A new Silk Road running between China and Africa promises a boost in trade for Beijing. Long focused on commercial activities, the Chinese government is now expanding its remit to bolster military relations and pursue subtler, soft-power strategies across the continent. But, as the U.S. retreats, what tools will Beijing use—and should the West be worried? The Communist party wants to redefine its military engagement with countries across Africa and expand its power-projection capabilities. As part of this initiative, China invited top brass from 50 African nations last month to attend an inaugural “Defense and Security Forum”. From counter-piracy to counter-terrorism, China has vowed to provide these countries with "comprehensive support", including equipment, personnel and tech. One goal is to ensure the security of Chinese business interests in Africa, where President Xi Jinping’s government is entrenched as a crucial investor and trade partner. Between 2012 and 2016, China’s foreign investment in Africa more than doubled, from around $40 billion to $90 billion. Beijing has positioned the Suez Canal into its Belt and Road Initiative—President Xi’s multi-billion-dollar trade project building roads and railways to connect China with markets in Africa and Europe. China’s military footprint is at its most visible in Djibouti, a small country with a strategic location in the Horn of Africa, allowing it to punch above its weight. There, the U.S. has its only permanent military base on the continent, stationing 4,000 soldiers at Camp Lemonnier—a launch pad for operations in Yemen and Somalia. Last August, the Chinese military opened its first overseas base in the country, which overlooks the Gulf of Aden, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. This development prompted concerns in Washington—and allegations that Chinese troops there were blinding U.S. Air Force pilots with lasers haven’t helped matters. There is talk of building a new massive dock there, which could accommodate Chinese destroyers and supply ships. Djibouti has hosted numerous Chinese infrastructure projects, including the first electric transnational railway in Africa and plans for a $4-billion natural gas deal. Beijing watchers say China’s activities in Djibouti are a blend of commercial and military interests—a model that the Far Eastern powerhouse may replicate elsewhere. This next port of call could be a paradise archipelago off the continent's western gulf. At the end of a recent trip to Africa, China's Foreign Minister visited Sao Tome and Principe. This tiny island nation is tipped to be a strategic transport hub for Beijing, which has reportedly pledged tens of millions of dollars to revamp its international airport and construct a deep-sea container port. Far away from this tropical oasis, the Chinese military has benefited from experiences gained in African conflict zones. During the Libyan civil war in 2011, China dispatched a warship to oversee the evacuation of 35,000 Chinese. A similar operation took place in Yemen in 2015 involving a Chinese frigate. Outside of these theatres, China has enjoyed growing arms exports with African clients, having signed off $3-billion worth of weapon deals to the continent. Since 2013, such exports have increased 55% compared to the previous five-year period. Beijing is behind more than a quarter of all arms exports to Sub-Saharan Africa and scatters its deliveries across a wider area than its American and Russian competitors. But this comes at a price. There are regular reports of Chinese weapons ending up in the hands of combatants fighting in vicious conflicts—from the DRC to Somalia and Sudan—as well as in the armories of governments accused of human-rights violations. There's another reason why China must be cautious about overly muscular activities; America’s post-9/11, increasingly-militarized relationship with Africa is, for some, an antagonistic presence that has dented ties (highlighted by protests against bases and deployments in Cameroon, Liberia, Niger and beyond). But China’s ever-growing influence is not limited to hard power. Softer approaches draw on less tangible resources to further its interests. For example, Beijing gives money to African Union peacekeeping forces while its own soldiers swell the ranks of UN “blue helmets”. Out of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members, China has become the biggest contributor of peacekeepers, most notably in Mali and South Sudan. This increased involvement reflects China’s desire for a more hands-on approach in foreign policy, helping Beijing enhance its image as a responsible great power in the developing world. Beyond China’s participation in UN initiatives, the silver screen is an unlikely area of opportunity. China is funding movies to build influence and rival Hollywood’s global popularity, while Chinese conglomerates develop ties with U.S. movie moguls. In 2016, Wanda Group—a massive, Chinese cinema chain operator—acquired Legendary Pictures, a major American film studio. In addition, China and Africa have established a shared film festival, while South Africa this month hosts the upcoming BRICS Film Festival, drawing talent from across emerging markets. Beijing is also awarding scholarships to film-makers in South Africa; China now beats the U.S. and EU as the primary destination for Anglophone-African students. President Xi has encouraged Chinese media to promote positive stories and project China’s voice across the world stage. From China Global Television Network to English-language newspaper China Daily, Beijing-friendly outlets have expanded into Africa as part of the battle to win hearts and minds. China is also providing inexpensive TV service providers and telecommunications gear for greater mobile access. The Chinese state hails its ‘Belt and Road’ hyper-project as a boon for trade and development. But critics warn of “debtbook diplomacy”. Eye-watering loans funding this ambitious project could create debt problems for countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. More lending means more leverage. If countries struggle with repayment, China could reap strategic assets and political sway as recompense, to the detriment of U.S. foreign policy. Back in Djibouti—that unlikely geostrategic hotspot—the long-term proximity of U.S. and Chinese bases is unprecedented for the two powers. As Beijing flexes its muscles and prepares to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2030, expect more stand-offs to come.

But it’s difficult to think about value when we have no buoy for understanding it outside our traditional lenses: for example, our time, our job, and what others tell us they are worth in cash. This, largely, is the world’s paradigm for value so far. But understanding what value really means changes everything—and will be at the center of the decentralized revolution in global coordination that will unfold over the next decade. So, where do we begin?

Let’s start with gold.

Gold is an inherent value. When backing a market, gold allows us to grow a balanced economy well into the trillions. But why does it allow for massive stable markets to form around it? It is gold's permanence that creates stability. We understand that gold will always have value, because it is inherent in all of us, not just in one part of the world, but everywhere, not just today, but tomorrow and for the long haul.

In the 1930s when the gold standard was removed, we learned that the U.S. dollar didn’t need gold to back its economy to flourish. We learned that it was just a symbol for U.S. citizens to decentralize their coordination around the United States economy.

It turns out, common agreement is a philosophy for building shared economy.

And so it seems inherent value is a marker for us to begin exploring what the future could look like—a future beyond gold and the existing realm of credit. And so what else has inherent value? Is education as valuable as gold? What about healthcare? What about a vote that can’t be tampered with? What about an ID that can’t be stolen or erased? What about access to nutrition or clean water? You will find value everywhere you look.

It turns out, we’ve already done the legwork necessary to uncover the most elemental inherent values: The Sustainable Development Goals are commitments grown out of the drive to bring to life basic tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the closest possible social contract we have to a global, common agreement.

We’ve already agreed, as a global community, to ensure inclusive and equitable access to quality education. We’ve already agreed to empower all women and girls, to ensure pure and clean water access for all, to promote health at all stages of life, and to end hunger.

We’ve already agreed.

Our agreements are grounded in deep value centers that are globally shared, but undervalued and unfulfilled. The reason for this is our inability to quantify intangible value. All of these rich, inherent values are still nebulous and fragmented in implementation—largely existing as ideals and blueprints for deep, globally shared common agreement. That is, we all agree education, health, and equality have value, but we lack common units for understanding who and who is not contributing value—leaving us to fumble in our own, uncoordinated siloes as we chase the phantoms of impact. In essence, we lack common currencies for our common agreements.

Now we find ourselves at the nexus of the real paradigm of Blockchain, allowing us to fuse economics with inherent value by proving the participation of some great human effort, then quantifying the impact of that effort in unforgeable and decentralized ledgers. It allows us to build economic models for tomorrow, that create wholly new markets and economies for and around each of the richest of human endeavors.

In late 2017 at the height of the Bitcoin bubble, without individual coordination, planning, or the help of institutions, almost $1 trillion was infused into blockchain markets. This is remarkable, and the revolution has only just begun. When you realize that Blockchain is in a similar stage of development as the internet pre-AOL, you will see a glimpse of the global transformation to come.

Only twice in the information age have we had such a paradigm shift in global infrastructure reform—the computer and the internet. While the computer taught us how to store and process data, the Internet built off that ability and furthered the conversation by teaching us how to transfer that information. Blockchain takes another massive step forward—it builds off the internet, adding to the story of information storage and transfer—but, it teaches us a new, priceless and not yet understood skill: how to transfer value.

This third wave kicked off with a rough start—as happens with the birth of new technologies and their corresponding liberties. Blockchain has, thus far, been totally unregulated. Many, doubtless, have taken advantage. A young child, stretching their arms for the first couple times might knock over a cookie jar or two. Eventually, however, they learn to use their faculties—for evil or for good. As such, while it’s wise to be skeptical at this phase in blockchain’s evolution, it’s important not to be blind to its remarkable implications in a post-regulated world, so that we may wield its faculties like a surgeon’s scalpel—not for evil or snake-oil sales, but for the creation of more good, for the flourishing of commonwealth.

But what of the volatility in blockchain markets? People agree Bitcoin has value, but they don’t understand why they are in agreement, and so cryptomarkets fluctuate violently.  Stable blockchain economies will require new symbolic gold standards that clearly articulate why someone would agree to support each market, to anchor common agreement with stability. The more globally shared these new value standards, the better.

Is education more valuable than gold? What about healthcare or nutrition or clean water?

We set out in 2018 to prove a hypothesis—we believe that if you back a cryptocurrency economy with a globally agreed upon inherent value like education, you can solve for volatility and stabilize a mature long lasting cryptomarket that awards everyone who adds value to that market in a decentralized way without the friction of individual partnerships.

What if education was a new gold standard?

And what if this new Learning Economy had protocols to award everyone who is helping to steward the growth of global education?

Education is a mountain. Everyone takes a different path to the top. Blockchain allows us to measure all of those unique learning pathways, online and in classrooms, into immutable blockchain Learning Ledgers.

By quantifying the true value of education, a whole economy can be built around it to pay students to learn, educators to create substantive courses, and stewards to help the Learning Economy grow. It was designed to provide a decentralized way for everyone adding value to global education to coordinate around the commonwealth without the friction of individual partnerships. Imagine the same for healthcare, nutrition, and our environment?

Imagine a world where we can pay refugees to learn languages as they find themselves in foreign lands, a world where we can pay those laid off by the tide of automation to retrain themselves for the new economy, a world where we can pay the next generation to prepare themselves for the unsolved problems of tomorrow.

Imagine new commonwealth economies that alleviate the global burdens of poverty, disease, hunger, inequality, ignorance, toxic water, and joblessness. Commonwealths that orbit inherent values, upheld by immutable blockchain protocols that reward anyone in the ecosystem stewarding the economy—whether that means feeding the hungry, providing aid for the global poor, delivering mosquito nets in malaria-ridden areas, or developing transformative technologies that can provide a Harvard-class education to anyone in the world willing to learn.

These worlds are not out of reach—we are only now opening our eyes to the horizons of blockchain, decentralized coordination, and new gold standards. Even though coordination is the last of the seventeen sustainable development goals, when solved, its tide will lift for the rest—a much-needed rocket fuel for global prosperity.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.”  —George Washington
Uju Okoye
Uju Okoye is Diplomatic Courier's Africa Correspondent.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.