China clears way for Silk Road into Africa—and it takes the form of key summit with African leaders

Next week's Forum on China-African Cooperation summit will look to charm leaders on the continent, seen by Beijing as a step towards global dominance.

IN September, presidents Omar al Bashir and Jacob Zuma held a warm meeting on the sidelines of a major Chinese military celebration, three months after the Sudanese leader flew out of South Africa in the face of an ICC arrest warrant, having managed to steal the attention from the AU summit that he was attending.

Bashir was an old friend, China said in the face of criticism, while Zuma’s side put out that they expected even better bilateral relations between Sudan and South Africa.

Then a few days ago news broke that China and South Africa had asked Bashir to stay away from a key summit in Johannesburg next week, both countries evidently quite keen on ensuring there was no repeat of the sideshow of his presence to draw away the international spotlight from the meeting.

For China, the thinking is clear: Beijing intends to use the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to both re-state its engagement with Africa following what has been a tumultuous year for its economy, and also to clear the bushes for its much-heralded “Silk Road” strategy, China’s new foreign policy that is expected to position it as a comprehensive global power. 

This year’s triennial meeting between China and Africa was always going to be closely watched. Taking place for the first time in sub-Saharan Africa, it has also been upgraded to a summit, with at least 40 heads of states and government expected to attend.

It takes place when China’s economic slowdown has sent African nations into mild panic, as the Asian nation slowed down on its imports of African resources. The bulk of these make up the mainstay of many regional economies, raising questions about the long-term direction of a bilateral relationship that while unequal is still seen as symbiotic. 

States from Zambia and Angola to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo and even host South Africa are battling with the resulting market turmoil stoked by uncertainty over China’s continual unbridled growth, the jury being still out over whether it is a deliberate rebalancing or market enforced.

China’s key geopolitical rival the US was sufficiently concerned to stay its hand on raising its much-watched interest rate, citing the volatility, giving some much-needed but short-lived reprieve to many African countries that have been doubling back on previously optimistic growth projections. Recent downward revisions by international lenders such as the International Monetary Fund have only added to the sense of decline, with the sub-Saharan economy now expected to grow at the slowest pace since the global financial crisis years.

Recently, official figures  showed Chinese Foreign Direct Investment into Africa fell more than 40% year-on-year in the first half of this year, while imports from Africa tumbled nearly 43% over the same period, underlining the depth of China’s weakened demand for the continent’s energy and resources.

Even Chinese analysts  contend that the relationship is at a crossroads.

China’s flagship meeting with Africa has been previously watched for the magnitude of the billions of dollars that are usually announced in loans and aid, but due to the changing economic terrain, there will be far more scrutiny on the tenor of the final agreements. With this in mind, Beijing has been careful not feed the growing feeling that it is not on the continent for the long-haul. 

The approach has been three-pronged.

President Jacob Zuma with then-Chinese President Hu Jintao, UN chief Ban Ki Moon and the presidents of Benin, Ivory Coast and Cape Verde at the 5th Ministerial Conference of FOCAC in Beijing 2012.

First, the language has been unusually exuberant even by usual pre-summit standards. “The historic grand gathering will further strengthen solidarity and cooperation between China and Africa, upgrade China-Africa relationship and have positive impact on balanced, inclusive and sustainable development,” Ji Peiding, a member of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Foreign Policy Advisory Group, said in a stock-taking meeting with African scholars and politicians in Nairobi early this month.

Speaking on November 25 in Beijing, Chinese vice foreign minister Zhang Ming said the summit, themed ‘China Africa move Forward Hand in Hand for Win-win Cooperation and Common Development’, would “have the most significant influence in Sino-African relations”. 

Foreign minister Wang Yi was even more effusive. “The summit will send a strong signal to the international community about the importance, respect and support China gives to Africa. We hope that will strengthen the confidence of the international community and bring more input to Africa,” he said in Johannesburg this week.

Second, there are also promises of even more goodies and trinkets, with a clutch of new initiatives set to be announced according to Chinese officials, but it is a message that has been tempered to take on board African concerns of a handouts culture.

“This is not a donor conference and there will be no hand-outs. This is a meeting of equal partners who will be mapping a way forward to the relationship (between Africa and China),” South African diplomat Ghulam Asmal told journalists accredited to the summit last week.

Africa instead wants to learn from the Chinese model, Asmal said. “Our discussion will centre on socio-economic upliftment (sic) of the African people. We want to know how China within a short space of time managed to reduce poverty and developed to be an industrial giant. We want to convince China as a partner to help us develop our industrial capacity.”

Trade between the two sides is estimated to have reached $220 billion last year, according to a  statement from China’s ambassador to Nigeria Gu Xiaojie, while China has since 2012 provided more than $20 billion in loans to African countries.

Since 2000 when the inaugural FOCAC launched, Beijing says close to 4,000 kilometres of railways and 4,300 km of roads had been added in Africa using Chinese financing, in addition to more than 200 schools and 7,000 Chinese government scholarships annually. Some 2,500 Chinese companies were also operating on the continent at the end of last year.

China has for the last six years been the continent’s largest trading partner, but western companies continue to stump up significantly more than the Asian giant in terms of FDI.

Ethiopia’s light rail was funded by the Chinese.

The flow of trade is also lopsided: while the share of China-Africa trade in Africa’s total foreign trade has grown from about 4% in 2000 to 20.5% currently, Beijing’s investment in Africa is less than 5% of its overall total outside, giving rise to high-profile views that China’s role on the continent has been overplayed. 

Read: Inside Chinese-Africa relations - the lies, damn lies, truths, and everything in between

Thirdly, there has been a sharp focus on making the partnership sustainable.

“We envisage that a new level of beneficial development will be announced and the summit will give impetus to Africa’s developmental agenda,” Asmal said of the continent’s wish list.

Wang said that China will help the continent build up its industries, attain elusive food security and strengthen its public health systems in the wake of the devastation wreaked by the Ebola fever. 

China would focus on the continent’s long-term growth and was willing to work with other partners on this he said, before differentiating his country’s approach. 

“China will not follow the beaten track of past major powers and will not sacrifice Africa’s environment and long-term interests,” he said of a meeting that will also for the first time discuss poaching concerns.

But for all the diplomatic niceties over a partnership, China’s changing circumstances cannot be wished away. There is a growing view that Africa outsourced its growth to Beijing, and has been left holding the can after the Asian country signalled its shift to a “new normal”.

Be that as it may, Africa’s stage of development is such that it cannot afford to be picky of who its friends are. It needs all the help it can to industrialise and add millions of jobs—with China saying it was open to the relocation of its increasingly higher-cost factory jobs to the continent. 

The continent is also yet to attain its ‘green revolution’ in critical agriculture—the level where there are major small-holder productivity advances in production of staples, such as those attained in Asia starting in the 1950s, despite the renewed focus on agriculture by policy makers and  the call for digital technologies to help bridge the gap.

In other words, until Africa is able to stride confidently in a fast globalising world, every hand, China’s included, will be a support rail. It also has the advantage that its path towards industrialisation is one that is much admired on the continent, and despite some bumps on the roads, the country continues to command a wide audience on the continent.

But Africa will also do well to be aware that it is only a strategic cog in China’s ambition to be a major geopolitical player. It’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) strategy, which refers to the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that Beijing has crafted as its vehicle to global dominance, sees the continent as fitting neatly into it, on the back of billions of dollars worth of investment in much-needed infrastructure.

China’s'One Belt, One Road’ infrastructure plan. Infographic/Courtesy/
Mercator Institute for China Studies

Announced in 2013, it is easily the overriding project for China’s president Xin Jinping, and while it has been avidly sold in Eurasia despite being a meta-concept, only now is it starting to become apparent how the Maritime arm of the strategy that branches in Africa’s direction will shape up. 

Early signs are that the use of sea-lanes and the investment of billions into deepwater ports along the eastern Indian Ocean seaboard will create paths for Chinese goods and firms, growing its export markets.

The Berlin-based think-tank Mercator Institute for China Studies (Merics), which tracks the route keenly,  says that China is pursuing three main goals of diversifying its economy, deepening political stability and the establishment of a multi-polar global order.

“From an economic perspective, China strives that the development of new trade routes, markets and energy sources will result in growth impulses and at the same time reduce dependencies.

“As China finances most infrastructure projects Beijing is also able to increase its political influence. Many countries along the Silk Roads depend on Chinese infrastructure investments.”

The Silk Road Economic Belt has been targeted at eastern european countries and Asian countries in the path, as China also seeks to forge an economic and political path towards the West. Forecasts were that a staggering $900 billion would be spent on projects in Eurasia, and China’s current economic slowdown has only the effect of slowing down the pace, not the goal. 

The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, and the Silk Road Fund are among the sources expected to  meet the financing needs—the former having been opposed by the US in a sign of concerns over the plan’s reach.

The economy is the one area China has a huge competitive advantage in Africa—and globally— but this week Beijing confirmed it is in negotiations with Djibouti to build a logistics hub for military operations in the strategically vital African country. 

The US Africa Command has referred to it as China’s first “military location” on the continent, a term Beijing has been careful not to use given the potential to jar with the non-interference message, but on analysing the proposed sea-lanes, few doubt the hub will play a crucial role in ensuring the “free flow” of international trade that is so crucial to China’s next phase of growth following its internal transition.

The Djibouti deal has all the signs of the OBOR clicking into gear on the continent, with next week’s Johannesburg summit playing the wider role of “softening up” the gathered African leaders—to whom the strategy will be marketed as an inclusive process towards a “common destiny”.

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