Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma will co-chair the Focac gathering.

#Focac: China Africa relations go back a long way with the inception of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) 15 years ago having provided a more structured platform and practical direction for advancing cooperation.

Even with the enunciation of FOCAC, practical economic and political engagement between the two parties has largely remained a bilateral affair until 2012 when the African regional integration dimension was added to the scope of multilateral cooperation.

It therefore comes as no surprise that China’s engagement with African sub-regional groupings is yet to be more clearly defined.

With both Africa and China acknowledging that weak economic infrastructure is hindering development of the African continent, what could be a better rallying point for defining and shaping economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa’s regional economic communities?

Focac has strengthened since inception

Since its inception in 2000, FOCAC as a multilateral platform has provided two main functions. Firstly, it has provided a platform to “strengthen consultation and expand cooperation within a pragmatic framework”, and secondly, to “promote political dialogue and economic cooperation with a view to seeking mutual reinforcement and cooperation”.

It is a partnership that has been mutually reviewed and strengthened over time, bringing about many notable advantages. For example, in 2014, China-Africa trade reached more than US$220 billion while China’s direct investment in Africa topped US$30 billion.

According to the China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation (2013) white paper, Chinese enterprises completed construction contracts worth $40.83 billion in Africa in 2012, representing 35 percent of China's overseas contract work completed.

The paper further states that Africa has been China's second largest overseas contract market for four successive years.

African RECs Provide Opportunities for Upgrading Relations

Staggering as these figures may appear, they have mostly been achieved through bilateral efforts, limiting the scale and scope, and potentially leading some countries to be in competition with one another where cooperation through RECs would have been the optimal strategy.

This is particularly so for infrastructure projects that could potentially be developed as cross border investments spanning more than one country such as the road, rail and power projects along the North South Corridor, as a development priority.

The North-South Corridor is already a development priority initiated by three African RECs namely the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The North-South Corridor stretches between Durban (South Africa) and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) involving eight countries in eastern and southern Africa, namely Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

There is greater scope for Africa to optimize and utilize partnership with China to the fullest by expanding the cooperation at the regional and sub-regional levels.

While some of the infrastructure projects that are being or are to be developed by Chinese enterprises are already part of the expansive North South Corridor, they have hitherto been presented and costed as fragmented investments, thus no doubt increasing the risk per unit project and ultimately diminishing the value for money.

Herein comes the potential role for RECs; for example, wherein the tripartite arrangement involving COMESA-EAC-SADC could coordinate, facilitate and where necessary mediate over the resource mobilization and development of the North South Corridor.

Advantages abound

There are many more advantages and of course challenges that come with upgrading China Africa cooperation to the sub regional level particularly as regards infrastructure development. Some of the advantages can be summarised as follows:

1. Better coordination, harmonisation and standardization. Standardization is particularly important to allow for seamless infrastructure networks, for example, where building of rail is concerned which would allow smooth flow of locomotives across borders;

2. Economies of scale that can also allow for spreading of the investment risk;

3. Strengthening African regional integration as a regional approach would provide obvious opportunities for upscaling into, for example, the African Union’s Programme for Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA).

4. Alignment with China’s vision and actions on jointly building “Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”; and with Africa’s vision of development through “Agenda 2063”.

5. A regional approach would provide better platform to draw from China’s development experience. China successfully administers development policy over a very expansive area, which is similar to Africa by historical, geographical and demographic comparison.

Potential Challenges

Some potential challenges that would have to be grappled with in upgrading China Africa cooperation at the RECs level would mirror some of the same challenges that Africa is facing vis-à-vis regional integration.

For example, none of the RECs in Africa, while at different stages of integration, have advanced enough to have supra-national status with legal mandate to act on behalf of their member states.

What that means is while the RECs such as SADC can facilitate the marketing of infrastructure projects, contractual matters would still have to be dealt with at an individual member state level. Further, many African countries, while active members of RECs, are still struggling to shake of the influence of their former colonisers.

Conclusion

Going forward, Africa should push an agenda for the development of cross border infrastructure to attract new industries as the centre-piece of its relations with China at the regional and sub-regional levels as it brings about many advantages including attracting large-scale Chinese investment while at the same time pushing closer to reality the longstanding aspirations of integrating the African continent.

The multilateral cooperation at the RECs level is not meant to replace but rather augment bilateral cooperation.

Munetsi Madakufamba is Executive Director, Southern African Research and Documentation Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe.

This article first appeared in an Independent Media supplement.