To guide and shape the ever-growing interactions between China and Africa, the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was instituted, and has been the main platform for China–Africa partnership since the year 2000. FOCAC is not a mere concept that defines one country as the only actor or organizer-in-chief in the process. In fact, it clearly implies a common journey of both African countries and China, which takes domestic and international resolving and channeling them toward a shared destiny with an incremental course of synergetic cooperation.
Under FOCAC, African countries have the potential to access China’s accumulated industrial, technological and production capacity and financial resources. China can play a pivotal role in enhancing connectivity, infrastructure development and industrialization in Africa. Chinese investments are already creating employment opportunities and contributing to Africa’s economic growth and also transfer knowledge, skill and technology. A 2019 ODI study, for instance, found that Chinese factories that have opened in Ethiopia use local people for 90% of all jobs (and 100% for low-skilled jobs). But more importantly, it offers an opportunity for African countries to strategize together to ensure that the relationship delivers even more benefits to Africa.
Since its inception, FOCAC has proved to be an effective cooperation mechanism between Africa and China. The Sixth FOCAC Summit held in South Africa in December 2015 clearly underlined the importance of FOCAC in pursuing the socioeconomic and political interests of both Africa and China. The Johannesburg Action Plan for the period 2016–2018 was given impetus by a pledge of USD 60 billion by President Xi Jinping at the summit, as well as several outcomes—demanded by African leaders—focusing on increasing and diversifying exports from Africa to China. This could be taken as concrete demonstration of strong commitment and partnership between the two parties.
In September 2018, at the FOCAC Summit in Beijing, another USD 60 billion was earmarked for eight areas of cooperation: industrial promotion, infrastructure connectivity, trade facilitation, green development, capacity building, health, people-to-people exchanges and peace and security. This political commitment of the Chinese leadership to the mutually beneficial and strategic partnership with Africa for common growth and prosperity has created a rare historic opportunity in pursuing a win–win and sustainable partnership.
The goals set forth in various declarations are priorities for Africa and hence reflect mutual interest. Full implementation of the pledges made at the summit is of course still in progress. To that effect, action plans were worked out at the coordinators meeting in June 2018 and after the summit were followed up with further coordination meetings, with a view to the next summit later this year.
FOCAC serves as a platform for dialog, consultation and cooperation between China and African countries, and it has become a model of south–south cooperation. Over the course of nearly two decades, China has become Africa’s biggest economic partner in trade, investment, infrastructure development, financing and development assistance. China also takes an active interest in peace and security programs and missions in Africa, working together to realize a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa, which are the key pillars of the 2063 African Agenda.
Currently, there are no other countries with such a depth and breadth of engagement in Africa as China, as illustrated by recent studies. The concrete results of cooperation on the ground in Africa speak volumes for themselves.
Another milestone in the China–Africa partnership that complements FOCAC is China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), first announced in 2013. Given that the Belt and Road Initiative has its own vision and action plan, dedicated political arena, financial institutions and resources, it will not simply count as proof of FOCAC’s achievements, but should reinforce and expand the scope and depth of cooperation. Currently, 46 of the 53 countries with diplomatic relations with China are participating in the Belt and Road Initiative, which means that resources in addition to those under FOCAC may well become available under the BRI. But perhaps more importantly, it also means that cooperation areas that are being promoted under the initiative and FOCAC, such as industrialization and infrastructure can receive even stronger political support from China, which may help fast track the implementation of projects in those areas.
As the BRI is not limited to bilateral relations between China and African countries, but aims to connect Asia, Europe and Africa, and African Belt and Road Initiative countries can benefit from new connections and expand cooperation with countries along the Maritime Silk Road in South Asia and Southeast Asia.
Let me be very clear here. Like any partnership, the China–Africa partnership has never been spared from criticism, misperception and often times suffers from gross generalizations that lack an evidence-based approach. One should always bear in mind that when talking about the success or failure of such a partnership, both context and micro-level analyses are important. Africa’s partnerships with other countries must be equally examined with respect to their benefits, while different African countries themselves have widely varying trade and finance relationships with China (and other partners), depending on their development situations. Africa, however, continues to suffer from being treated as a single entity, and generalization of this diverse and huge continent is bound to be misleading.
Let me also add that there is no country or region or continent that can afford to avoid China or Africa. But, it is how countries or regions see Africa and China that matters—as equal entities, entities to be trusted or entities to be instructed. It is clear that the first attitude is the right attitude. As indicated above, it is obvious that Africa also has partnership with multiple countries and unions. And from my experience, the Africa–China relationship is based on equality. But, why is there so much noise surrounding China–Africa relations? Are we running the risk of politicizing it or are we lacking impartiality and objectivity?
I believe Africans are equal partners, who can differentiate what is good and what is bad for ourselves. The patronizing attitude by some who set patchy narratives about the partnership does not seem to be in good faith.
Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that this is a perfect partnership. No!! No partnership is perfect. The China–Africa partnership is not perfect. There are challenges related to capacity to implement projects, lack of technological capability, issues related to good governance, trade imbalances, value addition, terms of loans and so on. But, I am in the position to know first-hand that these are challenges that are being addressed progressively and in particular through the framework of FOCAC. Indeed, the solution to imperfections is more cooperation—not less.
So, what, if anything, has changed in the Africa–China relationship due to COVID-19 and what does this mean for the future?