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Africa-China relations under scrutiny: building a community with a shared future

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Picture: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS / December 4, 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the FOCAC summit in December 2015. China’s values have resonated effectively with African countries, leading some to adopt the ‘look East’ policies, a strategic shift indicative of the perceived alignment of interests and ideologies between African countries and China, .

By Chidochashe Nyere, Hellen Adogo and Gideon Chitanga

Africa-China relations were once again under scrutiny at the recently concluded roundtable discussion held at the University of Johannesburg, on February 6, 2024. The impending ninth Forum of China Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) meeting signifies an important milestone, marking 24 years since the forum’s inception. The roundtable discussion was held between the Chinese Consular General, Mr Pan Qingjiang with his team and African scholars and academics whose expertise include Africa-China relations.

Mr Qingjiang and the panelists at the event highlighted the cordial and friendly relations that African countries and China have enjoyed over the years. Significantly, China supported numerous African nationalists in their struggles for independence and freedom from European colonial rule, offering various forms of assistance including military training, equipment, ideological orientation, financial, and moral support, thereby establishing a strong historical alliance with African nations.

China continues to be on the right side of history in terms of its positionality on world affairs, notably, its stance on the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Palestine-Israel conflict.

China’s values have resonated effectively with African countries, leading some to adopt the “look East” policies, a strategic shift indicative of the perceived alignment of interests and ideologies between African countries and China. African rulers are drawn to China’s non-interference approach, which maintains a policy of detachment from internal political affairs. This strategic stance fosters a sense of autonomy and sovereignty among African countries, contributing to the appeal of China’s engagement in the region.

The Consular General renewed his resolve to foster relations that are based on mutual respect. Furthermore, he underlined that the nature of the relationships between China and African states is characterised by partnering to mutually benefiting engagements. China has been instrumental in developing African polities, particularly on transport (Belt and Road Initiative – BRI ), mining, trade, agriculture and has significantly invested in education through government grants and scholarships meant to benefit African states’ nationals.

Despite this, Africa-China relations have faced significant challenges. China has continued to benefit – not of its own making – but from the fragmentation of African states. Due to colonisation that was instituted at the Berlin West Africa Conference (1882-5), infamously known as the Scramble for Africa, African states have continued to be divided along European colonial borders. This alone has weakened African agency especially as it relates to multilateral platforms and institutions. The bureaucracy of convening a meeting of all the African Heads of State can be cumbersome, let alone reaching a consensus on urgent matters.

The African Union (AU), as a collective of 55 African states, is besieged by lengthy bureaucratic procedures and processes that weaken, minimise and, at times, undermine African agency on important matters of global urgency. As such, many global players, China included, tend to exert asymmetrical and unbalanced pressure when negotiating deals with African states. The sizes of economies remain unequal and this militates against African states.

Global players such as the US, Russia and China approach Africa as a unit, yet Africa is not unitary. The focus on the AU by China thus seems futile as the AU is in dire need of reconfiguration itself. African leaders continue to fall short on leadership and seemingly endorse each other in the AU. There is a deep sense that the AU has failed as a vehicle to realise the freedoms of African nationals, but rather it has increasingly become a club of states that protect each other from retribution following the numerous failures of its leaders in their respective jurisdictions.

However, a new reality can emerge if African countries, economies, trade infrastructure, education and knowledge production, security apparatuses and defence mechanisms are centrally co-ordinated and combined. This highlights the clarion call for Africa to unite, unify, amalgamate and eventually unionise in its foreign affairs. While this is no small task, it is heartening to observe countries like Kenya starting to treat China with greater seriousness, indicating a deliberate effort to formulate their own foreign policy stances towards Beijing.

Ahead of the ninth FOCAC gathering, African states need to harness their best legal, linguistic and financial minds when negotiating and concluding deals with global players such as China. There is need for selecting African teams and representatives who are immersed in thorough research to understand what the terms of loan repayments entail, for example, in order to avert situations such as the controversy around the defaulting of Zambia and Uganda, and the subsequent possession of the Lusaka and Entebbe airports respectively, by China.

The case of Tanzania under the late former President Magufuli, who rebuffed Chinese deals deemed contrary to Tanzania’s national interests, offers valuable lessons. Sharing such experiences is crucial in bolstering African agency and fostering a more robust Africa-China community with a shared future.

Language was identified as a barrier that has contributed to African states’ continual outmanoeuvring by China. China seemingly is doing well regarding their nationals learning native African languages which comes in handy for them when negotiations happen. The same cannot be said for African representatives; thus, there is need for a concerted effort for Africans to learn Mandarin as this is thought to position African representatives well and favourably when negotiating with the Chinese.

As the ninth FOCAC meeting approaches in Beijing, it’s imperative for the African side to acknowledge that after 24 years, maintaining the status quo is no longer viable. This upcoming gathering presents a crucial opportunity to evaluate the trajectory of Africa-China relations, particularly through the lens of trade engagements, global governance, infrastructure and other key focal points.

Moreover, it serves as a platform for Africans to showcase their commitment to rectifying the inequalities in the relationship. While China has explored alternative avenues for engagement with African countries, such as through initiatives like BRICS and the BRI, it is essential for the African side to present a co-ordinated agenda. This co-ordinated effort is vital for advancing the objectives outlined in the AU’s Agenda 2063, thereby fostering the development of an Africa-China community with a shared future that prioritises African interests.

Chidochashe Nyere is a researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg. Hellen Adogo is a researcher at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg. Gideon Chitanga is a researcher at the Centre for Africs China Studies, University of Johannesburg.