China’s politics at the 8th FOCAC: A withdrawal from Africa?
By Tom Wendling
African leaders had their eyes set on a giant screen, where Xi Jinping stated on a live video from Beijing, with a calm and unemotional voice, that “To help the African Union (AU) to achieve its goal of vaccinating 60 percent of the African population by 2022, I announce that, China will provide another one billion doses of vaccines to Africa”1. This happened during the opening of the 8th Forum on China–Africa Cooperation ministerial conference (FOCAC), which was held between the 29th and the 30th November 2021 in Dakar, Senegal. This pledge has been widely discussed by the western media. On the one hand, some newspapers like Le Monde or The Economist2 point out the decline of the Chinese presence in Africa, because that pledge focuses mainly on health and environment and reveals a decrease of investment by China in the continent. On the other hand, other media like Agence Afrique or African Business3 are more qualified in showing that China tries to balance the exchanges in order to create a win-win situation for both groups, China and Africa, with the aim of asserting its difference from the Western powers.
Based on these considerations, this article proposes to analyze China’s strategy at the Forum while inserting this event in the history of Sino-African relations since the 2000s, with the first FOCAC in October 2000 in Beijing.
A cooperation which seems at first sight to be a win-win situation for both parties
If we look at the figures, the value of trade has increased twentyfold from 2002 to 2020, from $10 billion to $200 billion dollars4. Consequently, the Chinese diaspora appears well-rooted in the continent, with more than 6,000 African companies run by Chinese people while 4,000 others are Chinese companies established in Africa. Although these figures sound impressive, it remains to be seen how this money is used in Africa. Basically, China finances public key infrastructures such as highways, railroads or city halls . For instance, Djibouti perfectly embodies this Chinese policy, with an $8.2 million fund alleged to the construction of a hospital in the city of Arta and a $2.41 million grant for the construction of a new headquarters for the Djiboutian Foreign Minister during the years 2010s5.
The opening ceremony for China’s new military base in Djibouti in August 2017. This base embodies the will of China to play in the big league next to French and US military bases in this strategic region of Africa.
Credit: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Regarding the effects, the situation is at first glance beneficial for both sides. It helps the African Union to further emancipate themselves from their former colonial powers like France or the United Kingdom by consolidating their states and enhancing the quality of life in their country. As for China, helping its “African friend”6 allows it to establish itself in this strategic region and to weaken the Western countries. The case of Djibouti demonstrates once again very well this strategy. As a matter of fact, China decides to settle a military base7 which has the double benefit of undermining French and US military presence and to secure the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and for Djibouti to reinforce its independence from Western countries.
A relationship that hides unbalanced exchanges
However, a closer look at the exchanges reveals that this relation hides unbalanced exchanges. Indeed, the figures display an enormous trade imbalance. The African exports to China sum up the situation: African products represent around 4% of China’s overall imports8. These African goods are mainly raw materials like minerals or fossil energy. This example shows the inequality in the exchanges between China and Africa. In the light of this observation, several African leaders want to rebalance the exchanges by asking China to open its market to African products, to invest more in African industries and to share Chinese technologies in order to modernize African firms.
In addition to that, the reality is that China provides more service delivery than true investments. Consequently, the cost of these infrastructures is borne by the African economy through their debt to Chinese banks, which amounts today to 145 billion dollars, and represents “62.1% of its bilateral external debt in 2020, compared to 3.1% in 2000”9. This situation clearly shows the dangerous turn the relationship has taken for Africa, and explains why Beijing has been accused many times of practicing debt-trap diplomacy on the continent. This charge of debt trap diplomacy suggests that Beijing is seeking to saddle nations with debt to increase its leverage over them. One argument that gives strength to this theory is the overwhelming presence of China in United Nations institutions. As a matter of fact, China currently has the leadership of four UN agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Neither the Europeans nor the Americans have ever led so many bodies at once. China was only able to gain these positions because of African support at the General Assembly.
Thus, this dangerous relationship has led to a certain loss of trust by African people towards the Communist Republic. This is shown by the rate of « favorable » opinions towards China in the polls between 2013 and 2019. In South Africa, it has dropped from 48% to 46%, in Kenya from 78% to 58%, and in Nigeria from 76% to 70%10. These polls convey the desire of African leaders to reshape the relationship on another basis.
With this forum, China intends to redefine its relationship with Africa mainly towards health cooperation
This forum was therefore the opportunity to redefine the exchanges in a better way for both sides. That is what some points of the “2035 Vision for China-Africa Cooperation”show11. The plan, elaborated by both groups during the forum, is divided into eight programs to strengthen Sino-African cooperation for the next few years. Firstly, we see that Xi seems to pay attention to African requests. The first element of the plan, which aims to provide one billion doses of vaccine to Africa, goes this way. Indeed, China will not send all vaccine doses to Africa without real investment in the development of African countries: according to Xi, 400 million doses of the 1 billion promised will be produced directly on the African continent in cooperation with African scientists. Furthermore, China will undertake 10 medical and health projects in African countries and send 1 500 medical personnel and public health experts to Africa. At first sight, it seems that China is ready to share its know-how with African countries and we can only hope that this health diplomacy will participate in the development of the medical industry in Africa.
Map showing the global infrastructures of the BRI. We can see that Chinese infrastructures (especially railroads) are implanted in the West of the continent as well as the East.
However, a closer look reveals quite clearly that this health diplomacy is not so virtuous for the AU and is conceived by Beijing as a useful tool for its foreign policy rather than as a way to truly help African nations in their development. In fact, this tool has the advantage to fulfill several purposes of the Chinese foreign strategy and can easily be compared to a Swiss knife. Firstly, it helps to expand the BRI in Africa12 by opening new areas of economic cooperation in the health sector, consequently adding a Health Silk Road (HRS) to the BRI. Secondly, it is a tactic to promote the Chinese authoritarian regime in Africa by showing the efficiency of Chinese organization as well as a way to discredit Western democratic governments.It indeed sends the message: “when Westerners were showing patriotism or vaccine nationalism, we Chinese, were there for you, and you could not have fought Covid-19 effectively without us”13. Thirdly, far from being a donation without conditions, these exchanges bond more African countries to China by creating another debt cycle based on health aid. African countries are pushed to support China in international organizations in order to repay their debt towards the communist country. This strategy also enables China to silence criticisms of human rights abuses on its soil.
Financial investments revised downwards
Aside from the subject of health, trade was the most important topic to discuss with China for the AU. If the commitments on health have been rather well regarded by African heads of state, regarding trade, the promises of Xi are more mixed. Indeed, China’s head of state announced that his nation would provide $40 billion to Africa, whereas at previous meetings China’s financial pledges added up to $60 billion14. This was well seen by Western media because it shows that, to some extent, China is beginning to lose interest in Africa. But to reassure its African partners, President Xi announced a financial commitment of ten billion dollars to support African exports to China, while evasively mentioning an « expansion » of customs exemptions for access to Chinese markets for the benefit of « the poorest countries » of Africa15. If these last measures seem to go in the right direction for the AU, they remain to be seen in the future because no concrete projects have yet been revealed.
Thus, these measures appear to be a milestone in China-Africa relations as they put an end to the strategy started at the beginning of the 21st century of financing big infrastructure projects in the continent. During this period, the goal was mainly to use these projects as outlets for China’s significant financing capabilities by financing big projects and not especially flooding Africa with Chinese products. Even if African countries don’t succeed in paying off their debts, China included in most of the contracts a security clause which compels the governments to reimburse in raw material or in infrastructure. In both cases, the strategy was beneficial to China: either China gains money from the interest of the debt, or it takes over some infrastructures for a certain period of time on the continent. This has already happened in Sri Lanka, where China took over the Hambantota International Port for 99 years in 201716.
However, with the current unstable economic situation of China,17 where Chinese banks are looking for more funds, the latter are more and more reluctant to lend money to African states which have increasing difficulties to repay their debts to Chinese banks. In this context, the aim is no longer to gain a foothold in Africa, but to make Africa “a consumption market,”18 in order to make money.
Environment, digital economy and security became essential sectors in Sino-African relations
China wants to invest more on other projects and sectors that can allow it to raise money quickly and to continue to strengthen the dependence of Africa towards China. This is shown by the points 4, 5 and 7 of the plan which correspond respectively to the sectors of environment, digital economy and security. In these three fields, China wants to sell its production to make money and to sharpen African technological dependence on China. Indeed, in the fifth measure of the agreement where China promises to transform “clean and low-carbon energy cooperation”19, it goes without saying that Xi intends to sell photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, a sector led by China on a worldwide scale. Concerning the second and third sectors, China hopes to increase African reliance by selling its aerospace and military technology together with a strong cooperation of the laboratories and the scientists of both groups. Additionally, these sales will lead to more consumption “by the simple fact that the merchandise must be replaced, repaired or improved, generating purchases”20, further increasing Africa’s dependence on China.
Lastly, security deserves a finer analysis because it was the second essential aspect to discuss with the communist republic after the trade for the AU. Indeed, several African countries (Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Mali or Niger) have non-negligible terrorist presence on their ground which entails a true insecurity for the locals and a constant threat for African regimes. With Macron’s announcement of the end of France’s intervention in the Sahel region in early 2022,21 doubts were raised regarding the future securing of the region. That’s why Senegal has officially asked for a Chinese involvement in Sahel22. As the 7th point of the agreement shows, China limits itself to logistical and financial support and to vague promises of joint military exercises. In a nutshell , China doesn’t want to take over the military leadership left by France and consequently doesn’t meet Africans’ expectations.
China’s foreign politics in FOCAC: a huge sanitarian aid for Africans, a persisting threat for Western countries
To conclude, this 8th FOCAC forum has redefined the exchanges between China and Africa which were truly uneven during these last years. We can see that China has tried to change the aspect of the relationship which will lean more on medical aid, environmental and digital cooperation, but does not really take into account security, although it was a crucial issue for the AU. Far from being a withdrawal, this forum shows only to a certain extent a continuity in Chinese’s foreign strategy, which is now more focused on health diplomacy since the COVID-19 crisis, consequently leading it to modify its approach towards Africa. Moreover, the end of the diplomacy of investments in big projects is replaced by a new strategy based on stronger cooperation in the environmental and digital sectors, where China can sell its technology and increase bonds between both continents.
Through these different factors, China remains a threat for Western countries as shown by the last European global infrastructure scheme called “Global Gateway”23. Amounting to $340 billion, this project was created as a rival to China’s BRI and has the objective to finance ports, roads, and other infrastructures outside Europe, and especially in Africa. Thus, the economic and political war between Western countries and China in Africa is far from over.
1 “Full Text: Xi Jinping’s Keynote Speech at Opening Ceremony of 8th FOCAC Ministerial Conference.” Focac.Org, November 30th 2021, http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/zxyw_1/202112/t20211202_10461076.htm
2 “La Chine promet à l’Afrique des vaccins plutôt que des financements” by Le Monde, and “Africa’s ties to China and the West are starting to look more alike” by The Economist.
3 A David Thomas, “What did FOCAC 2021 deliver for Africa? ”, African Business https://african.business/2021/11/trade-investment/what-can-africa-expect-from-focac-2021 And “Fin du Focac 2021: La Chine promet de soutenir l’Afrique sans lui «imposer sa volonté” by Agence Afrique, https://www.agenceafrique.com/31396-fin-du-focac-2021-la-chine-promet-de-soutenir-lafrique-sans-lui-imposer-sa-volonte.html.
4 Bobin, Frédéric. “« Chinafrique », l’heure des désillusions”, Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/28/chinafrique-l-heure-des-desillusions_6103897_3212.html.
5 Strange, Austin. “China’s Development Finance to Africa: A Media-Based Approach to Data Collection.” Social Science Research Network, 29 Apr. 2013, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2259924.
6 “Full Text: Xi Jinping’s Keynote Speech at Opening Ceremony of 8th FOCAC Ministerial Conference.” Focac.org, November 30th 2021, http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/zxyw_1/202112/t20211202_10461076.htm
7 “China Builds First Overseas Military Outpost.” Fox News, 22th Aug. 2016, www.foxnews.com/world/china-builds-first-overseas-military-outpost.
8 Cristina Krippahl , “Who benefits from China-Africa relations?”, Deustche Welle, November 30th 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/who-benefits-from-china-africa-relations/a-59979169.
9 Bouissou, Julien. “La Chine face au problème de dettes africaines insoutenables.” Le Monde, 28 Nov. 2021, www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/28/la-chine-face-au-probleme-de-dettes-africaines-insoutenables_6103914_3212.html.
10 Bobin, Frédéric. “« Chinafrique », l’heure des désillusions”, Le Monde, November 28th 2021 https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/28/chinafrique-l-heure-des-desillusions_6103897_3212.html.
11 “ China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035.” Focac.Org, http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/hyqk_1/202112/t20211210_10466585.htm.
12 BRI which is explicity mentioned in the “China-Africa cooperation vision 2035”
13Aurégan, Xavier. « L’Afrique au temps du Covid-19 et de la route sanitaire de la soie : un relais géopolitique extraterritorial pour la Chine », Hérodote, vol. 183, no. 4, 2021, pp. 99-116.
14 “Africa’s ties to China and the West are starting to look more alike”, The Economist, December 4th 2021, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/12/02/africas-ties-to-china-and-the-west-are-starting-to-look-more-alike
15 Bobin, Frédéric, “La Chine promet à l’Afrique des vaccins plutôt que des financements”, Le Monde, November 30th 2021, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/30/la-chine-promet-a-l-afrique-des-vaccins-plutot-que-des-financements_6104211_3212.html
16 Schirer, Antoine, and Asia Balluffier. “Pourquoi la Chine investit l’Afrique.” Le Monde, uploaded by Le Monde, 22th February 2019, www.lemonde.fr/international/video/2019/02/22/pourquoi-la-chine-investit-l-afrique_5427046_3210.html.
17 “Evergrande Is Not the Only Looming Danger in China’s Financial System.” The Economist, 11th November 2021, www.economist.com/leaders/2021/11/13/evergrande-is-not-the-only-looming-danger-in-chinas-financial-system.
18 The economist at the University of Cape Town Carlos Lopes states: “it’s about Africa as a consumption market,” (“Africa’s ties to China and the West are starting to look more alike”, The Economist, December 4th 2021, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/12/02/africas-ties-to-china-and-the-west-are-starting-to-look-more-alike)
19 See 4.2 in “ China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035.” Focac.Org, http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/hyqk_1/202112/t20211210_10466585.htm
20 Aurégan, Xavier. « L’Afrique au temps du Covid-19 et de la route sanitaire de la soie : un relais géopolitique extraterritorial pour la Chine », Hérodote, vol. 183, no. 4, 2021, pp. 99-116.
21 « Nous voudrions que la voix de la Chine, compte tenu de son influence, soit une voix forte pour soutenir le Sénégal et tous les pays engagés dans le problème de l’insécurité au Sahel » in « Au sommet Chine-Afrique, le Sénégal demande le soutien de Pékin au Sahel.” France 24, 28th November 2021, www.france24.com/fr/afrique/20211128-au-sommet-chine-afrique-le-s%C3%A9n%C3%A9gal-demande-le-soutien-de-p%C3%A9kin-au-sahel
22 “Macron Announces France’s Sahel Military Force Will End in Early 2022.” France 24, 14th July 2021, www.france24.com/en/france/20210713-macron-announces-france-s-sahel-military-force-will-end-in-early-2022.
23 Malingre, Virginie, “L’Europe présente son projet à 300 milliards d’euros pour contrer les routes de la soie chinoises.” Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2021/12/01/l-europe-presente-son-projet-a-300-milliards-d-euros-pour-contrer-les-routes-de-la-soie-chinoises_6104361_3234.html
- “ China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035.” Focac.Org, http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/hyqk_1/202112/t20211210_10466585.htm. Accessed 26th Jan. 2022.
- “Full Text: Xi Jinping’s Keynote Speech at Opening Ceremony of 8th FOCAC Ministerial Conference.” Focac.org, http://focac.org.cn/focacdakar/eng/zxyw_1/202112/t20211202_10461076.htm, Accessed 26th Jan. 2022.
- Strange, Austin. “China’s Development Finance to Africa: A Media-Based Approach to Data Collection.” Social Science Research Network, 29 Apr. 2013, https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2259924. Accessed 26th January 2022
- Aurégan, Xavier. « L’Afrique au temps du Covid-19 et de la route sanitaire de la soie : un relais géopolitique extraterritorial pour la Chine », Hérodote, vol. 183, no. 4, 2021, pp. 99-116.
- Gyu, Lee Dong. “The Belt and Road Initiative after COVID: The Rise of Health and Digital Silk Roads.” Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 2021,http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep29688. Accessed 26th January 2022
- Aurégan, Xavier. “Géopolitique de la coopération Chine – Afrique. Chinafrique ?” Diploweb.com, www.diploweb.com/FOCAC-Les-enjeux-du-Forum-de.html. Accessed 26th January 2022
- Ekman, Alice. « Le récit centralisé et offensif de la diplomatie publique chinoise », Christian Lequesne éd., La puissance par l’image. Les États et leur diplomatie publique. Presses de Sciences Po, 2021, pp. 63-83.
News paper articles abouth the 8th FOCAC:
- Bobin, Frédéric, “La Chine promet à l’Afrique des vaccins plutôt que des financements”, Le Monde, November 30th 2021, https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/30/la-chine-promet-a-l-afrique-des-vaccins-plutot-que-des-financements_6104211_3212.html, Accessed 26th January 2022
- “Africa’s ties to China and the West are starting to look more alike”, The Economist, December 4th 2021, https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2021/12/02/africas-ties-to-china-and-the-west-are-starting-to-look-more-alike. Accessed 26th January 2022
- Bobin, Frédéric. “« Chinafrique », l’heure des désillusions”, Le Monde, November 28th 2021 https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/28/chinafrique-l-heure-des-desillusions_6103897_3212.html. Accessed 26th January 2022
- David Thomas, “What did FOCAC 2021 deliver for Africa? ”, African Business, November 29th 2021, https://african.business/2021/11/trade-investment/what-can-africa-expect-from-focac-2021. Accessed 26th January 2022
- Cristina Krippahl , “Who benefits from China-Africa relations?”, Deutsche Welle, November 30th 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/who-benefits-from-china-africa-relations/a-59979169. Accessed 26 January 2022
- “Au sommet Chine-Afrique, le Sénégal demande le soutien de Pékin au Sahel.” France 24, 28th November 2021, www.france24.com/fr/afrique/20211128-au-sommet-chine-afrique-le-s%C3%A9n%C3%A9gal-demande-le-soutien-de-p%C3%A9kin-au-sahel. Accessed 26th January 2022
- “Fin du Focac 2021: La Chine promet de soutenir l’Afrique sans lui «imposer sa volonté”, Agence Afrique, December 1st 2021, https://www.agenceafrique.com/31396-fin-du-focac-2021-la-chine-promet-de-soutenir-lafrique-sans-lui-imposer-sa-volonte.html. Accessed 26th January 2022.
Newspaper articles and video about event linked to the context of the FOCAC:
- “China Builds First Overseas Military Outpost.” Fox News, 22th Aug. 2016, www.foxnews.com/world/china-builds-first-overseas-military-outpost.
- Bouissou, Julien. “La Chine face au problème de dettes africaines insoutenables.” Le Monde, 28th Nov. 2021, www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/11/28/la-chine-face-au-probleme-de-dettes-africaines-insoutenables_6103914_3212.html.
- Schirer, Antoine, and Asia Balluffier. “Pourquoi la Chine investit l’Afrique.” Le Monde, uploaded by Le Monde, 22th February 2019, www.lemonde.fr/international/video/2019/02/22/pourquoi-la-chine-investit-l-afrique_5427046_3210.html.
- “Evergrande Is Not the Only Looming Danger in China’s Financial System.” The Economist, 11th November 2021, www.economist.com/leaders/2021/11/13/evergrande-is-not-the-only-looming-danger-in-chinas-financial-system. Accessed 26th January 2022
- “Macron Announces France’s Sahel Military Force Will End in Early 2022.” France 24, 14th July 2021, www.france24.com/en/france/20210713-macron-announces-france-s-sahel-military-force-will-end-in-early-2022. Accessed 26th January 2022
- Malingre, Virginie, “L’Europe présente son projet à 300 milliards d’euros pour contrer les routes de la soie chinoises.” Le Monde, https://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2021/12/01/l-europe-presente-son-projet-a-300-milliards-d-euros-pour-contrer-les-routes-de-la-soie-chinoises_6104361_3234.html Accessed 26th January 2022
Credit of the first picture : www.la-croix.com