China and Africa deepen relations at FOCAC

China and Africa deepen relations at FOCAC

Only time will tell if China-Africa forum initiatives will mirror the theme of a ‘Win-Win Cooperation.’

This year’s sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 4-5, promoted the theme of ‘Africa-China Progressing Together: Win-Win Cooperation for Common Development’.

Over 40 heads of state and dignitaries were in attendance as the forum symbolized the vigorous and expanding relations between China and Africa, particularly since 2009. As central as this forum is to China-Africa partnership in the long term, it takes place among the immediate challenges of dropping commodity prices and China’s slowing economy.

Major outcomes

China has demonstrated its commitment to the African continent in a major way, as it has earmarked $60 billion over the next three years in an effort to address some of the core issues arresting African development.

China’s President Xi Jinping outlined strategic areas that will receive this funding under what he called the ‘10 cooperation plans’ with Africa. A few of those areas are infrastructure, agriculture modernization, poverty reduction and security. President Xi Jinping pledged to cancel outstanding debts on bilateral zero-interest loans borrowed by low-income African countries.

China is also placing a particular emphasis on human development and capacity through the establishment of regional vocational education centers to train 200,000 technical personnel; sponsored study trips for 500 young Africans to China; media training for 1,000 professionals from Africa; and 30,000 government scholarships.

Sino-African relations

China has had an evolving trade relationship with Africa since at least the 2nd century BC. There is even evidence of Chinese silk from Egypt’s twenty-first dynasty (1070-954 BC), when remnants of silk fabric (China being the lone silk producer at the time) were found while studying a female corpse in 1993.

During the Cold War, China-Africa relations were centered more on Communist ideology, which served as the primary motivator for trade. China provided political and military support for African liberation movements in Algeria, Mozambique, and Angola as well as infrastructure projects such as the TAZARA Railway linking Zambia and Tanzania.

China’s interest in Africa waned during the 1980s and was revived in the 1990s when China’s President Jiang Zemin put forward his “Five Points Proposal”–a long-term scheme for a more structured cooperative relationship–in an address to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). This set the stage for the Forum for FOCAC 2000 in Beijing and the FOCAC 2015 in Johannesburg.

The core principles of China’s foreign policy with African nations are that of non-interference and non-conditional aid, as it pertains to governance. As President Xi Jinping stated in his opening remarks, “Africa belongs to African people and African affairs should be handled by African people.” However, he did emphasize the need for capacity building and people-to-people exchanges as a way to use human-institutional resources to support sustainable peace and an optimum business climate.

Big investments and closer ties

Over the past decade, China has come bearing gifts like no other trading partner on the African continent. Its massive spending has secured deep strategic, economic and political partnerships with some of the largest and most resource-rich African countries.

China may not have been as interested in Nigerian crude oil as India, but its glaring presence within Africa’s largest economy, from basic consumer goods to the large scale infrastructure, is pervasive.

The China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd. (CRCC) secured a contract with the Nigerian government last year worth $12 billion to build a railway line that will link Lagos to Calabar. The project is estimated to create 200,000 local jobs during construction and up to 30,000 permanent jobs once operational. Bilateral trade volume between China and Nigeria has risen to about $23.5 billion in 2015 from $3.4 billion in 2009. And not only infrastructure deals and a vibrant consumer market are deepening the ties between these two; China also has a keen interest in security, as Chinese workers have been targeted by Boko Haram.

In September of this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, “Ethiopia is a priority partner for China.” China signed five cooperation deals from technology to aviation with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The crowning jewel thus far is the Chinese-funded $475 million urban light rail that has slashed travel time for commuters across 34 kilometers (21.1 miles) of lines through the Addis Ababa. It is the first light rail in sub-Saharan Africa.

In July of this year, Angola’s President Jose Eduardo visited China seeking non-oil deals, and later in the year ramped up diamond output in the face of tumbling oil prices and China’s economic slump.  Despite its reduced demand for extractive resources, China remains committed to Angola. It continues to build Angola’s war-ravaged infrastructure, provide huge loans to keep Angola’s struggling economy stable, and match Angola’s combined trade with its next 10 biggest partners.

What’s next?

Going forward, China’s pledge of $60 billion to Africa’s development is not all aid, but rather a combination ranging from export credit to concessional loans. As President Xi did not mention any timelines, we can assume this will take some time to roll out, particularly for projects like vocational educational centers.

Currently, China is Africa’s largest trading partner but the reverse is not true. With that being said, we can expect African countries to start encouraging manufacturers to invest locally, transfer technology, and employ local staff the way Ethiopia is trying to do.

A more security-focused China is on the horizon. In an effort to protect its investments, China has pledged $100 million over the next five years to support the African Standby Force and will contribute 8,000 troops to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and other hotspots around the globe. It will also establish China’s first overseas military installation in Djibouti.

The FOCAC summit is a great culmination of China-Africa relationship building, but time will only tell if the initiatives will mirror the theme of a ‘Win-Win Cooperation.’

About Author

Adolphus Washington

Adolphus Washington is a political researcher and writer with specific expertise in sub-Saharan African Affairs. Previously he has worked with GIABA, International Alert and a number of other international organizations. He holds an MSc in African Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies.