – and in the way that appropriate technology is more likely to emerge from India than Indiana, or come to that, from MIT.
As the IFTF noted, this is, in historical terms, a long swing:
In a way, you can see this as the reconstruction of a set of trade networks– trade in resources, ideas, and people– that connected east Africa, the Middle East, and south Asia for centuries. These networks were disrupted by Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and eventually British merchants starting in the 1500s … Now, with the end of colonialism and the rise of India and China as countries seen as offering technical expertise equivalent to the West, those networks are reasserting themselves.
Zachary’s piece, they say, has been widely republished in Asian papers, but hardly at all in the US.