Africa is undergoing a challenging merger
Co-ordination initiatives introduced by China to support foreign policy initiatives
TWO significant China-driven global geo- political and geo- economic re-alignment initiatives affecting Africa are playing themselves out simultaneously.
On the one hand, the Forum for China Africa Co-operation (Focac), aims to co-ordinate, in a mutually beneficial manner, China and Africa’s global political, economic, social and international interests. On the other, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aims to integrate, for similar purposes, a broader geo-political constituency that includes large swathes of Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. To add to this complexity, BRICS, in essence replicates the objectives within a third configuration.
And, concurrently, Africa is itself, through the establishment of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) undergoing its own continental integration.
A single integration and re-alignment project on its own is complex and challenging. To manage four such processes simultaneously, requires great skill and co-ordination. And there is not much evidence to suggest sufficient co-ordination between AfCFTA, Focac, BRICS, the BRI.
Necessary process or superfluous triplication?
To give support to its foreign policy initiatives, the Chinese government has incrementally introduced instruments to co-ordinate its activities and programmes across the globe.
From an African perspective, the first such co-ordinating initiative was Focac. The second co-ordinating mechanism was the formation of BRICS. Then came the BRI, an ambitious programme which aims to improve regional integration, grow trade and stimulate economic growth by connecting Asia with Africa, Europe and Latin America via land and maritime networks.
At its core, the three initiatives, essentially, have the same objectives.
With the advent of the AfCFTA, BRICS and BRI planning will by extension also impact African countries that are not part of these formations. As such, their programmes and projects will also by necessity have to be integrated into the AfCFTA planning. It will be difficult to isolate non-BRI and non-BRICS African countries from these regional initiatives.
The proliferation of the regional initiatives in which China plays a central role, is linked to China’s rapidly growing global role and more assertive approach in the international arena. While affirming the constructive roles that these initiatives play in advancing development, the question arises whether this proliferation best serves the objective, or whether the streamlining of the multiple approaches will enhance greater efficiency.
There does not appear to be a bridge between the various initiatives and/or an umbrella co-ordinating mechanism. This is a flaw in the multi-lateral co-ordination architecture.
Planners need to contemplate how best to co-ordinate cross-organisational co-ordination. This may take the form of a new global counter-balancing institution, which essentially absorbs the three initiatives; or a cross-organisational co-ordinating mechanism, which at the very least eliminates duplication and at best ensures an integrated approach to the global issues they jointly wish to address.
China holds the key to Focac and BRI co-ordination, in that, although the initiatives are multilaterally owned, both are driven by China. This means that establishing co-ordination between the two initiatives could prove less complex than it would be with BRICS, which is not driven by a single country. It may, therefore, be that co-ordination does not take on one form, but a combination of forms.
Practically, this means that the BRI objective of creating integrated trade markets is no longer feasible by means of a bilateral agreement between an individual African country and the broader BRI. Any arrangement with an individual country will be subject to that country’s obligations in terms of AfCFTA.
Furthermore, since the AU is moving in the direction of a continental customs union, here too, the BRI is obliged to consider the aspirations of the broader AfCFTA.
Moreover, in terms of regional integration, the AU has adopted the Programme Infrastructure Development for Africa masterplan, with the primary objective being the development of infrastructure that will support the AfCFTA economic integration.
BRI architects will thus have to shift away from negotiations with individual African countries, towards negotiations with the broader AU. They will have to understand the intricacies of layered economic infrastructure planning, that is between individual African countries, at an African continental level and between the continent and the broader BRI.
This brings the discussion full circle. Is the proliferation of political and economic integration initiatives necessary, or, as it relates to Focac, BRICS and the BRI, superfluous triplication? The question remains open for the political leaders to ponder, suffice to suggest it is an issue worth pondering.
Swanepoel is the chief executive of the Inclusive Society Institute. This article is an extract from a paper he delivered at the 9th meeting of the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum.