Emerging power rivalries in Africa: Is China really ahead of Turkey?

Hannah Ryder
By Hannah Ryder

CEO, Development Reimagined

Posted on Monday, 10 January 2022 10:03

South Africa BRICS
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and China's President Xi Jinping shake hands prior to their meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

With China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros, everyone is following the China-Africa relationship.

Even so, there are multiple other crucial players in the African region, not least Turkey, which has had long-standing historical and cultural relations with the continent. A Turkey-Africa summit that was held last month saw 16 African heads of state turn up, which was more than those who attended the China-Africa conference in Senegal at the end of November 2021.

But how does the Turkey-Africa relationship actually compare to the China-Africa relationship in substance? Three key comparisons are crucial.

1. Turkey’s coordination started much later than China

Turkey first announced an Africa-facing strategy in 1998, but since then, there have only been three Turkey-Africa Partnership Summits – in 2008, in 2014 and in 2021. The inaugural summit delivered the Istanbul Declaration and the Framework for Cooperation, which, like China-Africa declarations often do, spelt out a long swathe of areas for cooperation, from agriculture and agribusiness, to health, peace and security and even environment.

The second summit adopted the Malabo Declaration and the latest Istanbul summit culminated in a joint declaration and action plan covering ‘peace, security and justice’, ‘human-focused development’ as well as ‘strong and sustainable growth’.

FOCAC, on the other hand, was established in 2000 – not as an initiative of China, but of African leaders. The rapid development of China–Africa relations during the 1990s had made it imperative that there be a more effective mechanism for mutual cooperation between China and Africa. So far, FOCAC has met eight times, all of which have spurned declarations and action plans. The latest China-Africa conference went a step further and approved two further documents – a vision for China-Africa cooperation to 2035 and a declaration on climate change.

In this sense, it seems China leads Turkey, but the second comparator suggests otherwise.

2. Turkey more proactive in recognising African agency

As development partners, both Turkey and China have consistently expressed the willingness to work with African countries to achieve the AU’s Agenda 2063. Both emphasise their focus on support that is not politically conditioned, recognising African sovereignty, but it seems Turkey has taken African development plans more seriously. The 2014 Malabo Declaration clearly referenced the AU’s Agenda 2063 Continental Frameworks and flagship projects as means of prioritising Turkey’s ways of working with African countries. A full range of the AU’s Continental Frameworks were only recently acknowledged in the Dakar documents.

That said, neither have specifically used these frameworks to determine attendant action plans – that would be the next step for both partners. For instance, while both Turkey and China offer LDCs in Africa preferential market access, and both offer technical assistance through avenues like China’s agriculture technology demonstration centres, neither have formally expressed intentions to extend preferential arrangements to all African countries under the AfCFTA, a move that several analysts recommend, and which could make a huge difference to trade.

So what do these two differences actually mean in reality? Let me turn to the third and final comparator. The economic outcomes.

3. Turkey’s engagement with Africa is smaller in scale than China’s

Turkey has a slightly higher GDP per capita than China, but its economy is 5% the size of China’s, so its reach in Africa will concomitantly be smaller. That said, Turkey can do more. Hence, for example, during the 2021 Istanbul summit, President Erdoğan announced that Turkey would be sharing 15 million doses of the vaccine with African countries – equivalent to just 1.5% of China’s pledge of 1 billion doses.

Similarly, while Turkey had a target to reach $50bn of annual trade with Africa by 2015, its trade volumes with Africa reached $25bn in 2020 – representing just a fivefold increase from $5bn in 2000.

In contrast, China’s trade with Africa has increased tenfold over a similar time period. In infrastructure, Turkey is estimated to have supported 1,150 projects worth over $70bn in Africa. Again, this is a smaller reach than China, but it is crucial given Africa’s infrastructure deficits. A welcome new plan is Turkey’s building of a 368km section of a railway costing $1.9bn.

However, where Turkey does stand out is in investment. Turkey’s FDI stock to Africa reached just under $2bn in 2019 – which again is smaller than China’s $43bn stock in 2020, but represents a higher share of Turkey’s overall FDI at 3.5% than China’s at 2%, and appears to be growing fast.

How can both Turkey and China step up their presence?

In my view, Turkey seems to lack pioneering ideas and its own niche. It also struggles to push its domestic apparatus to work with African partners in order to deliver.

For instance, the Turkey-Africa summits are held once every six years without a clear framework for implementation, while FOCAC engagements are every three years and have follow-up mechanisms.

Although not without controversy, China deploys its stated FOCAC ambitions and technologies through state owned enterprises activities in Africa. Turkey needs to more carefully identify where its businesses do have an interest in Africa – the so-called ‘win-win’ and actively bolster – even subsidise – this – that.

Does Africa have a strategy towards Turkey and China?

All this notwithstanding, nothing can be more helpful than listening carefully to Africa’s demands, and supporting Africans to formulate them. Indeed, the key is for Africa to proactively engage its development partners, differentiating Turkey’s and China’s attributes from their economic offers.

Turkey cannot and should not be China, and vice versa. If African countries had a Turkey strategy, similar to a model that my firm has devised vis-à-vis China, that could provide a great starting point.

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