Written by Ian Taylor.

This year will see South Africa hosting the 6th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Importantly, this will be the first FOCAC meeting since Xi Jinping became the Chinese president in 2013. This context is significant as Xi has thus far demonstrated an activist foreign policy that is more assertive and outward-looking than his predecessors. Where Africa fits into this broader background provides clues as to what can be expected from the FOCAC meeting.

Under Xi China has boosted its role in Africa’s security affairs with the dispatchment of 170 combat troops from the People’s Liberation Army’s to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. This came only two months after Xi had assumed office and marked a departure from the former practice of only sending non-combat staff such as engineers and medics. Mali was the first time China has sent combat troops under a UN mandate. In December 2014 it was announced that Beijing would send a 700-strong contingent to South Sudan as part of a UN mission to protect civilians. China’s interest in the area remains high; Beijing has continued its naval missions in the Gulf of Aden against Somali piracy and has thus far sent 16 fleets to the Horn of Africa, escorting more than 5,300 ships and vessels. 

Xi has also pressed forward Chinese involvement in developmental aspects of the Sino-African relationship, for example emphasizing African infrastructure development. This is in part a response to the negative exposure China has experienced over claims that China’s interest in Africa is only about natural resource exploitation. 

During his visit to Africa in May 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promoted what was has become known as the “461 framework” (four principles for deepening cooperation, six areas to promote new projects, and one platform for cooperation). Three networks were also mentioned (a high-speed rail network, a highway network and an aviation network). It is likely that some of these plans will come into existence or be developed during the forthcoming FOCAC meeting. A focus on infrastructure development as well as agricultural development, industrialization, capacity training and technology transfer through investment in manufacturing industries will no doubt also be highlighted. Furthermore, security matters will almost certainly be discussed. 

Yet here there is a problem. As the financier of these projects, China is in the driving seat and despite all the talk of “win-win” scenarios, Africa continues–now fifteen years after the first FOCAC meeting–to appear as the passive object of Chinese interest at these meetings. Whilst mutual cooperation will be talked about, it is still difficult to identify African agency in the proceedings. For instance, in late January 2015 China and the African Union agreed on an ambitious plan to develop road, rail and air transport routes to link capitals across the continent. Despite the claim by African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma that the proposal was “the most substantive project the AU has ever signed with a partner”, the agreement contained few actual details and was merely a “commitment” to develop Africa’s infrastructure. Signed at the Chinese-built AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, the announcement coincidentally came just before a summit meeting of the AU. 

Surely the agreement was not a case of Beijing prepping the ground before FOCAC VI? But even if this was the case, it is again China which is revealed to be in the driving seat. This may be problematic given that the ambitious announcement, although devoid of actual details, suggests a degree and level of coordination between China and Africa and between and amongst African states that has never been seen before. Given that the announcement does not appear to have organically evolved from the AU, the idea that multiple actors of varying competency ranging over multiple African countries can push the project forward remains to be seen. 

Africa urgently requires a coordinated appraisal of the Chinese agenda, with a robust cost-benefit analysis driving the process. It is vital that strategies and priorities for Africa line up alongside the agenda that China seems to be setting. This is not going to be easy given that China’s growth is slowing and it is currently undergoing a strategic rebalancing of its economy away from investment and towards domestic consumption. Thus whilst agricultural transformation may be a priority for Africa, how is this in China’s interests? Whilst space precludes a more in-depth discussion, the Chinese economy is most definitely slowing down and this is likely to have an effect on Africa, particularly those countries (of which there are many) that rely on commodity exports to drive their economies. 

Here, the role of the African Union becomes paramount. As the continental body, it has a clear mandate to synthesize the continent’s policy positions on development and the wider Sino-African agenda. For African leaders serious about their commitment to development (which sadly, cannot be guaranteed in all countries), the prioritisation of structural transformation must be central. In all instances, an evaluation of how Chinese engagement will contribute or undermine this goal needs to be rigorously applied. Demanding delivery on investments that the continent requires most-particularly in the manufacturing sector and the creation of employment-is required. In some countries this is going to be awkward. It has become quite clear that some elements of African opinion have already entered into a dependency mind-set with regard to China’s rise in Africa. Their “vision” seems to be to replace dependency on the ex-colonial powers with dependency on China. This is obviously not wise. 

Such a potential negative outcome is not a problem that can be specifically associated with Chinese engagement with Africa. It is in fact intimately linked to the nature of the state in much of Africa and the behaviour of African elites. In this regard, Chinese policy will always be vulnerable to the claim that in dealing only with the state and rigorously adhering to its “non-interference” strategy, Beijing exacerbates existing structural faults in the political economies of a number of African states. Until and unless African elites themselves advance transparency, pro-development policies and equitable growth (and are prepared to and competent enough to put them into force), China’s position in some countries will remain open to critique. But this is hardly China-specific and the more lurid accounts of China’s role in Africa need ditching. The African continent is a hard place for all external actors to operate in and the norms and mores of the reigning elites tend to complicate matters. This is not to ignore the very real structural constraints that Africa faces, but equally does not let the political leadership of the continent of the hook. In many ways, as China’s relations with the continent deepens over time, the difficulties and problems become more and more apparent. In other words, Sino-African relations continue to be normalised and fit ever more with the experiences of those actors who have been present in the continent for a far longer time.

Ian Taylor is Professor in International Relations and African Politics at St Andrews and Chair Professor in the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China. Image credit: CC by GovernmentZA/Flickr.