The way forward for Sino-Africa ties
Summit will shape the priorities of the relationship including manufacturing investment and infrastructure, Andrew Moody reports.
What next for China-Africa relations? The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was being held Friday and Saturday in Johannesburg, South Africa, may have the answer.
Although it is the sixth meeting of FOCAC, this is the first summit on African soil in its 15-year history. The only other summit was in Beijing in 2006.
The staging is seen as a major coup for South Africa, reflecting deepening ties between President Jacob Zuma’s ruling African National Congress Party and Beijing.
Many commentators believe the summit, which President Xi Jinping is attending and was themed “China-Africa Progressing Together: WinWin Cooperation for Common Development”, could define the relationship between the world’s second-largest economy and the continent for many years to come.
Many in Africa will be looking for pointers as to how important the Africa relationship is for China, now that its slowing economy means it is no longer as hungry as it once was for Africa’s resources.
At the last FOCAC meeting, in Beijing in 2012, China announced loans of $20 billion, doubling the commitment made in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2009. This time, the amount could be $40 billion, a figure hinted during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Africa last year. What has also changed since 2012 is that Africa has come up with its own 50-year action plan: African Union’s Agenda 2063. There are likely to be many references during the summit about marrying FOCAC’s agenda with that of the African Union.
Another major theme this time is likely to be industrialization and the role China can play in helping African nations develop a larger industrial base.
Although China’s emergence as the manufacturing workshop of the world is seen as a role model by many African countries, there is some frustration that China does not invest enough in manufacturing in Africa.
Other issues likely to dominate will be infrastructure projects, investment in high-speed rail, China’s role in African regional integration, poverty reduction, ecological protection, female empowerment, and also the role Africa can play in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with Kenya being a staging post in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, believes whether China can deliver on investment and not just aid will be one of the summit’s key issues.
“The China-Africa relationship has always been couched in terms of mutual benefit. This year’s FOCAC is likely to reflect a greater emphasis on the promotion of investment, and less emphasis on pledges of official development aid or loans,” she said.
Brautigam, one of the world’s leading authorities on the China-Africa relationship, who also attends the summit, said many African leaders will want the Chinese to focus more on industrial investment in Africa.
“As China’s economy continues to restructure, I expect increased concern with ways in which excess Chinese manufacturing capacity can be transferred to Africa.
“There is likely also to be more concern with ways to add value locally, whether in cotton spinning or mineral processing,” she added.
Windsor Chan, special project and strategy consultant for Asia at law firm Hogan Lovells in Johannesburg and a popular figure within the South African business community, said one of the biggest concerns ahead of the summit was whether China’s commitment to the continent is as strong as it once was.
He believes President Xi’s recent high-profile visits to the United States and to the United Kingdom could be indicative of Africa now having a lower priority.
“There is a lot of concern about China losing interest in Africa. China is now very much on the global stage playing with the big boys, which was not the case when FOCAC came into being in 2000. There is also the question as to whether Africa is a good place to invest at the moment, not just for China, but also other players, too. We have had Ebola, the increasing terrorism risks and, of course, the recent Mali story,” he said.
Chan believes that on balance there is still sufficient commercial logic in the China-Africa relationship, but “I think many will be looking to President Xi to make this commitment clear”.
At Standard Bank’s office complex in the Rosebank district of Johannesburg, Sim Tshabalala, chief executive of what is Africa’s largest bank, knows about the importance of Chinese investment.
He said many in the South African business community were looking to the FOCAC summit to give a clear direction to China-Africa relations.
“FOCAC is important in that it is going to re-establish and reset Sino-African relations and China’s relationship with South Africa,” he said.
He believes there are a number of issues that need to be addressed at the summit: “There needs to be attention focused on what are the barriers to trade on both sides of the trade relationship, such as what are the tariff barriers and what laws and regulations are an impediment.
“From the South African standpoint, a focus on what we need to do to improve the business environment and to encourage more Chinese corporate investment is needed.”
John Tambourlas, chief operating officer of China Construction Bank’s Johannesburg branch, said a top priority should be Chinese manufacturing investment on the continent.
He hopes Chinese truck and car manufacturer FAW’s new plant in the Coega Industrial Development Zone, in Eastern Cape, which was partly financed by the China-Africa Development Fund, will lead to other such investments.
“I hope when the leaders sit together they will see the benefits of more manufacturing investment,” he said. “It is good for the local economy, creates jobs and adds a lot of value. I think these sorts of investments are coming into play. They have perhaps been slow in coming, but they are starting to happen.”
There will be inevitable comparisons at FOCAC 2015 with the 2006 Beijing summit, with its colorful processions in front of the Great Hall of the People, drawing the world’s attention to the new geopolitical relationship between China and Africa for the first time.
Harry Verhoeven, a lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, believes the Johannesburg FOCAC will try and play down expectations.
“The FOCAC meetings have become more streamlined and also more professional,” he said. “I think there will be a number of announcements about debt relief, trade and scholarships. I fail to see any crucial area in which something radically new will be announced.”
David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, has been a keen observer of FOCAC meetings.
“At every one of these meetings, they come up with a three-year action plan. I have read them all. There tends to be a lot of repetition where the same issues are regurgitated,” he said.
Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, believes security, particularly after recent events, will be high on the agenda.
“How that is ultimately going to play out, I don’t know. There will be announcements of initiatives, there always are, but trying to guess precisely what they are going to do is probably a fool’s errand.”
Yu-Shan Wu, a researcher at South African Institute of International Affairs, believes it is the detail that matters.
She said industrialization along with infrastructure and China’s role in Africa’s regional integration will be among the big themes, but it is important to look for substance.
“From a research perspective, it depends on what some of the detail is in some of these issues. To what extent will the debate simply be a recognition that these issues exist or whether there is going to be any detailed discussion about how to address them,” she said.
Wu, who is a South Africanborn Chinese, believes FOCAC 2015 could see the China-Africa relationship move from high diplomacy to more people-topeople exchanges.
She said this might build on the spirit of 2015 being the Year of China in South Africa, which has consisted of a series of events that have been popular with the public.
“You have a China-Africa relationship that is at the high diplomatic level and one at the people level,” she said. “I think this FOCAC could be about bringing these two levels closer together so that the relationship gets closer to the people themselves, Chinese and African.”
This year’s FOCAC is likely to reflect a greater emphasis on the promotion of investment, and less emphasis on pledges of official development aid or loans.”
director of the China Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University
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