China and Africa’s post-Covid partnership: key takeaways from FOCAC8

By Ma Tianjie and Tom Baxter

In 1997, when Albert Tevoedjre, Benin’s Minister for Planning and Economic Rehabilitation proposed to Vice Premier Zhu Rongji in Beijing that a China-Africa cooperation mechanism similar to that of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) should be set up, he met with hesitance on the Chinese side. It took two years of back-and-forth within the Chinese bureaucracy and another nudge from an African diplomat, Madagascar’s Lila Ratsifandrihamanana, for the idea of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to finally materialize in 1999. 

“A keen awareness of the West’s courting of Africa and the urgent need for a permanent mechanism between China and Africa prompted the decision,” Li Anshan, a prominent China-Africa scholar, wrote in his 2012 account of FOCAC’s origin.

The first FOCAC meeting in Beijing, 2000.  Albert Tevoedjre’s proposal to Zhu Rongji (middle) was the beginning of this China-Africa cooperation mechanism. Image:

This historical account is particularly relevant today when we try to make sense of what happened at the 8th Ministerial Conference of FOCAC, which concluded in Dakar on November 30. Eight iterations of FOCAC over 21 years have marked China’s evolving relationship with the continent, a relationship that is shaped by both China’s spectacular rise in the past two decades and African governments’ agency and ownership of the process.

From 2000 to 2019, the value of China-Africa trade grew from less than USD 10 billion to about 200 billion, with Africa exporting about 90 billion USD worth of goods to China in 2019. Chinese investments in Africa increased from a mere 75 million USD in 2003 to 4.2 billion  in 2020. The expansion of economic and trade ties was the main theme of the first four FOCAC conferences (2000-2009). 

But the focus of the forum has gradually broadened to reflect the deepening relationship. In the Dakar Declaration published last week, China describes its approach to its relationship with the continent in terms of five “Not”s: “not interfere with internal affairs,” “not impose its will on other countries,” “not attach political terms in foreign aid,” “not seek political gains in investments,” and “not interfere with how African countries seek a developmental path of their own choice.” It is a visible development from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence embraced by the Asian-African Conference in 1955  that were enshrined in Article 1 of the 2000 FOCAC Beijing Declarations, and something that scholars such as Li Anshan have been advocating for years.

FOCAC: how does it work

The FOCAC, as a mechanism, is very much driven and shaped by the African side. Not only did African leaders such as Tevoedjre and Ratsifandrihamanana bring up the initial idea to their Chinese counterparts, their colleagues followed up by insisting to China’s foreign affairs officials that the FOCAC should be institutionalized from the beginning. It should differentiate itself from the Africa-France Summit and TICAD as a gathering of the Global South and explore new ways to advance South-South cooperation.

It was through this insistence that FOCAC took its current form as a triennial event rotating between Beijing and an Africa country, with an elaborate follow-up mechanism to ensure its outcomes do not evaporate in the three year gap between forums. The mechanism is centered around a Chinese “Follow-up Committee” comprised of 36 ministries, agencies and institutions, and a system of follow-up meetings, including the senior officials meeting one year ahead of a Ministerial Conference and a China-Africa Foreign Ministers’ collective political liaison session at the UN General Assembly one year after the FOCAC. African diplomats in China also meet with the secretariat of the Follow-up Committee twice a year.

In order to ensure the implementation of outcomes of the 2015 and 2018 FOCACs (both elevated to Leaders’ Summits), coordinators’ conferences for the implementation of Summit outcomes were held in 2016 and 2019.

The 2018 FOCAC was elevated to a leaders’ summit. Image: Paul Kagame

A snapshot from the 2019 coordinators’ conference shows how some of the 2018 FOCAC Summit’s outcomes were carried out. Among the eight action items identified at the Summit, Industrial Promotion has seen the implementation of two China-Africa Economic and Trade Expos in Changsha. While under Green Development, a China-Africa Environmental Cooperation Center was set up in 2020 and 14 agreements have been signed between China and African countries on climate change.

A 3-year Action Plan agreed at each FOCAC session is usually used to guide joint initiatives in the next FOCAC cycle, although the Action Plan does also go beyond the three-year timeframe to set directions beyond the next conference. Still, the large number of Chinese government actors, many of whom find their resources stretched, involved in organizing the FOCAC means that responsibilities are overlapping and poorly defined. Stakeholders have called for a more streamlined and systematic long-term monitoring of FOCAC outcomes that overcomes the limitations of meeting-based follow-ups. 

A radically different world

The world couldn’t have been more different between FOCAC7 (2018) and FOCAC8 this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic fundamentally changing the global economic and political landscape in ways unseen in recent history.

The African continent has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and its related impacts. After reaching a turning point in its poverty reduction efforts in March 2019 (the continent’s population living in extreme poverty  saw zero growth for the first time since 2015), poverty levels have again increased, with the World Bank estimating the pandemic has set back Africa’s poverty alleviation efforts at least 5 years.A collapse in exports devastated many export-reliant African countries, causing a drying up of fiscal revenues and significant increase in unemployment. The onslaught not only exacerbated debt situations in many countries but also put pressure on their ability to import essential products such as food. The discovery of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in South Africa just weeks before the FOCAC overshadowed this year’s conference, highlighting the ongoing challenges faced by the continent.

A Ugandan soldier serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) takes the COVID-19 jab at the launch of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Mogadishu, Somalia on 17 May 2021. Image: AMISOM Photo/Mokhtar Mohamed. Original public domain image from Flickr

The past year has also seen conflicts erupt in multiple African countries. Mali, Niger, Tunisia, Guinea and Sudan have all experienced coups or political crises, while Ethiopia’s escalating civil war has killed thousands and displaced millions, including Chinese personnel in the country.   

The struggling continent is also becoming a potential subject of geopolitical rivalry, with the newly elected Biden Administration testing out opportunities for its B3W initiative, a “counter-offer” to China’s BRI, in African countries. The Administration’s first big moment for relations with the African continent, when Deputy National Security Advisor Daleep Singh and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken held “listening sessions” in three African countries, including Senegal, was held just weeks before FOCAC8.

In short, this year’s FOCAC comes at a time of heightened tensions and emerging, multifaceted crises.

Key outcomes of FOCAC8

Opening with a live video speech by President Xi Jinping, FOCAC8 kicked off to the backdrop of this challenging environment on Monday Nov 29. 

It closed the following day with the release of four key documents charting the way forward for an evolving relationship. Between the speech and the documents, the longest of which runs to 40 pages, there is a veritable wealth of information on the relationship at both the macro and sectoral level. The four outcome documents were the Dakar Declaration of the 8th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation, the Forum on China Africa Cooperation Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024), the China Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, and the Declaration on China Africa Cooperation on Combating Climate Change. Many of the headline grabbing figures appeared only in Xi’s opening speech, which is worth reading in full.

Health diplomacy was unsurprisingly one major feature of the two days of China-Africa diplomacy. Xi’s comment that China will help provide an additional 1 billion vaccine doses to the continent, 60% of which will be donated and 40% of which will be distributed via other, commercially oriented means, was received positively. As we enter the second year of the pandemic, Africa is the least vaccinated continent in the world. But responses from some African commentators asked questions about the specific conditions of the 400 million vaccines which Xi stated will be “provided through such means as joint production by Chinese companies and relevant African countries.” The Action Plan did make clear, however, that IP on the vaccines will be waived. Health diplomacy was not only confined to COVID-19 vaccines, with chapter 4.2 of the Action Plan devoted to medical care and public health.

The vaccine conversation is also intermingled with discussions about FOCAC8’s deliverables on trade, finance and investment. One question on the lips of media and China-Africa watchers was whether donations of vaccines (and their associated dollar value) should be seen as part of the financing and investment package committed at FOCAC8, which has dwindled in comparison to previous years’ commitments. A tally of commitments under different baskets by Bloomberg showed that, somewhat as expected, overall quantity of financial pledges were down. Perhaps most notable is this year’s absence of grants and interest-free loan pledges. A downsizing but continuation of credit lines, coupled with the Action Plan’s emphasis on exploring “innovative ways of financing” (3.8.1), indicates a different approach to China’s financing for Africa, reflective of a broader trend towards more prudency in China’s Belt and Road commitments. As Dr. Lina Benabdullah of Wake Forest University summarized, “Bottom line: there are more or less creative ways of sourcing the finances this time. Basically long gone is the finance largesse we are used to seeing in FOCAC”.

This year’s financial pledges also include USD 10 billion of finance to support African exports and a target to reach USD 300 billion in total imports from Africa to China over the next three years. Other financial commitments included the allocation of 25% of China’s IMF special drawing rights (SDR), equal to USD 10 billion, to African countries. The share committed outstrips European countries’ SDR redistribution to African countries, but on an Atlantic Council webinar on the first day of the FOCAC former executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Carlos Lopes, nonetheless expressed surprise that China did not allocate more of its SDR allowance to the African continent.

Despite a clear winding down of finance-backed mega infrastructure projects, Xi did pledge that China will undertake 10 connectivity projects in Africa over the next three years. Such projects are critical to the continent. Effective connectivity is essential if Africa is to boost its trade, both internally and externally, and increase the value of domestically produced goods, as outlined in the continent’s own Agenda 2063. The commitment on connectivity projects is also consistent with China’s long term support for greater integration across the continent. Chinese scholars and advisors such as Li Anshan have advocated for strengthened Chinese support for further integration of African economies, with infrastructure as a bedrock for that process. They see such investments as both increasing Africa’s political power as a friendly bloc, and creating a larger market for economic opportunities. Not surprisingly, this year has seen strong Chinese support for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which saw prominent mentions in both the Action Plan and the Vision 2035.

However, what and where exactly the 10 connectivity projects over the next three years will be is unclear. At the Atlantic Council’s webinar, Hannah Ryder, CEO of Development Reimagined, stressed that “the ball is in African governments’ court” on this. The need for strong agency, coordination and negotiation on infrastructure is clear. Xi also pledged investment into 10 industrial projects, but again details are unclear.

Lastly, blessed with mentions in Xi’s speech, the Action Plan, the 2035 Vision and its own joint declaration, climate appears to have become a new focus in the FOCAC. The standalone Declaration on China Africa Cooperation on Combating Climate Change is the first time the two sides have signed an issue specific declaration and is symbolic of the rise of climate in China’s overall foreign policy agenda. While somewhat general in its content, some of the mentions of energy are of note. Point 8 of the declaration states that China will “further increase” investments in low emission projects such as wind, solar and other renewables, as well as energy saving technologies, and restates Xi’s UNGA pledge to stop building new coal fired power plants overseas. Chapter 7 of the Action Plan, focused on “Green Development”, echoes the declaration, stating that China will help increase the share of clean energy in the continent’s energy mix, while point 7.3.9 singles out solar PV as an area to strengthen cooperation. 

The main question here, however, is “how?”. China’s support for non-hydro renewable energy on the continent has been minimal to date and, as a timely report from the Open University, Institute for Development Studies and Africa Climate Foundation showed last week, a number of barriers to increasing cooperation exist, ranging from institutional to regulatory to financial. One key takeaway from the report is the need to develop new models for infrastructure financing as the traditional model of Chinese development finance backed by Sinosure insurance for projects developed by Chinese SOEs just has not delivered when it comes to wind and solar projects overseas. The Action Plan’s emphasis on “innovative ways of financing” mentioned above may be a positive sign of new momentum on this front.

Of interest in the Climate Declaration is a statement that “the two sides support qualified gas to power projects in accessing green investment and financing support”. Gas is not included in China’s domestic taxonomy of projects eligible for green financing and its inclusion here could be the result of a push from key African countries, including hosts Senegal, who have recently pushed for international development support for gas related infrastructure in a number of diplomatic fora. (Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama also lobbied for financial support for gas infrastructure during a bilateral press conference with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken the week before FOCAC). When it comes to energy development in the next phase of China-Africa cooperation, the ball appears to be in Africa’s court once more.

Looking ahead

While it is important to understand the China-Africa relationship on its own terms and in the context of its unique historical development, it is also increasingly relevant to see the relationship in a broader global context. In the wake of Blinken’s visit to Africa and the launch of US and EU rivals to the Belt and Road Initiative, it looks like the three year period between now and the next FOCAC will see increasing big power rivalry over Africa’s development pathway.

Not for the first time in its history, Africa finds itself in the middle of powerful competing visions of its development. But competition is not necessarily a bad thing for the continent. With agency, prudence and a strategic vision, African governments may well be able to write their own visions and build their own pathways of the kind of development they wish to see.

The authors would like to thank Yunong for her excellent research for this piece

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