Centring changes in economic balances

2017-09-03 06:02

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What happens to geopolitics when economic balances change between neighbours and between regions?

Does the emergence of rising powers and dislocation of incumbents matter in the development trajectories of countries and regions?

In contemporary Africa, what happens if the economic balance changes between Nigeria, South Africa and other countries; and how will regional politics be affected?

These and other questions are what inspired the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection (Mistra) to undertake a macro-analysis of what can be referred to as changing economic balances in Africa.

Often, the phenomenon of changing economic balances receives little or no attention on the continent. The reasons for this are not difficult to see.

For the longest time, the reality of changing economic balances and their implications for geopolitics has largely been assumed to be a concern of big powers.

That’s if one takes the pessimistic view of Africa as the periphery.

Secondly, the phenomenon of changing economic balances often takes longer periods to become apparent due to its systemic nature.

It can span a generation or more.

Thirdly, South Africa has remained the biggest economy on the continent for a long time.

And lastly, interstate conflict has almost disappeared entirely, instead more peace efforts and integration are apace.

But in recent times, given the changing nature of the fortunes of what we refer to as “anchor states”, can intellectual enquiry into the phenomenon be postponed or neglected any further?

In 2014 Nigeria rebased its GDP numbers and thus became the largest economy in Africa.

A year or so later, it was claimed that Egypt had also overtaken South Africa into second position.

And the picture keeps changing with the gyrations in these countries’ currency values.

The same dynamic is playing out within and across the subregions.

Mixed fortunes

Historically, as our study shows, “the tendency is that as states achieve a higher level of economic growth and production improves, they also acquire new capabilities in the political, social and often cultural fronts, too”.

After all, all states build their global pre-eminence on the basis of strong economies.

Attached to this is the quest for prestige and influence, both of which can be psychological outcomes of economic progress and strength, real or perceived.

The record shows that a country’s self-perception, self-projection and sense of prestige can be affected by its newly found status and capabilities and thus impact on the quality of relations with others.

In some instances, these changes can express themselves through competition for regional and overseas markets and even imperial dominion over territory, as was the case in Europe with the 19th century Scramble for Africa.

Today, the rebalancing of power between Japan and China finds expression in claims and counterclaims over the islands in the south and east China seas.

In the context of Africa, changing economic balances – as the study shows – have mixed fortunes for the continent. Using various data and matrices, the study makes the following findings among others:

- While historically, material capabilities could be used to demonstrate the influence that countries sought to exercise over one another, recent experiences in Africa have shown that those can be harnessed for common benefit.

For instance, cooperation among the “regional anchors” during the 2000s was critical in the fashioning of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

- The inverse also applies in the sense that it is during periods when cooperation among the “regional anchors” slackens that Africa is disadvantaged.

For instance, Egypt has always maintained a sizeable military capability, and the military relationship it enjoys with the US is informed by the perceived strategic importance of the country in the region.

- The tensions around claims of access and use of the Nile River are quite a strategic concern as power balances change in the north, central and eastern subregions of the continent where Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are key poles of power.

And so, if left unchecked, changes in economic balances can lead to disaster for both rising and declining powers.

In the study, we prefer the phrase “anchor states” to denote the positive role of regional states with larger economies and capabilities to underline the role they can play in pursuit of the greater goals of peace and stability, mutual benefits in healthy competition, trade and integration.

In this way, what has the potential to become a disadvantage can be turned into a boon.

David Maimela is a researcher at Mistra and was the project leader for the study.

For more, visit mistra.org.za.

Changing Economic Balances and Integration in ‘Africa Rising’ will be launched on September 5 at 6.30pm at Unisa’s Kwame Nkrumah Hall

Read more on:    economy

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