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FOCAC Beijing Summit pledges a community with a shared future and an empowered Africa
By Laurence Coulton & Wen Qing | NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 13, 2018
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the FOCAC Beijing Summit on September 3 (XINHUA)

In late August, during an official visit by the British prime minister, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta stung Theresa May with an acerbic diplomatic rebuke.

"We are pleased that you found time to honor our invitation to come and to see for yourself our country and our continent that has changed so much over nearly four decades since the last UK prime minister visited," Kenyatta remarked at the start of a press conference on the final day of May's visit to Africa.

Kenyatta's reproach was poignant not only for its affront to the leader of a nation which ruled his own as a colony until 1963, but because just days later he would board a plane and fly several thousand miles to attend an event that would help shape the future of his country as much as the one he was leaving behind had defined its past.

Leaders pose for a group photo ahead of the opening ceremony of the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in the Great Hall of the People on September 3 (XINHUA)

On September 3, Kenyatta sat alongside fellow African heads of state in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing as Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) which promised to support the future development of the African continent.

FOCAC was founded in 2000 as a platform for China and participating African nations to conduct collective discussions and consultations on matters pertaining to areas of mutual interest and cooperation.

The Beijing Summit was attended by the leaders of 53 African countries, three more than the last iteration convened in Johannesburg in 2015, with Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Burkina Faso all newcomers to this year's event. Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres and Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat were also present.

In his speech, Xi promised to support African development with $60 billion of financial support over the next three years and beyond, and sounded a robust response to critics of Chinese engagement with Africa by clarifying the terms by which it operates.

"No one could hold back the Chinese people or the African people as we march toward rejuvenation," Xi said.

'Five-no' approach 

Xi was keen to emphasize the mutual nature of China's relations with Africa in contrast to those between the continent and the former imperial powers that once ruled it, many of whom have become occasional critics of Sino-African ties.

"China has followed the principle of sincerity, real results, amity and good faith and the principle of pursuing the greater good and shared interests. China has stood with African countries. Together, we have worked in unity and forged ahead," Xi said, outlining the set of principles underpinning Chinese involvement with countries on the continent.

"We follow a 'five-no' approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in African countries' pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries' internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa," he said.

According to Li Wentao, Deputy Director of the Institute of African Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, the five-no approach is an upgraded and extrapolated version of China's policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of countries with which it cooperates.

"Xi further clarified China's stance in its cooperation with African countries in direct response to international misunderstanding about the nature of the Sino-African relationship," Li said.

Despite historically close ties between African nations and their former colonial rulers in the years since independence swept the continent in the middle of the 20th century, decades of aid programs sponsored by Western governments have failed to register a significant impact on the continent's development.

Shou Huisheng, a researcher with the National Strategy Institute of Tsinghua University, explained that the political conditions of Western aid to Africa stifle the autonomy and internal motivation of development. This "fatal aid," Shou said, makes African countries the target of aid rather than subjects for development by binding them in obeisance to their Western donors.

Conversely, Li said, it is precisely because of the similarities in the histories of China and many countries in Africa—primarily agricultural developing nations whose development was forestalled by foreign invasion and rule—that the two sides are able to understand each other better.

"China, the world's largest developing country, and Africa, the continent with the largest number of developing countries, have long formed a community with a shared future," Xi said.

And there are indications that the Chinese approach is working, winning the backing of people on the ground in Africa. According to a survey by Afrobarometer, a pan-African, non-partisan research network, 63 percent of respondents across 35 African countries saw China's economic and political involvement as positive, while just 15 percent considered it negative in some way.

The figures are even more compelling in the parts of sub-Saharan Africa that have already benefited from investment in infrastructure under the Belt and Road Initiative, with some countries registering a positive response of almost 90 percent.

Africa's leading political figures also took the opportunity to highlight the merits of Sino-African ties. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, taking to the stage after Xi, described FOCAC and Sino-African cooperation as focused on the tangible improvement of the quality of lives of all the people in Africa.

"In the values that it promotes, in the manner that it operates and in the impact that it has on African countries, FOCAC refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa, as our detractors would have us believe," he said.

Rwandan President and Chairperson of the AU Paul Kagame also stressed the health and productivity of the relationship between China and Africa.

"Africa is not a zero-sum game; our growing ties with China do not come at anyone's expense. Indeed, the gains are enjoyed by everyone who does business on our continent," he said.

In a further demonstration of good faith and China's intent to facilitate real progress in Africa, Xi also announced the waiving of debt for countries in particular need.

"For those of Africa's least developed countries, heavily indebted and poor countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing countries that have diplomatic relations with China, the debt they have incurred in the form of interest-free Chinese Government loans due to mature by the end of 2018 will be exempted," Xi said.

 

$60-billion promise 

For many observers, the most significant outcome of the Beijing Summit was China's support plan for the continent over the next three years and beyond.

In his speech, Xi promised to "extend $60 billion of financing to Africa in the form of government assistance as well as investment and financing by financial institutions and companies."

According to Xi, this will take the form of $15 billion in grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans, $20 billion of credit lines, the setting up of a $10-billion special fund for development financing and a $5-billion special fund for financing imports from Africa, with investment from Chinese companies to make up the final $10 billion.

According to Li, the $15 billion will be used to improve the livelihood of African people through the construction of libraries, stadiums and other public facilities, while the $20-billion credit lines will be deployed according to the market landscape, tapping areas and industries with high potential throughout the continent.

A large part of the financing will go toward the construction of infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports and railways. This will form an infrastructure network which will contribute to the interconnectivity of African countries, according to He Rui, an assistant researcher with the China Institute of International Studies.

"This is just the first stage of Chinese investment in African development. When the continent is connected, Chinese investment can then be directed toward more advanced industries to facilitate Africa's industrialization," He said.

"The $60 billion of financial support indicates China's confidence, sincerity and determination to enhance future bilateral ties with African countries," said Li Dan, Director of the African Studies Center at the China Foreign Affairs University.

Li Dan drew parallels with China's pledge at the Johannesburg Summit. In 2015, China also committed $60 billion in support of African development and has either implemented or arranged the use of these funds despite the vicissitudes of the international landscape. According to Li Dan, it is a symbol of China's friendship with and commitment to the African people that Xi has promised the same level of financial support in spite of the economic uncertainties affecting the world.

The $60 billion of financial support is expected to be used to launch eight major initiatives in close collaboration with African countries over the next three years and beyond.

"The initiatives meet the needs of both sides, especially those African countries eager to achieve industrialization," said Li Wentao. "China and Africa are highly complementary. China is rich in capital, technology and manufacturing capacity, all of which are necessary for African countries in the early stages of industrialization."

Agricultural development is crucial to the industrial progress of Africa. "Agricultural modernization is vital to some African countries still struggling to feed their populations, and modern farming is a symbol of an industrialized society," said Li Wentao. In addition to providing 1 billion yuan ($150 million) of emergency humanitarian food assistance, China will send 500 senior agriculture experts to Africa and train young researchers and entrepreneurs in agricultural sciences and business.

"China is also attaching great importance to capacity building through the transfer of knowledge," said Li Wentao, so as to provide African countries with the human resources to promote their own autonomous development. China will continue to offer training opportunities, including the establishment of 10 Luban Workshops to provide vocational training for young Africans, a tailor-made program to train 1,000 African professionals and 50,000 government scholarships.

China's knowledge transfer practices are welcomed by many in Africa. "A lot of my friends are coming here and getting education and taking back what they know to their local communities, so that they can transfer that knowledge back to the country," said Selamawit Kassa, an Ethiopian journalist reporting from the media center for the summit in Beijing.

University programs are crucial in this regard. Statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Education show that the number of African students in China surged from 1,793 in 2003 to 49,792 in 2015, and in 2014, China surpassed the UK and the United States as a preferred destination of study for African students looking abroad, a sign that young Africans are becoming more aware of what they can learn from China.

 

Student volunteers from China and Kenya help a tourist with an e-ticket for the Old Summer Palace in Beijing on August 31 (XINHUA) 

The road ahead 

The Beijing Declaration and the FOCAC Beijing Action Plan adopted on the final day of the summit suggest that the world is entering an era defined as much by the developing world as by traditional global power brokers, with the relationship between China and Africa now the cornerstone of South-South cooperation.

Yet, despite a fraternal relationship dating back to the 1950s, there remain some barriers to the success of China-Africa ties.

He Rui believes that the key to the immediate success of the pledges made by Xi lies in guaranteeing that funds are used both effectively and scientifically to effect inclusive development with benefits that reach the African people.

"In the years since the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a pessimistic feeling among the international community toward African development. But recently, there has been a surge in optimism, partly due to the fruitful outcomes of Sino-African cooperation," he said.

The figures indeed show good cause for positivity. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the total value of trade between China and Africa rose by $205.5 billion between 2000 and its peak in 2014, despite an inevitable dip in 2009 in the wake of global financial turmoil.

Yet the numbers also reveal a potential obstacle to bilateral trade. Chinese exports to Africa stood almost level with its imports from the continent in 2014, but by 2016 a noticeable deficit had emerged. In 2015, China's exports to Africa were more than 50 percent higher than its imports, and while this gap narrowed in 2016, it did so as a result of a decrease in China's exports rather than a significant increase in the import of African goods.

There are signs that a resolution to this issue is already well underway and China's economic restructuring, along with sustained focus on investment in infrastructure, training, knowledge transfer and commercial investment, can not only boost the number of enterprises producing goods which are competitive in overseas markets such as China, but also create new jobs, opportunities and wealth for a generation of African youth.

"We still need more jobs because Africa has a lot of youth and unemployment rates are still very high in African countries. So I expect more investment and I expect more jobs from Chinese companies, to actually see win-win cooperation between Africa and China. Knowledge transfer is the key and capacity building is very important," said Selamawit.

"My expectation is that as time goes on the relationship will become stronger than it is today… We hope that the momentum will be maintained," said Ahmed Wakili Bello, a Nigerian journalist reporting on the summit.

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com 

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