Every three years African and Chinese politicians gather at a diplomatic jamboree known as the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC). The summits, which attract more African heads of state than annual UN gatherings, are waypoints in China’s long journey on the continent. Over the past three decades it has become the pre-eminent partner for many African countries. Its importance will be apparent again in 2021 at the next FOCAC meeting, the eighth, which is due to take place in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
Yet the context for this summit is different from that of the previous seven. During the Trump presidency China’s role in Africa came in for increasing American criticism. In 2020 the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, accused China of offering African countries little but “empty promises and tired platitudes”. Though the Biden administration is less likely to use provocative rhetoric, scepticism of Chinese intentions on the continent will nevertheless endure. So the coming year could prove a tricky one for African policymakers, who are already grappling with the fallout from the pandemic.
Their aim will be to avoid getting caught up in a zero-sum game. Ken Ofori-Atta, Ghana’s finance minister, argues that ever since decolonisation, Africa has been a “chessboard” for great-power contests and that “hasn’t helped us in any way”. Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, has warned that Africa is not a prize to be fought over: “We don’t want to be forced to choose.” Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, has said that Africa should not suffer because of America’s “jealousy” of what China can offer the continent.
Therein lies the rub. For all its carping, and its vast spending in areas such as public health, America simply does not offer what China does. If you are a leader of an African country with an urgent need for new roads, bridges or ports, then Chinese finance and firms are the obvious option. “China still addresses Africa’s hunger for structural transformation in a way that the West does not,” says Deborah Brautigam of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.
The same is true of telecommunications. Huawei, whose projects in Africa are often subsidised or underwritten by the Chinese state, has not lost any orders on the continent since America began encouraging countries to boycott its technology. “It is not a reasonable ask when [America] is not offering a serious alternative,” argues Judd Devermont of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
The FOCAC in Dakar is unlikely to see the scale of financial pledges made by China at earlier forums. In both 2015 and, with some fudging, 2018, President Xi Jinping announced packages of cheap loans, grants and investments worth $60bn over the subsequent three years. Few analysts think that tally will be matched; China is too wary of funding white elephants. But that does not mean it will be any less involved on the continent.
For a start, China is crucial to African hopes of moving beyond the covid-19 pandemic. It is the single largest bilateral creditor in Africa and thus often holds the key to unlocking debt renegotiations. Mr Xi has pledged that African countries will receive priority access to any Chinese vaccine that is developed.
And even before covid-19, China’s engagement with African countries went way beyond infrastructure. There are perhaps 10,000 Chinese firms, mostly small businesses, operating in Africa. More African students study in China than are enrolled in America and Britain combined. Senior Chinese figures have fostered extensive networks with their African counterparts, especially in military circles.
China’s image in Africa was tarnished last year by the ill-treatment of African migrants in Guangzhou, a port city. That brought condemnation on social media and by African politicians. But, broadly speaking, African views of China are nuanced and resilient. Polling of 18 countries by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research group, released in September 2020, found that an average of 59% of respondents had a favourable view of China—marginally higher than of America (58%). No wonder African politicians are careful not to take sides.
Nor will they see much benefit in speaking out against China over issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Taiwan. China places great value on the 54 African countries’ votes at the UN and other international organisations. (In 1971 African votes ensured that the People’s Republic of China was admitted to the UN and that Taiwan was expelled.) It will reward those who vote with it and punish those who do not. Officials in Kenya are known to have studied China’s punitive response to Australian criticism of its human-rights records—and fear what would happen if their country did anything similar.
Even if African politicians wanted to speak out against China, few believe Western governments would support them if they did. “The West is unwilling to underwrite the cost of antagonising China,” says W. Gyude Moore, a former cabinet minister in Liberia, now at the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank. “The continent is best served by charting its own course.”
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