Harare – In November, Africa and China marked 20 years of collaboration under the banner of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC).
Sino-Africa relations have grown exponentially under the auspices of this forum since its inception in 2000, with co-operation covering economic, health, trade, and academic ties.
Over the past two decades, China has emerged as a major partner in Africa’s development agenda, flexing its increasingly significant muscle by investing in infrastructure and mining across the continent.
To mark the 20-year milestone, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said touted F as “a fine example of mutually beneficial co-operation”.
“We have carried forward the profound friendship forged in our struggles for national liberation,” he said last week. “In 2019, trade between China and Africa hit US$208,7 billion, and total Chinese FDI in Africa reached US$49,1 billion, grown by 20-fold and 100-fold respectively compared with 20 years ago.”
Minister Wang said over the past 20 years, Africa had accessed Chinese funding for crucial infrastructure projects including the construction of over 12,000km of railways and roads, nearly 20 seaports, over 80 large-scale power plants, more than 130 medical facilities, and at least 170 schools.
“These infrastructures have made a big difference in Africa’s economic and social development,” Minister Wang said.
He said China and Africa have stood together in upholding the banner of multilateralism, fairness, and justice, in a bid to elevate the international standing and influence of developing countries while also safeguarding the overall interests of the developing world.
“FOCAC is a valuable asset for China and Africa. We must keep pace with the times to ensure that the Forum remains a shining example of China-Africa relations,” he said.
FOCAC has grown to become the standard in South-South co-operation; helping Africa fulfil its development potential while providing China with access to foreign markets and raw materials.
In 2018, Angola - Africa’s second-largest oil producer - secured US$2 billion from the China Development Bank for infrastructure following President João Lourenço’s first visit to Beijing.
According to the China Africa Research Initiative at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in the United States, Angola is one of the biggest recipients of Chinese loans in Africa. The country benefitted from about 30 percent of the US$143 billion China extended to the continent between 2000 and 2017.
Most of the debt accrued by Luanda has been for infrastructure and shoring up key economic sectors as it seeks to diversify its economy away from crude oil, especially since a fall in prices in 2014 plunged the country into recession.
At the last FOCAC Summit in Beijing in 2018, Namibia secured funding to upgrade its marquee Hosea Kutako International Airport in Windhoek.
The funding formed part of the US$60 billion availed by China as new development financing for Africa.
President Hage Geingob, who led the delegation to Beijing, said at the time that the deal - which came with a five-year grace period - elevated Sino-Namibia relations to the level of comprehensive strategic partners.
At that same Summit, Namibia and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Co-operation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive global infrastructure and trade strategy that started in 2013.
Analysts contend that the Harambee Prosperity Plan put forward by President Geingob has much in common with the BRI.
It is envisioned that the BRI will bring construction funds, high-quality production capacity, and advanced technologies to Namibia while promoting Chinese investment in Namibia.
Projects such as the Walvis Bay Container Terminal and road construction projects have been implemented under the spirit and framework of the BRI.
On the trade front, relations between Namibia and China have been trending upwards.
According to the Namibia Statistics Agency, in March this year China became the largest export destination for Namibian goods, absorbing about 38,6 percent of all exports. This placed it ahead of Botswana for the first time, which absorbed 12,4 percent of total Namibian exports.
In 2019, Namibian exports to China reached US$1,5 billion, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade.
Namibia mainly exports beef, ores, nonferrous metals, aquatic products, and furs, skins and leather products to China; while importing textiles, furniture, machinery and electronics.
Africa’s second-largest copper producer, Zambia has borrowed heavily from China over the past decade to fund massive infrastructure upgrades.
Funding has been secured for numerous road projects across Zambia, including the Mongo-Kalabo Road in Western Province and US$1,2 billion for a road connecting the southern and central parts of the country to the mining towns in the Copperbelt.
The Zambian government has also accessed funding for digitisation of the national broadcaster, ZNBC, a new terminal for the flagship Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, as well as for a new airport in Ndola in the Copperbelt.
Money has also gone into hydropower plants, including Itezhi-Tezhi on the Kafue River, additional turbines on Kariba Dam, and a major new plant in Kafue Gorge.
The massive borrowing has, however, placed Zambia in a precarious debt situation, which has been compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The country recently got a respite from the China Development Bank which agreed to defer interest payments due in October for six months, and to also reschedule the principal debt.
“Reaching this agreement is an important milestone for Zambia in our debt relief efforts,” Mr Fredson Yamba, Zambia’s Treasury Secretary, said last month.
Zimbabwe, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Chinese funding for capital projects in Africa, and relations between the two nations were upgraded from all-weather friendship in 2018 to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
After his assumption of office in 2017, Zimbabwe’s President Emerson Mnangagwa travelled to Beijing in early 2018 on a mission to unlock funding for crucial infrastructure.
Following a meeting President Xi Jinping, President Mnangagwa secured funding for the US$1,1 billion Hwange Thermal Power Station expansion project, the US$153 million Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport expansion, and the US$71 million NetOne telecoms expansion project.
The initiatives are at various stages of implementation.
The expansion of Hwange Power Station is being done by Sinohydro and is expected to add 600MW to the national grid. The target completion date is in 2023.
When it comes to commerce, trade between the two countries stands at over US$1,2 billion annually; with Zimbabwe exporting tobacco, cotton, and various minerals, while imports from China include electrical goods, clothes, and auto parts.
Not everyone is happy with China’s presence and activities in Africa, not least Western-aligned commentators that fear Beijing is establishing itself and its economic model as a viable alternative to the Washington Consensus and its various policy iterations.
The argument is that Chinese money is creating a debt trap, with others going further to accuse China of looting Africa’s resources.
However, most African leaders have steadfastly defended the flourishing partnership.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the Chairperson of the African Union, has said FOCAC “refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa as our detractors would have us believe”.
President Mnangagwa has weighed in: “What is necessary when you get loans or investment (is that) it must be structured. There is a need for investment in projects which can re-finance themselves to pay the loan. I do not see any danger where you have a project which becomes productive in terms of revenue streams to pay for itself.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China has also been lending a helping hand, having sent medical and personal protective equipment, as well as extending expertise, to several African countries.
Further, Beijing has signalled that it will do all it can to ensure Africa has access to any COVID-19 vaccine that it develops.
But much needs to be done to take the Sino-Africa relationship to the next level.
Lingering problems around how ordinary Chinese, and some officials, view Africa and Africans need to be urgently addressed by Beijing.
For instance, diplomatic tensions spiked in April this year over alleged racism saw Africans being expelled from homes and hotels in Guangzhou.
Also, there are growing calls for African leaders to insist on Chinese investment in value addition on the continent rather than the mass export of raw materials to China.
To confront some of these issues, Professor Olalekan Babatunde of Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution says Africa needs to come up with a solid, formal structure on its side for engagement with China.
“It is observed that due to the absence of an African overarching body to coordinate actions and processes of the co-operation, the Chinese embassies and the Chinese Follow-Up Committee drive the main role of taking initiatives and fulfilling committees, including convening meetings, collecting opinions and suggestions for FOCAC.
“So there is real need for African states to come to a consensus through the African Union for coordination and follow up on the FOCAC activities. AU, regional organisations … and think tanks should be involved in the processes. Prior to this 20th anniversary, each African country developed its own processes for dealing with follow-up actions, and for communication with China and other FOCAC members. South Africa and Ethiopia are the only African countries with follow-up committees.”
He continues, “For FOCAC to maximise its contributions in Africa, it must support the continent’s groundwork to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Africans should also be smart to take advantage of the opportunities and tap the knowledge, skills, wealth and experience that are being offered by China. But they should also respect and follow the principles, rules and norms of multilateral co-operation.
“Compliance to these standards and suggestions will deepen the relations and unleash long-term phenomenal gains and rewards. The future of the co-operation is bright for both parties.”