Dialogue anchors China-Africa relations

By Peter Kagwanja Time of article published Dec 2, 2015

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#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 UN Security Council and drawing on the ethos of one of the world’s ancient civilisations, China is, in all the sense of the word, a superpower.

Centuries ago, China was the spider at the web of ancient “world order”. In the 21st century, China has effectively returned to the centre of the world system. Beijing’s re-entry into the world stage is redefining the future of global power.

It has also been a game changer for Africa since the formation of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) in October 2000 as an official platform to strengthen Sino-Africa relations.

The second Focac summit in South Africa on Friday and Saturday, the first to be held on the continent, is expected to move this co-operation to a whole new level in the post-2015 era. Scholarly and policy debates on China’s increasing role in Africa are like the proverbial Tower of Babel.

On the one hand is the school of thought celebrating China as a redemptive force in Africa, with huge potential for ending poverty. The other school of thought is largely critical of China’s role that depicts Beijing as a neo-colonial power, extracting and siphoning African resources to fuel its rise. They fret China’s catalytic role in the “new 21st century scramble for Africa”.

Developmental peace

However, a more sober middle-of-the-road approach is cautiously optimistic, drawing attention to the real opportunities and challenges facing the two partners in forging mutually beneficial relations.


Ahead of the summit, two factors are discernible as the pillars of China’s policy on Africa. One is “developmental peace”.

This idea contrasts the West’s largely political “liberal peace” with China’s non-hegemonic “peaceful rise”. China is seeking to replace the current hard-power and West-centric world order with a soft power, multi-polar system. Guided by the idea of developmental peace, China has increased its role in UN peacekeeping in Africa.

It has also redoubled its role in conflict resolution and humanitarian interventions in Africa. China has ushered in its own era of “medical diplomacy” in the wake of the Ebola virus menace in West Africa.

Beijing is weaving its relations with Africa on the basis of a “dialogue of civilisations”, a conscious departure from the “clash of civilisation” thesis popularised by Western political thinkers.

The software for this “dialogue of civilisations” consists of “people-to-people” contacts as the anchor of people-centred China-Africa relations.

Beijing links modern linkages with Africa to long historical and cultural ties with Africa which harken back to ancient times, when African scholars and travellers 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”.

But logistical and policy challenges remain in developing mutual Sino-Africa relations. China is one country; Africa is a continent of 54 countries.

Although the Focac summit provides an ideal platform for negotiating development co-operation, Africa still needs to develop a common policy on China.

So far, the Chinese dream meets the African dream in “Agenda 2063”, adopted by African leaders and nations in May 2013. Crafting a common Africa policy on China should start with Agenda 2063, which encapsulates the African dream of drawing on past lessons to build a future and ensure positive socio-economic transformation of the continent in the next 50 years.

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 Xi Jinping revealed in September and October 2013, respectively.

Silk Road strategy

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 200AD 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 includes online trading as the newest frontier in Africa-China commercial ties. Focac seeks to deepen Sino-Africa co-operation in trade and investment. During the 1990s, Sino-Africa trade increased by 700 percent.

The trade volume jumped from a low of $1 billion (R14.4bn at the present exchange rate) in 1980 to a high of $163.9bn in 2012, making China Africa’s largest trading partner after surpassing the US in 2009. China’s trade with Africa stood at $222bn last year.

During his visit to Africa last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised to double bilateral trade with Africa to $400bn 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 co-operation with Africa has been a game changer for the continent’s economic fortunes.

Aiding industrialisation

In the last decades, the continent’s economy has grown steadily at an estimated rate of 5.3 percent in 2011 and 5.8 percent in 2012 and is projected to grow by 5 percent by 2016. Over the last 15 years, Beijing has also cancelled more than $10bn in debt that African nations owe China.


The 2015 Focac summit needs to focus on Africa’s industrialisation to add value to its exports. China is not a newcomer to Africa’s industrialisation and infrastructure development.

However, it has to realise 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 also an ”imperial power”.

During the summit, China is to unveil the “Silk Road” strategy expected to deepen China’s role in Africa’s industrialisation. Globally, the strategy is calibrated to enable China to take a bigger role in global affairs.

In Africa, it will pave the way for Beijing to export its production capacity to 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 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.

Ultimately, the 2nd Focac summit will provide 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.

* Professor Peter Kagwanja is the president and chief executive of the Africa Policy Institute based in Nairobi, Kenya. He was among the academics that spoke yesterday at the China-Africa Relations Round Table Conference, co-hosted by the China Public Diplomacy Association and Independent Media, ahead of this week’s Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Independent Media.


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