China-Africa: Beijing’s new diplomacy on the continent

By Olivier Marbot
Posted on Thursday, 27 January 2022 08:25

China’s President Xi Jinping's speech at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac), Dakar, 29 November 2021. © Seyllou/AFP

The China-Africa summit in Dakar, which was held at the end of November 2021, marked the 20th anniversary of a partnership that both Beijing and the continent consider solid and indispensable, as the Covid-19 crisis has once again demonstrated.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which is held every three years, ritually ends with a series of bilateral declarations in which Africans and Chinese, while renewing their wishes for continued friendship, outline their collaboration for the coming years.

Held just a few days after COP26 in Glasgow, the Dakar FOCAC focused on the fight against climate change. One of the four major texts adopted by all the participants deals precisely with this subject.

This four-page declaration is worth mentioning because it is a textbook case for anyone who wants to understand how the China-Africa relationship works, why it was formed in the first place, its objectives and the principles that underpin it.

Common interests

“China is the largest developing country, and Africa is the continent with the largest number of developing countries,” said the signatories, as if to say that Beijing and the continent naturally have common interests but, more profoundly, convergent views on many issues of global interest.

Reiterating that global warming is “a major challenge” for humanity, particularly for the countries of the global South, the signatories called for “effective” implementation of the commitments made at the major summits, from Kyoto to Paris. This is a cryptic way of underlining the fact that some major developed countries have for years failed to implement decisions made in the name of the principles they claim to defend.

Both sides also called on rich countries to fulfil their commitments to fund poor countries’ environmental efforts. Leading by example, China took advantage of FOCAC to announce new financial support for environmental projects, as well as training for African environmental specialists.

Beijing has also pledged not to build any more coal-fired power plants outside its territory. Holding a China-Africa summit devoted entirely to global warming was also announced “within the framework of the New Silk Road Initiative”, which is expected to lead to a “three-year action plan”.

The partners concluded their text by repeating that they are placing themselves under the auspices of the United Nations (with its “2030 Goals”) and the African Union (with its “2063 Agenda”) in the hopes of achieving their goals. Finally, they support Egypt’s bid to host COP27, which would be the first to be held in Africa.

This four-page agreement condenses this alliance’s general philosophy, which is solidarity between emerging and developing countries, a call to order for those who give lessons, references to the New Silk Road and a pledge of allegiance to the principles of multilateralism.

Harmony and non-interference

However, the fact that everything is there does not mean that nothing should change. The Dakar summit, which marks the 20th anniversary of these major meetings, was also supposed to signal an evolution in the relationship, which both partners seem to believe has reached a certain maturity.

This relationship is based on a few constantly reaffirmed principles: “harmony”, “sincerity”, “equality”, “mutual respect”, “friendship and good faith.” The idea that, unlike many other potential partners, China offers assistance to African countries without interfering in any way in their internal affairs was hammered home.

These serve as solid foundations for joint diplomatic action at the international level. Welcoming the growing number of senior African officials to leadership positions in global governance bodies – the UN, WHO, World Trade Organisation, etc. – China reiterated its support in giving the continent a (rotating) seat on the United Nations Security Council.

The African delegates reaffirmed their adherence to the “one China” principle and, if this was not clear enough, stressed that they believe that Taiwan should reunite with Beijing.

Logistics routes

The future objectives have been defined. These include increasing investment in both directions, transforming Chinese economic cooperation zones in Africa into “demonstration zones for China-Africa cooperation on industrial and supply chains”, boosting trade, moving towards green growth, lowering customs duties, promoting African products in China, helping to upgrade the continent’s technology, and tracing efficient and secure logistics routes.

The idea of military cooperation, while traditionally discreet in Sino-African relations, has not been forgotten.

In addition, Beijing addressed the issue of sports and cultural sectors for the first time. All these small initiatives seem to be gradually creating a new type of relationship. The documents published at the end of the Dakar forum are full of formulas evoking “a new step”, “a new chapter” and “a new level”.

Is this entente cordiale really not plagued by any problems? Some chancelleries have little faith in it.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign affairs minister, was undoubtedly the most aggressive. “What is new is that Africa is starting to become very clearly disappointed with the Chinese. African leaders have realised that this is a fool’s bargain,” he said in an interview a few days before the Dakar forum. This statement provoked a sharp reply from China, which expressed its “amazement”. Beijing’s diplomats invited France to “listen carefully to what the Africans are saying”.

The United States is trying to regain the ground lost during Donald Trump’s presidency. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Dakar a week before the China-Africa summit.

In October, Jon Finer, one of the White House national security advisers, talked about defence and security in Mauritania, Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. This last country was not chosen at random. Persistent rumours indicate that Beijing and Malabo have signed an agreement to create a Chinese naval base on the Equatorial Guinean coast.

These initiatives are unlikely – at least for now – to damage the Sino-African relationship, which – 20 years after the first FOCAC was held – still seems solid, even though a certain naivety has disappeared with time.

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