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‘Africa cannot ignore China’

Published Dec 2, 2015


#Focac: Africa cannot ignore China. With its 1.3 billion

people, the world’s second most powerful economy, the world’s fastest expanding naval fleet, a nuclear stock, a seat in the United Nations Security Council and drawing on the ethos of one of the world’s ancient civilisations, China is a superpower.

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In the 21st century, China has effectively returned to the centre of the world system, itself changing rapidly. And China’s leaders are not concealing their new muscles. On September 3, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping dramatised China’s new power during the military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

China’s re-entry into the world stage is re-defining the future of global power. Most importantly, it is a game changer for Africa, altering the fortunes of the continent’s economy, people and global power and influence.

At the dawn of the 21st century, China formed the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in October 2000 as an official platform to strengthen relations with a continent fabulously rich in natural resources and potentially the world’s fastest growing market.

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President Jinping will attend the second summit of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) in South Africa on December 4 and 5, the first to be held on the continent. Africa expects China to unveil a new strategy and vision of engaging the continent in the post-2015 era.

Conceptually, scholarship and policy debates on China’s involvement in Africa is the proverbial tower of Babel. On the one hand are the China-bashers who depict Beijing as a neo-colonial power extracting and siphoning African resources to fuel its rise.

They are fretting the ‘new 21st century scramble for Africa.” On the other hand are the China-philias everywhere exalting the coming of China’s as a redemptive force in Africa. However, a more sober middle-of-the-road approach has focused on the real opportunities and challenges facing the two partners in forging mutually beneficial relations.

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Currently, China’s African strategy rests on two planks.

‘Developmental Peace’

The first plank on which China’s African policy rests is the idea of “developmental peace”. Chinese scholars are contrasting the West’s largely political “liberal peace” with their own “developmental peace”, captured by what Chinese President Xi Jing Ping describes as China’s “peaceful rise” to the superpower status. Ideologically and globally, China’s “peaceful rise” is seeking to replace the current hard-power and West-centric world with a soft power, multi-polar global order.

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The idea of developmental peace is manifested in China’s increased involvement in peace-keeping, conflict resolution and humanitarian interventions in Africa.

In the wake of the Ebola virus menace in West Africa, China dispatched a powerful medical team that operated units to contain the epidemic and treat its victims. This is part of its medical diplomacy.

Old Ties, New Dreams

Related to the above, is the cultural software of China’s ‘developmental peace’ described by Beijing’s pundits as ‘people-to-people’ diplomacy.

At the heart of this people-centred diplomacy is the conception of the China-Africa relations as a “dialogue of civilisations” or “alliance of civilisation” – a conscious negation of the “clash of civilisation” thesis.

China’s people-to-people diplomacy is hoisted on the cultural pillar of its long historical and cultural tied with Africa which harken back to ancient times when African scholars and travelers visited parts of China and Chinese sailors made voyages to many parts of Africa.

These early China-Africa interactions were facilitated by the “Silk Road.” However, Sino-African ties in the modern era started in the 1960s during the era of Mao Zedong, the first leader of the Communist Party.

In forging Sino-Africa relations, Africa was not passive. Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda Visited China in June 1967. Today, China has established no less than 30 Confucian institutes across Africa to promote cultural understanding and exchanges.

Despite great strides in consolidating Sino-Africa relations, logistical and policy challenges remained. While China is a country, Africa is a continent of 54 countries.

The formation of FOCAC in 2000, however provided a broad-based platform for the engagement of China and Africa as two equal partners. FOCAC has held five meetings at the Ministerial levels and one Summit at the Heads of State level.

President Jacob Zuma visited China in September 2-4, 2015. During the visit to China, it was agreed that the 6th FOCAC meeting be upgraded to a full the forum Summit of Heads of State.

FOCAC has provided the platform for China-Africa development cooperation. But the Chinese dream meets the African dream in “Agenda 2063” adopted by African leaders and nations in May 2013.

Agenda 2063 encapsulate the African dream of drawing from the lessons of the past and building on the progress being made to strategically exploit all possible opportunities available in the new multi-polar world system to ensure positive socioeconomic transformation of the continent in the next 50 years.

This blueprint is defining the vision and priorities to guide Africa’s engagement with the world, including China. With colonialism, apartheid and racism now out of the way, Africa’s agenda 2063 turns the spotlight to economic emancipation and empowerment.

Development Cooperation

The second plank of China-Africa strategic engagement is development co-operation. The backdrop to the FOCAC summit in Johannesburg is provided by the debate on the “Post-2015 Development Agenda,” a UN-led consultative process seeking to define a future global development agenda and framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals that ends this year.

But setting the contours of China’s new Africa development strategy is the grand “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st-century Maritime Silk Road” framework that President Jinping revealed in September and October 2013, respectively.

In a nutshell, China’s 21st century Silk Road strategy is inspired by the ancient network of trade and cultural transmission routes dating back to 200 AD that linked its various parts with the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe and that placed China at the centre of a nascent world system as a non-hegemonic superpower.

Africa is a key focus of China’s post-2015 development strategy in the Indian Ocean rim. In its modern form, the “Silk road” also include on-line trading as the newest frontier in Africa-China commercial ties.

FOCAC seek to deepen Sino-Africa cooperation in trade and investment. During the 1990s, Sino-Africa trade increased by 700 per cent.

The trade volume jumped from a low of $1 billion in 1980 to a high of $163.9 billion in 2012, making China Africa’s largest trading partner after surpassing the United States in 2009. China’s trade with Africa stood at $222 billion last year.

During his visit to Africa in 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised to double bilateral trade with Africa to $400 billion by 2020. Africa is the source of more than one-third of China’s oil supplies.

China is providing low-cost financing to Africa with less restrictions and conditions than the West, which has enabled Africa to undertake infrastructure projects. China’s investment has also witnessed a tremendous expansion of private enterprise.

Today, an estimated 800 Chinese corporations are doing business in Africa investing mainly in the infrastructure, energy and banking sectors.

China’s development cooperation with Africa has been a game changer for the continent’s economic fortunes. In the last decades, the continent’s economy has grown steadily at an estimated rate of 5.3 per cent in 2011 and 5.8 per cent in 2012 and is projected to grow by 5 per cent by 2016.

Over the last 15 years, Beijing has also cancelled more than $10 billion in debt that African nations owe China.

Aiding Africa’s Industrialisation

Africa’s take off will remain a pipedream as long as there is not industrialisation. China is not a newcomer to Africa’s industrialisation and infrastructure development.

In the 1970s, Beijing sponsored the building of the 1,860 kilometre “Tazara Railway’ linking Tanzania and Zambia and completed in 1976, with 47 bridges and 18 tunnel made by 50,000 Chinese workers.

However, China has realised that its continued importation of unprocessed and low-cost raw materials from Africa while exporting high-cost manufactured goods to the continent will perpetually feed the embers of criticism that it is not different from other powers plundering African resources, and largely blamed for its underdevelopment.

As such, the adoption of the ‘silk road’ strategy is expected to deepen China’s role in Africa’s industrialisation. While the strategy is calibrated to enable China to take a bigger role in global affairs, it will pave the way for Beijing to export its production capacity in areas such as steel manufacturing.

This has great potential for accelerating the industrialisation of countries within the “Silk Road” ambit, including Africa.

Five African countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Egypt and South Africa – are earmarked as Beijing targets for the exportation of its production capacity and industrialisation in the next decade and beyond.

After the completion of the ongoing refurbishing of the ports of Mombasa and Lamu and the construction of a modern standard-gauge railway (SGR) linking Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya will firmly form part of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”.

Ethiopia is firmly in the loop. Here, Chinese technology and low-cost finance have helped build the first city ring road, the first expressway, the first city light rail, the first electrified railway, and the first wind power generation project.

China’s sharpest instrument in supporting Africa’s industrialisation and infrastructure is the New Development Bank, formerly referred to as the Brics Development Bank, a multilateral development bank operated by the five Brics states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

With its headquarters in Shanghai, China, and a regional office in Johannesburg, the bank is poised to radically change global relations of power by providing an alternative – and a rival – to the West-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

In conclusion, the 2nd FOCAC summit provides Africa with an opportunity to articulate a common and clear policy to get Beijing to commit to new development strategies and approaches to correct the unequal relation.

This, in turn, will boost Africa’s industrialisation and push the continent up the value chain in the global economy.

This article first appeared in an Independent Media supplement.

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