Is one continent, one country a viable strategy for Africa-China relations?

Three top executives of state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation Limited were fatally shot in the Radisson Bleu Hotel Attacks in Bamako. The victims add to a worrisome set of attacks involving Chinese nationals abroad. Interestingly, a preliminary study points that over half of these attacks occur across Africa with South Africa topping the list.  It is also South Africa that will host the Forum of China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this December where talks about closer security cooperation between China and African states are on the agenda.

FOCAC is China’s main multilateral platform of cooperation with African states. This will be the sixth edition of the Forum, held successfully every three years for the last fifteen years and alternating between China as a host and an African country (2003 in Ethiopia, 2006 in China, 2009 in Egypt, and 2012 in China). In December, over fifty state and government leaders are expected at the forum in Johannesburg.

Despite the fact that official relations between PRC and South Africa were established as late as 1998, China became South Africa’s largest trading partner, and South Africa is home to one of the continent’s oldest Chinese communities. The two countries enjoy strong relations and South Africa’s strategic and geopolitical position as the gate to Africa’s market and as a BRICS member make it the best fit to host this summit.

This summit will also be the first one under Xi Jinping’s presidency, and will take place amidst an environment where Chinese foreign policy is focusing attention to regional integration by advancing the “New Silk Road Initiative.” This initiative, also known as the “One Belt One Road,” is a platform for enhancing China’s regional trade relations. It connects China to Central Asia, Russia, and parts of Europe, effectively shifting quite a bit of attention and investments away from China-Africa.

Yet, another source of anxiety facing China-Africa relations is China’s economic slowdown and the Yuan devaluation policies, which had caused African-made goods and commodities to become more expensive and less competitive in China’s market. Additionally, the sharp decrease in Chinese investments in Africa (down by 84% in the first half of this year) is another challenge that has to be addressed.

The actual meetings during the Summit this December, have more of a symbolic appeal than actual work and bargaining done. Policy points are largely agreed upon prior to the Summit’s launch. The relevance of bringing together as many heads of state is of a soft power nature. In terms of what to expect at this summit, it is fair to assume there will be more of a continuation rather than a disruption of previous editions. There will be announcements of cooperation on fronts that parallel past FOCAC actions plans. A special attention on security cooperation and countering violent extremism (CVE) is expected.

Something else to expect to see in this Forum is the willingness to step up Africa’s agency and role in FOCAC. This is already evident in naming the theme of the Forum: “Africa-China Progressing Together: Win-Win Cooperation for Common Development”. The focus here is flipped from the usual ‘China-Africa’ to ‘Africa-China’ signaling an emphasis on promoting Africa’s proactive role(s) in this cooperation platform.

Yet, there are several lingering issues, which will need a solid political commitment from both sides. Ivory smuggling, animal poaching, and environmental damage are some examples. Recently, Tanzania’s authorities arrested Yang Feng Glan on the allegations of being involved in a network of ivory smuggling between 2000 and 2014. The case of Yang, who is referred to in the media as “The Ivory Queen,” is likely going to bring to light the need for proactive measures to put an end to this trade. Another big elephant in the room is the controversy behind Sam Pa’s Queensway Group and the intricate webs of corruption that are span around Africa’s energy sectors. These issues can no longer be silenced or ignored at such big events as FOCAC summits; they will likely be addressed in some format.

Regardless of the proliferation of the one continent-one country summits lately, with India-Africa summit, and US-Africa summit as examples, I believe that China is one of the most decisive trading partners for Africa. Competition from other emerging or traditional powers is not going to threaten the centrality and increasing interdependence in the China-Africa relations.

However, the main challenge for the continent remains that there is a lack of consensus building in terms of African strategies towards India, the US, or China. Necessarily given the diversity across the 54 countries, it is hard to think about one African platform but this should not overshadow the need for more internal collaboration and consensus building within the continent to strengthen, collectively and with the AU, the bargaining power of the African parties.

*For FOCAC developments follow, among others, the China-Africa Reporting Project (@witschinaafrica), Daniel Large (@dantmlarge) or the hashtags #SinoAfrica, #FOCAC

Lina Benabdallah

Lina Benabdallah is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at UF. She focuses on South-South power dynamics and China-Africa relations.

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