By Emeka Umejei and Bob Wekesa
The 2015 Johannesburg Summit and sixth ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held under the theme of “China-Africa Progressing Together: Win-Win Cooperation for Common Development”, ended on December 5 on a high note. If nothing else, the fact that the Summit was attended by 48 African heads of state and government as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping; thirty-eight foreign ministers; twenty-four trade ministers and twenty-nine other ministers, is sufficient to assess it as one of the major geopolitical events of 2015. On the sidelines of the summit, groups of journalists, civil society, business executives, academics and representatives of multinational organizations made their presence felt albeit outside of the formal event.
Since the conclusion of the summit there has been reporting and commentary galore as various parties try to make sense of an event that has various ramifications for continent and country and the world at large. The quantity and quality of coverage and commentary on the Johannesburg Summit is varied and wide-ranging, but one way to categorize the wealth of FOCAC reporting is to consider the optimistic, pessimistic and pragmatic dimensions.
Optimism is conceived of here as an inclination toward all things favourable, propounding the good tidings of FOCAC. In this regard, the magical figure of US$60 billion in commitments by the Chinese towards Africa announced by President Xi Jinping on December 4 topped the charts. This figure was greeted with ‘pleasant’ surprise especially by the leaders because, among other reasons, a headline-grabbing figure such as this is a leading indicator of China’s substantial commitment to Africa. But the other perhaps less appreciated point of the Summit is China’s upgrading of its relations with Africa from a ‘strategic partnership’ to a ‘comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership’ as seen in China’s President Xi’s speeches and in China’s newly launched Africa Policy 2015.
The essence of this upgrade, Xi Jinping emphasised, is to allow Africa and China to take advantage of opportunities in technology and shift in economic power. This, he noted, will also make it feasible for Africa and China to work together to combat challenges such as terrorism, climate change and the downturn of economic growth.
Consequently, Xi proposed ‘five major pillars’ to strengthen the new level of partnership between China and Africa. These include commitment to political equality and mutual trust; to promoting win-win economic cooperation; to mutually enriching cultural exchanges; to mutual assistance in security; and to solidarity and coordination in international affairs.
However, the Summit reached its apogee on the first day (4 December), when President Xi announced that China would provide US$60 billion in funding support to Africa to ensure the successful implementation of the ten areas of cooperation proposed by China. The funding, according to Xi, includes US$5 billion of grants and zero-interest loans; US$35 billion of loans of concessional nature on more favourable terms and an export credit line; an increase of US$5 billion to the China-Africa Development Fund and a US$5 billion Special Loan for the Development of African SMEs; and a China-Africa Fund for Production Capacity Cooperation with an initial contribution of US$10 billion.
Xi’s announcement elicited widespread excitement among the 48 African heads of government (accompanied by huge delegations of minister and senior officials), who were attending the Summit. African Union (AU) Chairman and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe captured the optimism in his speech.
“I must say after listening to Xi Jinping, a speech so rich in forms of assistance covering practically all our sectors – agriculture, mining, infrastructure, industry etc., poverty alleviation included, our children and women. So much and so many facets of assistance, I am sure, you will agree with me that we give him a round of applause”, said Mugabe. “Here is the representative of a country once called poor. A country which never was our coloniser. He is doing to us what we expected colonisers in history to do. If they have ears to listen, let them hear”, he added with a jab to the West.
The excitement underscores the fact that China, for the first time since the establishment of FOCAC in 2000, tripled its funding window to Africa. For instance, at the 2006 Beijing Summit, China offered to provide loans and credits totalling US$5billion; this doubled to US$10 billion in 2009 and US$20 billion in 2012 comprising grants, aid, and long-term and concessional loans earmarked for projects in Africa.
Pessimism stands in contrast to optimism as an inclination towards all things negative whether for China and/or Africa or indeed the FOCAC event itself.
Despite the fact the Summit was held on African soil, it appeared Africa and African countries were not prepared policy-wise, which inspires the feeling that FOCAC is more of a Chinese mechanism than an African one. While China launched its second Africa Policy document at the Johannesburg Summit, detailing the scope of its engagement with Africa, the African continent did not show up with any such document. Not even the AU, which ideally represents the continent on a multilateral level, came prepared. More importantly, this is China’s second Africa policy document; the first was launched in 2006 at the Beijing Summit but Africa has none and there is no hope it will have one soon. One may argue that the AU’s Agenda 2063 may serve as a policy document from which engagements specific to Africa-China engagements can be drawn. But Agenda 2063 is a broad framework whose statements of intent such as continental economic integration require tailor-making for various partners such as China. Indeed, Beijing’s latest policy towards Africa captures Agenda 2063’s propositions, meaning that the AU needs at the very least to respond with its own framework.
This brings us to a critical question that underscores China-Africa relations: Is it sustainable when one party is always on the receiving end and the other on the giving end? What is Africa bringing to the table? While it may seem exciting to argue that China’s aid to Africa is hedged against natural resources, President Mugabe dismissed this notion.
“Once again, our detractors have sought to portray and reduce our relations to purely commercial ties driven, in their view, as they say by China’s appetite for and desire to extract raw materials from our continent,” he said. “On the contrary, reality, fortunately, does not confirm to such distorted imaginative creations. Our relations go much deeper than the extraction of resources. We are committed to strengthening the current and multi-faceted and multi-dimensional relations between African countries and China.” It is indeed correct that Africa-China relations are much more than natural resources extraction. However, the fact that Mugabe – speaking for the continent as current Chairman of the AU – touched on the natural resources issue can be seen in reverse as an admission of a pessimistic strand in relations.
One way of reading pessimism into the relations during the Johannesburg Summit is to consider what was not said rather than merely interpreting and analysing what was captured in the communiqués. It will be noticed that as such hot button issues as the heft of Chinese migrations into Africa (and African migrations to China) as well as various forms of illegalities particularly by individual Chinese entrepreneur-migrants (and their African counterparts in China) were off the radar. These and other problems that were conspicuous by their absence in the declarations and action plans have soured engagements in certain quarters but particularly with respect to ‘China-in-Africa’. Failure to account for these issues one way or another introduces pessimism, whether it is because they are too complex, embarrassing or uncomfortable to feature at an event such as FOCAC.
For want of a better term, pragmatism should here serve as that midway position between optimism and pessimism. It devolves from the fact that analysts can seek to strike a balance between all things positive and all things negative with the Johannesburg Summit as the point of departure.
While the government-to-government perspective on Africa-China relations has remained promising and impactful, the same cannot be said about the ordinary people in Africa. Therefore, the obvious question is how to translate China’s offering to the hoi polloi of the African continent. The truth is that Africa-China relations have resulted in infrastructural development on the African continent but whether it is trickling down is a different ball game.
President Jacob Zuma of South Africa stated this much in his closing remarks when he charged that the “announcement and agreements reached at the Johannesburg Summit must translate to concrete benefits for our people”. In this statement, one sees the host President taking cognizance of both the benefits in the engagements on the one hand, and a gap that needs addressing.
Although words and phrases such as ‘win-win’ cooperation and mutual benefits have often been approached with suspicion, a close examination reveals the pragmatic core from whence they emanate. For China, win-win means that as a developing country, it must extract some benefit from engagement with Africa in order to grow its own economy in the coming years. For Africa, limited funding for projects – many of them quite basic – from so-called traditional partners makes China a worthy alternative and increasingly, the only option. This was indeed eloquently enunciated by President Mugabe.
Emeka Umejei is a PhD candidate at Wits Journalism and Dr Bob Wekesa is a post-doctoral fellow at the China-Africa Reporting Project at Wits Journalism.