#Focac: The Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) has become the quintessential touchstone of promoting a broad spectrum of co-operative relations between the People’s Republic of China and Africa.
Since its establishment in 2000 and on the basis of its triennial summits, Focac has fundamentally reshaped the co-operation options available to African countries.
Moreover, Focac has demonstrated China’s resolve to deliver tangible and welfare-enhancing benefits as one of the continent’s premier trade and development partners. In return, China seeks secure and sustained access to African countries’ natural resources; it wants to make trade and commercial inroads into a market of more than 1 billion people that is growing and changing rapidly in its consumer culture; and it has been unequivocal about promoting its own legitimacy and status through support of the “One China” policy.
The maturation of China-Africa relations under the auspices of Focac coincides with the crafting of Agenda 2063 by the African Union as a vision of transformation for achieving a prosperous and peaceful Africa. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, Agenda 2063 represents a collective charter to move the continent inexorably towards people-centred growth and development over the next five decades.
This charter provides not only a vision but also the normative and strategic logic to transform Africa based on a programmatic and operational agenda of five 10-year plans which give life to the aspirations embedded in Agenda 2063. These aspirations include promoting continental integration; ensuring that democracy, human rights and good governance prevail; emphasising the central role of women and youth in development; and redefining Africa’s international role as a strong and influential player.
At its core, Agenda 2063 seeks to strengthen the mutually reinforcing impulses of economic growth and structural change which have thus far been weakly articulated in policy and practice. This is critical if African countries are to address the post-colonial legacies of rising poverty, unemployment and inequality, all of which are compounded by disease pandemics, militarised and gender violence, politicised ethnicity, religious extremism, destructive conflicts and environmental degradation.
It is against this background where the Focac and Agenda 2063 processes can find common cause. Where Focac has been singularly successful is in what we can call the “first generation frontier” of developing robust bilateral chemistries with African countries with which China enjoys official relations. This helps to explain why, on a country basis, China has now become South Africa’s largest trading partner. With bilateral dynamics now strongly consolidated thanks to Focac, the future of China-Africa relations must take account of the “second generation frontier” of enhancing and supporting the imperative of regional and continental integration which is the essential leitmotif of Agenda 2063.
The AU has already developed a number of Pan-African initiatives which target strategic sectors of development and which will be key to the success of Agenda 2063. These include the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP); Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT); the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA); and the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA). With the AU Commission represented on the Focac platform, it will be important for it to forge synergies with Focac and the Chinese leadership as an incentive for China to become a strategic player in helping to realise the ambition of these regional and continent-wide initiatives. This is particularly important if African countries are to guard against a historical planning and policy paradox where the more frameworks have been adopted, the more their outcomes and efficacy were dictated by the law of diminishing returns.
However, it is in the area of industrialisation through trade that Focac can make a lasting contribution to the prospects of Agenda 2063 and to Africa’s structural transformation. As the continent’s largest trading partner, China’s role will continue to be of great strategic significance in economic growth, with equal potential to promote trade-induced industrialisation in order to address the challenge of high levels of poverty, unemployment and growing inequality.
China’s greater involvement in value-added industrialisation would also be salutary for dealing with the criticism that Beijing replicates neo-colonial trade patterns which treat Africa as a commoditised periphery. Africa remains marginalised in world trade: its share of global exports have actually decreased from 5.9 percent in 1980 to 3.3 percent in 2013. Compare this to East Asia whose share of global exports increased from 2.2 percent in 1970 to 17.8 percent in 2010.
China has demonstrated the value of taking advantage of regional and global trade and production networks to drive its own industrialisation processes. Africa thus confronts three critical challenges in this regard: the production and trade in intermediate goods; establishing, joining and upgrading value chains along national, regional and global continuums; and promoting services as a critical underpinning of trade. Africa’s forward integration in global value chains continues to be driven by the export of raw materials. This has direct impact on further subverting the promise of regional value chains where 88 percent of inputs still originate outside the continent.
This is why BIAT places a premium on increased intra-African trade and the promotion of regional value chains as stimuli of learning, economies of scale and entry points into global value chains. Focac can certainly play an enhanced role in fostering intra-regional trade as a means of improving backward integration, since trade in processed goods at this level offers great opportunities for African companies to move up value chains.
China’s other comparative advantages in infrastructure, energy, human capital, financial services and ICTs can also be harnessed to promote African countries’ effective participation in value chain-driven industrial development. All this activity could be greatly facilitated with the establishment of the CFTA for boosting intra-African trade and its industrial components.
The nexus between trade and industrialisation holds immense promise for taking a bolder and more innovative approach to Africa’s integration and global competitiveness.
As a “second generation” challenge, the Focac process could make an enduring contribution to realising one of the fundamental objectives of Agenda 2063.
* Garth le Pere is a Visiting Professor at the University of Pretoria.
** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.