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A New Era of China-Africa Relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping (on the screen) delivers his speech during the China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Dakar, Senegal, on November 29, 2021. SEYLLOU / AFP

By Chris Alden, Hugo Jones, and Lukas Fiala, China Foresight LSE IDEAS

As the haze lifts from Dakar, international observers are trying to understand what the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) means for the future of Africa-China relations as well as China’s broader ambitions in the Global South. For a meeting that can tell us much about China’s growing global role in a post-pandemic world, media coverage of FOCAC remained relatively muted across major Western publications. As we argued last week, FOCAC represented an ideal opportunity for Beijing to frame China as a different great power in Africa – one that is qualitatively different to European and American counterparts.

The provision of a huge number of vaccines to African countries – one billion in total – was a significant, if expected, grand announcement. Developed countries, entering another winter and facing an unknown variant, are almost certainly going to become more frugal in their supplying of vaccines to the global south (despite calls to recognize this poor causal logic). Just this week, a joint statement from the African Union, the Africa CDC, the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AFAT) and COVAX, lamented that ‘…the majority of [vaccine] donations have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives.’

As such China’s vaccines will not only help the African Union meet its target of inoculating 70% of the continent’s population by the end of 2022 but set an important normative yardstick of what other rich countries can and should do to alleviate the pandemic outside their own borders. FOCAC shows that health diplomacy is an area where China can easily build its profile as a responsible great power that provides public goods in times when Western counterparts seem unwilling to do so. Ensuring timely delivery and assistance with adequate storage and distribution facilities, for instance, should be at the heart of sustainable vaccine assistance in Africa.

The unprecedented Declaration on Climate Change Cooperation advanced an Africa-China action plan and high-level forum on climate change ‘under the frameworks of South-South cooperation and the Belt Road Initiative’. And point seven of the FOCAC action plan reiterates China’s continued support for environmental initiatives and knowledge sharing. At the same time, a greater overall focus on biodiversity protection and climate solutions might have been expected at the forum on the heels of COP15 and COP26. Beyond saying that China will ‘step up [its] support’, we have not seen a firm commitment to a radical shift towards green financing in material terms. If China’s coal pledge in September really has its promised effect then this is certainly a policy area that African countries need clarity on to compensate for any potential shortfall in funding.

Overall, the latest FOCAC ministerial meeting provides a vision for the next stage in the relationship between China and Africa. Most notable is the focus on agricultural development and trade, the expansion of industrial parks as well as the digital economy. The absence of a big-ticket announcement on mega-infrastructure projects – so much the focus in the previous two FOCAC summits – is notable as is the $20 billion reduction in development finance.  If one ties this to the announcement on debt provisions on offer from Beijing and the ongoing payments crisis experienced by some African governments, it explains the changes in tone and content at this FOCAC.

Yet we should avoid jumping to broad conclusions about China either pulling back or doubling down in Africa based on the initial figures and initiatives that have been announced. The figure of $40 billion is widely being interpreted as a sign of Beijing’s greater caution, but others have pointed out that you can reach $60 billion if each donated Sinopharm dose is priced at $33 (as it is in Hungary). And as Cobus wrote on Wednesday, the notion that $40 billion of funding can be seen as a reduction reiterates just how huge China’s role in Africa has become.

Meeting Tunisian Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi on Monday, Wang Yi made a point of saying: ‘the judgment on whether a country is democratic or not should be made by its people, not by the handful of foreign countries.’ 37 African countries are not invited to the U.S. Democracy Summit next week, including Tunisia which invoked emergency powers and suspended its parliament in July 2021. But do Wang’s comments on democracy in Africa carry any more weight than Antony Blinken’s? Ultimately, efforts to promote democracy must resonate with African societies and their desire to have a means of keeping elites accountable. African development is unlikely to achieve its ambitions without accountability and transparency featuring as part of good governance.

Finally, China and Africa also pledge to further cooperation in security and defense, including through capacity building and training programs. While China stands ready to support cooperation under the UN and AU framework, the intention to continue holding a China-Africa Peace and Security Forum also attests to China’s interests in fostering dialogue outside the African Peace and Security Architecture. The recommitment of China and Africa to tackle the proliferation of small arms – a pledge made at the first FOCAC in 2000 and one which disappeared from FOCAC Action Plans in 2015 and 2018 – is a welcome step. According to one study, 99% of documented ammunition and 37% of documented weapons in South Sudan’s civil war was Chinese in origin, fuelling community-level violence and endangering Chinese personnel and peacekeepers. Ending this destabilizing trade surely ought to be an imperative for Beijing and its African counterparts today.

While we may continue to grapple with the significance and implications of FOCAC VIII, there is no doubt that the meeting reflected China’s growing presence on the world stage. China shows up – in Africa and elsewhere – even during a pandemic.

Professor Chris Alden is the director of LSE IDEASLukas Fiala is the China Foresight Project Coordinator at LSE IDEAS and Hugo Jones is a program assistant at LSE IDEAS.

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