China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

What’s at Stake for Africa in China’s 20th Party Congress?

For African governments, China’s party congress is about more than Xi Jinping.

What’s at Stake for Africa in China’s 20th Party Congress?
Credit: Pixabay

In just a few days, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will convene in Beijing to design the country’s trajectory for the coming five to 10 years as the party pursues its 2035 goals.

This year will witness the 20th National Party Congress, which many international commentators have viewed through the primary lens of who will be appointed to China’s top governing roles.  Some have even described the potential for 69-year-old Xi Jinping – general secretary of the Communist Party, president of the People’s Republic of China, and chairman of the Central Military Commission – to retain all three of his titles as a tragic error.

However, while controversial, the country’s internal political organization shouldn’t be the only or even primary question peppering discussions by African observers regarding the Party Congress.

Although African countries are, like others, bystanders in this event, many key plans and policies that will be decided at the congress may well influence Africa-China relations in future. And it is these policies that will matter most for African observers.

Specifically, there are three major issues that African governments should care about from the sessions.

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First, the apple of discord. This meeting is occurring at a period when China’s now unique zero-COVID policies and the housing market crisis are, according to the IMF, expected to put China’s economic growth behind the rest of the Asia-Pacific region for the first time in more than 30 years. Measures that ensure China’s growth and outward orientation resume and pick up will be crucial for African countries. Globally, China accounts for 12 percent of global trade, but that rate is even higher for many African countries, standing at an average of 35 percent as of 2021. China’s COVID restrictions, initially very helpful to global stability prior to vaccine deployment, have now prolonged inactivity in factories and warehouses and exacerbated container traffic leaving ports, leading freight costs to rise – costs that are passed onto consumers at the end of the supply chain.

While the trade value between African countries and China increased to $254 billion last year, through both Chinese exports to the continent and imports from African countries, there is room for more of the latter. In particular African students in China – who were expected to reach over 100,000 annually by now had there been no pandemic – still remain locked out. Limited flights from the continent have resumed, and while new flight paths opens this year, tickets remain expensive and quarantine processes from African destinations arduous and time-consuming. That makes it hard to justify even the most lucrative business and financing opportunities or most beautiful tourist destinations in both directions. More open and predictable supply chains, more demand for African products and more two-way people flows, will boost not just revenues but also keep inflation at bay, key for stable monetary policy in African countries.

Second, African observers should be focused on statements regarding China’s external economic and foreign policy – in particular links to lending through initiatives such as the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Having spent an estimated over $130 billion to respond to COVID-19 over the last two years, while facing diminished domestic economic activity and therefore government revenues, a number of African countries have begun to face a debt liquidity crisis, and the vast majority continue to face a long-term crisis of insufficient debt for development.

China has played a key role in addressing this debt gap to date. Most African countries have proactively sought out concessional loans from China – collectively estimated at around $160 billion over 20 years – to finance projects such as the construction of the longest bridge in Senegal, the Foundiougne Bridge, or the 3,800 km railway that runs from Kenya’s capital to its coast. Also, with 52 African countries signatories, the BRI has to some degree helped fast-track the implementation of African infrastructure and industrialization projects. While these are impressive results and the volumes may sound formidable, still the total amount of loans from China account for 8.7 percent of Africa’s total debt.

Nevertheless, both FOCAC and BRI have stimulated other countries, such as those in the G-7, to demonstrate their commitment to infrastructure overseas, espousing what African countries want – a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.

The question is, will China’s commitment continue? Whatever expectations China may have for its domestic growth, indicators of upward trends and proposed innovations from China to extend and deepen FOCAC and BRI’s impact will be keenly sought.

Third and finally, China’s views when it comes to multilateral reform should be a key area of analysis for Africans. 2022 marks 20 years since the African Union’s (AU) founding in 2002, when it succeeded its predecessor, the Organization for African Unity established in 1963. Hence, it was appropriate that in 2022 China lent support to strengthening African agency in global decision-making by announcing that it fully endorses the AU in becoming the 21st member of the G-20. This is a commendable step. However, African countries will likely want and need more reform to multilateral institutions over the coming five years and beyond. Indications from the Party Congress that China might back these reforms based on their objective merits and drawbacks, and China’s own experience of the “international rules-based order,” will be important to maintain African countries’ agency and ambitions.

For China, it seems likely at this stage that Xi will remain in power, though his leadership team will change and shift responsibilities. For African governments, however, continuity in China’s Africa policy and delivery may trump questions of governance.