Africa Watch

Africa-Chinese relations scale new heights

China-Africa.jpg

The Johannesburg summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was hailed as a rousing triumph, recommitting China as Africa’s best friend. But ultimate success will depend on effective implementation and monitoring of its action plan.

The two-day summit last weekend, themed “Africa-China Progressing Together: Win-Win Cooperation for Common Development”, was arguably the most important single event for Africa in 2015. It delivered a blueprint, called the Johannesburg Action Plan, for future Africa-China co-operation.

It took place against the background of an Africa-China relationship that has improved rapidly since the first FOCAC summit in Beijing in 2000.

China has been Africa's largest trade partner for six consecutive years. In 2014 China-Africa trade exceeded $220 billion and China’s direct investment in Africa surpassed $30 billion, an increase of 22 and 60 times respectively over the figures of 2000.

Data also shows that there are more than 3 000 Chinese companies operating in Africa and China’s share of Africa’s total foreign trade has increased from 3.8% to 20.5%.

Lesser-known military involvement

Perhaps less well known are China’s recent moves to help improve peace and stability in Africa.

Although calculated and cautious, it represents a significant, unmistakable deviation from Beijing’s conventional policy not to get involved in the internal affairs of partners – a stand often criticised, particularly in the West.

China’s recent stronger military interest and involvement in Africa prompted commentators to support the notion, “that a desire to protect economic investment is leading to a revision of the country’s hands-off approach to the internal affairs of other nations”.

The new approach also helps China counter questions about its commitment to Africa’s long-term development and to offset criticism that its only interest remains plundering Africa’s raw materials.   

Fact is, of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China has by far the largest number of peace-keeping staff to Africa – 30 000. To date, China has participated in 16 UN peace-keeping operations in Africa.

For the first time ever Beijing recently attached an infantry battalion to a UN peacekeeping operation in South Sudan. Officially it was explained as a logical development under the FOCAC framework’s ‘Initiative on China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security’.

But some commentators interpret it as a subtle warning by Beijing that the safety of its citizens and interests in South Sudan is to be respected and recognised.

Probably similar logic played a role in the decision to develop a maritime base in Djibouti where France,  Japan  and particularly the USA, have already established  military bases and exhibit a significant physical military presence.  

The Chinese Navy has also played a major role in curtailing piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the waters around the Horn of Africa, successfully escorting over 6 000 Chinese and foreign ships.

Earlier this year President Xi Jinping announced $100 million of free Chinese military aid to the African Union (AU) to establish an African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis, tasked with maintaining stability on the continent. 

China’s financial contribution is of critical importance in empowering Africa to solve its own crises through a rapid response capability.

It has been a burning desire among African leaders to be able to address the continent’s security issues without external assistance, particularly from former colonial powers. The belief is that the Chinese contribution will go a long way to reach this goal.

Beijing’s motive is not just altruistic. On the contrary – there are vested interests that need protection. It seeks to protect its interests in African conflict zones and its investments in major development and infrastructure projects across the continent. Stabilisation of the continent is key to the success of the investments China is making on an unequalled scale.

Economic pressure

The Johannesburg summit also took place against the backdrop of a wilting Chinese economy described as “the new normal” in an admittance by Beijing that its spectacular economic growth in recent years is, for now, a thing of the past.

The Chinese economic slowdown is hurting many African economies as China’s quest for raw material has dropped significantly.

Seeking raw material for its once-booming economy, China has poured investment into Africa and became its largest trade partner in 2009, but trade dropped by more than 40% in the first half of 2015.   

Reassurance

The summit provided China with the opportunity to reassure Africa that, despite its economic downturn, it still views its relationship with Africa as of long-term importance.

In the run-up to the summit, senior Chinese officials and ministers went out of their way to convey the message that China is considering Africa a priority ally and it will not be let down when President Xi Jinping unveils Beijing’s planned aid package.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi promised that the summit would be a “pace setter in co-operation and a model of South-South co-operation”.

China’s ambassador to Kenya, in an article in a Kenyan newspaper, wrote: “The FOCOC Johannesburg Summit will come up with new measures for China-Africa cooperation. China will fully leverage the advantages of China-Africa political mutual trust and economic complementarity, and help Africa break the two development bottlenecks of underdeveloped infrastructure and lack of human resources.”

He also said “China will strengthen cooperation in the five key areas of industrialization, agriculture modernization, healthcare, cultural and people-to-people exchanges and peace and security”.

It was just about a preview of President Xi Jinping’s address at the summit, telling 35 African heads of state that China will render assistance to Africa to the tune of $60 billion, spread over three years, to help with the development of the continent.

It will focus on ten areas, from industrialisation and agricultural modernisation to trade and investment facilitation, people-to-people and cultural exchanges‚ and peace and security.

Also included in the package are scholarships and training for thousands of Africans, to address one of Africa’s biggest challenges, youth unemployment.

President Xi Jinping, in a well-received remark, said the momentum of rapid growth in Africa was “unstoppable”.

His remark is, however, challenged by the July 2015 IMF projection that economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa has slowed down to 3.8% this year, the slowest since 1999 and slower than during the global financial crisis.

However, since 2000’s first FOCAC summit in Beijing, the economy of sub-Saharan Africa did double in size in all but 10 of Africa’s 45 countries and GDP is likely to rise this year. China’s contribution in this regard cannot be ignored.

Reaction

Predictably, Africa’s reaction to China’s aid package was euphoric and jubilant.

President Zuma said: “It clearly illustrates China’s commitment to ensure that its development takes place in conjunction with the developing countries of the South‚ particularly those in Africa”.

Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies said the aid package was “pressing all the buttons which Africa wants pressed … investment, industrialisation and modernising agriculture. The Chinese deliver what they promise. And in some areas they over-deliver”.

International Relations and Co-operation Department director-general, Jerry Matjila, clearly overjoyed by the outcome of the summit, exulted: “What a Christmas, it's raining. And now we see it pours billions of dollars.”

Among all this clamour and excitement President Zuma’s concluding remarks at the summit contained sound advice: “Our implementation mechanisms should ensure that we see swift action and that an effective monitoring and evaluation is undertaken.”

by Garth Cilliers

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