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Where Is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Headed Next?

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Where Is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Headed Next?

As FOCAC gears up for its eighth session, a look at its development so far and future trajectory.

Where Is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Headed Next?
Credit: Depositphotos

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has been one of the most striking comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnerships of the 21st century. Since its formation in 2000, FOCAC has proven to be an effective blueprint for interregional cooperation between China and all African nation-states except Eswatini, which continues to recognize Taiwan. FOCAC represents one of the earliest forum mechanisms for China’s regional multilateralism in the developing world. The triennial summit has become a major event in global politics since its inauguration, as it sets the tone for Sino-African relations in the contemporary era.

Sino-Africa relations have developed exponentially under the aegis of FOCAC. Data from the China-Africa Research Institute (CARI) at Johns Hopkins SAIS demonstrate that Chinese investment in Africa made up 3.7 percent of China’s global investment stock in 2015, larger than the same figure for the United States, where Africa constituted only 1.4 percent. China is also Africa’s biggest source of foreign direct investment – Chinese FDI to the continent surged from $75 million in 2003 to $4.2 billion in 2020. Moreover, China’s FDI flows to Africa have exceeded those from the United States since 2014. China’s direct investment in Africa hit $2.59 billion in the first nine months of 2021, up 9.9 percent year on year, as reported by Qian Keming, China’s vice minister of commerce. China-Africa trade has seen similar gains. According to CARI, China-Africa trade flows have steadily increased since 2000. The value of China-Africa trade in 2019 was $192 billion, up from $185 billion in 2018.

Between 2000 and 2015, China’s Exim Bank contributed $63 billion in concessional loans to Africa while the U.S. Exim Bank contributed only $1.7 billion. In addition, China Exim Bank contributed to almost all 54 African countries, while U.S. Exim Bank contributed to only five. Between 2013 and 2018, 45 percent of China’s foreign aid went to Africa.

What Next for FOCAC?

The forthcoming FOCAC Ministerial Forum, due to take place in Dakar, Senegal from November 29-30, finds a continent still in the grip of insecurity and political instability, but most importantly vulnerable to the present global pandemic and its economic aftershocks. Moreover, the Dakar forum – FOCAC 8 – takes place against the backdrop of an increasingly complex international environment marked by heightened tensions between major powers. Yet, the convening of its eighth edition of FOCAC reflects the broadening of the cooperative partnership between China and Africa, which now encompasses economic, cultural, security, diplomatic, technological and health cooperation. The partnership has contributed significantly to Africa’s accelerated growth, and the current circumstances offer an opportunity for reflections on its trajectory in the near to medium-term future.

The Dakar forum will look to build on both parties’ increasingly close economic and security relations over the last two decades. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin, the theme of FOCAC 2021 will be “Deepen China-Africa Partnership and Promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era.”

The onset of COVID-19 and China’s response ,through what is characterized as “pandemic diplomacy,” has boosted China’s image in an Africa seemingly abandoned by the West. Several African heads of state and governments have praised China’s pandemic assistance to Africa. Yet, the pandemic’s enduring effects on African populations’ social and economic well-being, coupled with the slow roll-out of Chinese vaccines across the continent, has proved to be a significant hurdle for “Big Brother” China in distributing public health goods. Thus far, China’s PPE diplomacy has proven to be more effective than its vaccine diplomacy.

At the eighth FOCAC, health cooperation will undoubtedly take the spotlight. The forthcoming “FOCAC Dakar Declaration” is expected to contain an unprecedented long-term mega public health package to support African states to alleviate the pandemic. It is important to note that Beijing has consistently maintained its commitment to delivering public health goods to Africa since the Mao era.

Since the pandemic outbreak, China and Africa have worked closely to contain the spread of COVID-19. As a result, China’s health outreach in Africa is in high gear. In May 2020, Xi Jinping pledged $2 billion in COVID-19 assistance to developing countries at the World Health Assembly (WHA). Furthermore, China has deployed 46 medical teams to Africa and established cooperation between Chinese hospitals and 30 African hospitals to facilitate knowledge transfer. Most significantly, Xi promised to assist the African Union in constructing the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters (Africa-CDC).

In addition to health cooperation, the post-pandemic recovery will be a major theme of FOCAC 8. Against the backdrop of the present economic downturn and uncertainties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, both sides are expected to adopt practical commitments to uplift Africa’s struggling economies and boost development aspirations in the region. Even though interregional trade has been steadily increasing for the past two decades, weak commodity prices have greatly impacted the value of African exports. There are huge productive capacity gaps in Africa’s industrial sectors. Africa has the lowest productivity growth rate among emerging economies, which impacts the cost of doing business and the lack of competitive markets in the region. FOCAC serves as an essential mechanism in enabling Africa’s industrial capacity and resilience in the face of an increasingly complex international economic system. Robust industrial capacity cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and greater cooperation in reconstructing African infrastructure and industrial development will lend new impetus to the win-win cooperation and common development between China and Africa.

Chris Alden, the director of LSE-IDEAS, argues that “the retooling of China’s special economic zones based in Africa to focus on domestic African markets, as well as the encouragement of agro-industrial processing, should feature in this potentially decisive phase in the continent’s development.” Accordingly, trade between China and Africa is integral to the newly enforced African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA and the BRI present a tremendous opportunity for further cooperation between Africa and China.

In an interview with Xinhua news in August 2021, AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy Amani Abou-Zeid stressed that FOCAC 8 comes at a critical time to spur Sino-Africa ties. Abdou-Zeid asserted, “The FOCAC this year… is critical and timely because all the events that happened last year since the eruption of the pandemic have also made us rethink our approaches, strategies, and our priorities for the coming years.” Abou-Zeid argued that infrastructure, energy, and digital economy are promising areas for strengthening Africa’s connectivity and integration, as well as boosting regional business. She also revealed that the AU Commission would put forward a proposal to establish a China-Africa infrastructure cooperation plan aligned to the AU’s Program for Infrastructure Development-Priority Action Plan (PIDA-PAP2) at this year’s FOCAC forum.

While pandemic countermeasures and post-COVID economic recovery are likely to dominate the agenda of the forthcoming FOCAC 8, security issues nonetheless still persist and remain a daunting problem in Africa. China has promised to step up military and security cooperation with Africa, including the promotion of political solutions to “hot spot issues” and the enhancement of peacekeeping and counterterrorism capacity.

Given the geopolitical struggle between extraregional actors such as China, the EU, United States, India, and Russia on the African continent, the question remains whether these powers will engage in a “zero-sum” competition for influence and access in Africa, or embrace the philosophy of shared interests and responsibilities. It is paramount for China, EU, the United States, and other stakeholders to understand that sustainable and inclusive security on the African continent is a positive-sum game. All parties should at least work together where their interests align.