China/Africa: What is likely to be on the FOCAC agenda?

Eric Olander
By Eric Olander

Managing Editor, The China Africa Project

Posted on Saturday, 16 October 2021 18:00
Chinese President Xi Jinping chairs a China-Africa leaders' meeting in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

It is possible to make informed guesses about the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit agenda based on current trends.

With everything surrounding the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty, previewing what will happen at the Dakar event is admittedly a risky undertaking. So, these predictions are suggestive at best, given how much hearsay is swirling around the summit.

That said, we can make some informed guesses about the agenda based on current trends and feedback from those who have firsthand knowledge of pre-summit negotiations.

First, sources in Senegal report that the event is scheduled to be held on Sunday 28 November and Monday 29 November. At this point, there’s no confirmation that President Xi Jinping will attend in person, and given that he recently backed out of going to Rome for the G20 summit in late October, and opted for a virtual summit with US President Joe Biden, it seems improbable that he would make Senegal his first overseas trip since the beginning of the pandemic 600+ days ago.

It’s more likely that President Xi will deliver his keynote address by video, and that his top foreign policy advisors, particularly Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, will be there to lead the event in person. It’s also likely that ministers of commerce, finance, and environment may also attend.

Setting the agenda

Reports from Beijing indicate that reaching a consensus between the African diplomatic corps and FOCAC organisers over the agenda was more of a challenge than before. African diplomats have expressed frustration over what they perceive as the Chinese side being too assertive in setting the priorities.

In the past, China brought tens of billions of dollars in development financing to the table which may have led to African negotiators being more accommodating. But, judging by financing trends over the past 12-24 months, China is curtailing the flow of money for large-scale infrastructure projects in Africa. With fewer funds available African diplomats are now apparently pushing back on arrangements they feel are skewed in China’s favour.

For example, Beijing is apparently keen to move away from the old model where policy banks provided loans to Chinese State-Owned Enterprises to build expensive (and financially risky) ports, railways, and highways among other projects. Instead, the government wants to focus on bolstering private sector engagement. But the proposed financing packages that were discussed in the early stage of the negotiations were apparently much smaller and mostly benefitted Chinese companies.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t go down well with some members of the African negotiating team who apparently pushed back hard on that particular issue.

Will there be a number?

The main headline from the previous three FOCACs has been massive financing goals announced at the end of the event. In 2012 in Beijing it was $20bn, then it was $60bn at the 2015 Johannesburg summit and $60bn again three years later in Beijing.

Even though the total amount committed by the Chinese was usually far below the huge amounts that were promised, Chinese officials still loved throwing around these figures as shorthand to express their commitment to the continent (and, also, to stick it to the Americans and Europeans who’ve both steadily disengaged from Africa over the years).

But that was a different time before Covid-19, Evergrande, and the slowdown in China’s domestic economy. The reality is that in 2021 China just doesn’t have that kind of cash to throw around. So, this raises the question as to whether China will break with its own tradition of concluding the summit with the announcement of a giant financing package.

If there ever was a time to do it, this would be it. By dropping the big number reveal, China would join Russia, Japan, Turkey, France, and the UK who’ve all held summits in recent years without announcing a financial pledge.

But old habits may be too hard to break. Xinhua crowned last month’s China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo in Hunan a success based on the fact that $22.9bn in deals were signed.

Key themes that will shape the agenda at FOCAC 8

  • Infrastructure: China will continue to support the development of infrastructure in Africa but the projects will be smaller, less risky financially, and more aligned with Beijing’s focus on developing technology, health, and green initiatives. It is highly unlikely that there will be any announcements of multibillion-dollar transportation and energy projects that were common at previous FOCAC summits.
  • Health: With most African countries still lagging far behind in Covid-19 vaccination rates, we can expect the issue of vaccines and health infrastructure to be prominent themes. The Chinese side will likely announce expanded vaccine production and distribution initiatives along with increased support of multilateral programs like the Africa CDC, which it is helping to finance.
  • Digital: Technology will be among the most important discussion tracks at this year’s FOCAC, both in terms of infrastructure development but also increasingly on issues related to cyber governance. Chinese policy banks have been very active this year providing loans to build new Huawei smart cities and data centres so it’s quite likely there will be a number of new announcements of similar digital initiatives.
  • Green: China’s announcement that it will no longer build coal-fired power plants abroad and the new green development guidelines published earlier this year by the ministries of commerce and environment point to renewable energy becoming a key priority for Beijing and the development of the so-called “Green Belt and Road.” So, it’s quite likely there will be a number of green power initiatives, mostly solar, announced at FOCAC.
  • Agriculture: There’s been a lot of activity in the China-Africa agricultural trading sector this year. It indicates that China sees more imports of Tanzanian soybeans, Rwandan chilis, and Ugandan coffee, among other products, as a way to both help boost employment on the continent and to narrow the gaping trade surpluses between China and most African countries. We expect announcements of new agricultural products to be imported into China and the deployment of more Chinese ag-tech in Africa.

This article was published in partnership with The China Africa Project. 

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