MEDIA MAY HYPE CHINA’S TIES WITH AFRICA BUT THERE ARE OTHER SERIOUS PLAYERS IN THE GAME
As African leaders descend on Johannesburg for the Second Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the focus will again be on relations between the world’s secondlargest economy and the emerging continent.
Built on the foundations of a close political relationship from the 1950s, it has been one of the intriguing geopolitical relationships of the past decade or more.
China’s trade with Africa, which was only $10 billion in 2000, could hit $400 billion by 2020, according to official Chinese forecasts revealed at a forum in Beijing on Nov 9.
Many parts of the continent have benefited from Chinese-built roads, airports, ports, hospitals and various sports facilities as well as ministerial buildings.
Even the shiny new $200 million African Union building, which opened in Addis Ababa in 2012, was funded and built by the Chinese.
But China’s slowing economy is putting a partial brake on its demand for Africa’s resources and also investment on the continent.
Direct investment in Africa fell by 40 percent year-on-year in the first half of this year to $1.19 billion, although the aim to build up the stock of investment to $100 billion by 2020 was still on course, China’s Ministry of Commerce said on Nov 17.
The summit at the Sandton Convention Centre, however, comes at a time when Africa has other suitors, too.
None more so than India, whose prime minister, Narendra Modi, clearly wanted to revitalize its relationship with at least 40 African leaders attending the third IndiaAfrica forum summit in New Delhi in October. India’s trade with Africa stood at $70 billion in 2013 and is rising.
The United States, India’s secondlargest trading partner at $90 billion annually, is also trying to put the fizz back into its relationship with Africa. US President Barack Obama hosted the first US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last year.
The European Union, which has five former major African colonial powers — the UK, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany — held the EUAfrica Summit in Brussels last year in an attempt to revive its relationship.
Not being the only game in town, however, may suit China’s foreign strategists.
It will enable Chinese President Xi Jinping, when he addresses the summit, to stress the importance of the FOCAC relationship while also setting the course of expectations on a more realistic bearing.
Harry Verhoeven, a lecturer at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar, believes it would be a great relief to Chinese policymakers if this message is put across.
“China has never wanted to rock the boat with its relationship with Africa. It is just not in its interest to do that. It is quite happy to be among a number of players on the continent,” he says.
The Belgian academic, author also of
believes many have misread the China-Africa relationship.
“If it were to have a dominant relationship with Africa, it would come with too many awkward responsibilities. China is actually busy doing other things. It has domestic concerns to deal with. It basically wants a pragmatic relationship with Africa and the West.”
Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations and director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing and one of China’s leading foreign policy experts, agrees the relationship has been too high profile at times and attracted criticism, particularly in the West.
“I think Africa has been an important part of China’s foreign policy. China has had a lot of diplomatic influence there and there has also been quite significant economic expansion,” he says.
“It has to be put into context, however. China’s relations and economic ties with North America, Europe and Russia in technological and other areas have always been more important than with Africa. I think the president, however, will be right to emphasize the value of this relationship in Johannesburg.”
The Johannesburg meeting is the sixth since FOCAC was inaugurated in 2000 but it is only the second to be categorized as a summit with heads of state participating.
It was the first summit in Beijing in November 2006 with its procession of people in African dress and 30-foot high posters of giraffes and elephants, that first drew the world’s attention to the relationship.
David Shinn, adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, says it all became over-hyped.
“All the media attention was on this new relationship. If you looked at the trade numbers, it is true that China overtook the US as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009 and now has almost triple the trade America does. But whose fault is that? Is it China’s or is the US’? You could argue that the US is not trying hard enough.”
The narrative at the time was that Africa was moving away from the socalled Washington Consensus, a series of measures imposed by the World Bank and the IMF to encourage the development of the private sector in African countries, to embrace China’s state capitalism model.
Shinn, also a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and co-author with Joshua Eisenman of
a detailed country-bycountry analysis of the relationship, says none of this had much to do with what was important in Africa.
“They are the sort of arguments put forward by economists that don’t bear out the reality on the ground. They are more symbolic.
Chinese and local employees work at the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway. Many parts of the continent have benefited from Chinese-built roads, airports, ports, hospitals and sports facilities.