The eighth edition of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is due to be held in Dakar, Senegal, from 29-30 November 2021, Senegal’s foreign minister, Aïssata Tall Sall, and the Chinese ambassador to Dakar, Xiao Han, have announced.
The theme of the conference will be “Deepen China-Africa Partnership and Promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era”, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.
Speaking in a press conference in Beijing on 5 November, he said that the meeting would “review and assess the follow-up implementation of the outcomes of the 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit as well as the joint China-Africa response to Covid-19, and chart the course for China-Africa relations for the next three years and more to come.”
He also predicted that the forum would “inject new impetus into the China-Africa comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership”.
In an interview with the Seychelles News Agency on 17 November, China’s ambassador to the Seychelles, Guo Wei, said that the forum would “adopt measures in such key areas as health, investment and trade, food security, climate change, human resources and digital innovation, with a focus on transforming and upgrading China-Africa cooperation to improve its quality and efficiency.”
Four key themes for the FOCAC agenda
On 8 November, Senegal’s foreign minister and the Chinese ambassador to Dakar, Xiao Han, announced that the forum would adopt four key resolutions: The Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024); the 2035 Vision for China-Africa Cooperation; the Sino-African Declaration on Climate Change; and the Declaration of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of FOCAC.
These, predicted Eric Olander, writing on the China-Africa Project website, are likely to “serve as the main pillars” of the forum.
The Senegalese foreign minister said that the forum would appraise the results of China-African cooperation during the Covid-19 pandemic and define how it would continue for the next three years and beyond.
She also announced that the seventh China-Africa Business Conference would take place in parallel with FOCAC at the Diamniadio Exhibition Centre in Dakar and by video conference. The 2018 edition in Beijing hosted more than 1,000 African representatives from over 600 enterprises, business groups, and research institutions.
“FOCAC is our common good. Its success will bring prosperity to current and future generations of Africans and Chinese,” said Aïssata Tall Sall.
President Xi Jinping will not attend in person
Hundreds of ambassadors and diplomats are expected to attend the forum, which is likely to be a mixture of online and live events.
However, as Lina Benabdallah, assistant professor at Wake Forest University, has pointed out on Twitter, the event will be at ministerial level, which means that heads of state such as Chinese President Xi Jinping will not be attending.
“This is no doubt a disappointment to #MackySall who expressed big enthusiasm for hosting (in addition to co-chairing) the #FOCAC meeting. At this point his Minister of foreign affairs is in charge of hosting. #FOCAC at the summit level just brings higher visibility, more perks,” she writes.
Nonetheless, President Xi will deliver a keynote speech to the opening ceremony via video link, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced on 26 November.
We examine further below:
- What FOCAC is.
- How FOCAC has impacted the economic relationship between China and Africa.
- What was promised at FOCAC 2018.
- What is likely to be on the agenda at this year’s forum.
What is FOCAC?
FOCAC is a triennial high-level forum between China and all of the states of Africa, with the exception of Eswatini, which continues to recognise Taiwan.
Modelled on Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), it provides an organising mechanism for Chinese foreign policy toward Africa.
The US Department of Defence’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies describes FOCAC as “a process rather than a series of summits”, as it has spawned a vast number of consultation meetings, policy forums and specialist organs, as described in detail on the FOCAC website.
The Africa Center for Strategic Studies also draws attention to its focus on training and capacity building, with more than 100,000 training slots allotted to African Union member states triennially.
FOCAC has frequently played host to eye-catching Chinese policy announcements and financial commitments. The forum is alternately hosted in Beijing and major African capitals.
Three of the seven editions held so far have included summits attended by the incumbent Chinese president and many of his counterparts across the continent. According to Quartz Africa, twice as many African leaders chose to attend the 2018 edition in Beijing than the UN General Assembly two weeks later.
All the previous editions have included ministerial conferences, and this year’s forum will take place at ministerial rather than summit level.
The China-Africa Business Council’s recent report on China’s private sector investment in Africa looks forward to the event as “another milestone and a new starting point for China-Africa economic and trade cooperation” that will provide “a great opportunity for all African countries to attract foreign investment and expand their international influence”.
“Both Chinese and African enterprises should anticipate the opportunity to enjoy great mutual policy benefits,” says the report.
The forum looks to build on the increasingly close economic relations that have been forged between China and Africa over the last 20 years.
According to the China-Africa Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the value of China-Africa trade in 2019 was $192bn, up from $185bn in 2018. In 2019, the largest exporter to China from Africa was Angola, followed by South Africa and the Republic of Congo. In 2019, Nigeria was the largest buyer of Chinese goods, followed by South Africa and Egypt.
On 17 November, Chinese vice commerce minister Qian Keming reported that trade between China and Africa had risen 38.2% year on year to $185.2bn in the January-September 2021 period, a record level.
China is also Africa’s biggest source of foreign direct investment – investment surged from $75m in 2003 to $2.7bn in 2019. Chinese FDI flows to Africa have exceeded those from the US since 2014.
China’s direct investment in Africa hit $2.59bn in the first nine months of 2021, up 9.9% year on year, reported Qian Keming.
Between 2013 and 2018, 45% of China’s foreign aid went to Africa. The number of Chinese workers in Africa by the end of 2019 was 182,745, according to official Chinese sources.
How has FOCAC impacted the financial relationship between China and Africa?
The first official FOCAC was held in Beijing in 2006, following two major ministerial conferences in Beijing and Addis Ababa in 2000 and 2003.
Between 2000 and 2019, Chinese financiers signed 1,141 loan commitments worth $153bn with African governments and their state-owned enterprises, estimates the China-Africa Research Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
In 2000, Chinese investment in Africa was at 2% of US levels, while by 2020 it had reached 55%, according to the US Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
In 2015, China unveiled its largest commitment of the conference series, a $60bn package of aid, subsidised lending, and state-backed investment, a commitment repeated in 2018.
Chinese financial support has proved crucial to African countries over the last two decades. Loans from government and state-owned banks have enabled the construction of major infrastructure projects across the continent, including highways, ports, airports and government buildings.
But much of that support has been relatively opaque. According to a research paper released in late September by the China Africa Research Institute, Zambia’s outstanding external debt to Chinese financiers is approximately $6.6bn, almost double the $3.4bn revealed by the previous Zambian government.
The estimates do not include substantial arrears to Chinese contractors for unpaid projects, part of an estimated domestic arrears pile amounting to $2bn.
What was promised at FOCAC in 2018?
For the first time in the history of the FOCAC meetings, China’s commitments to Africa stayed flat at FOCAC 2018, with $60bn pledged over three years. Prior forums had seen an exponential growth in commitments, starting from around $5bn in 2006.
According to Annalisa Prizzon, a senior research fellow at the UK-based ODI, the 2018 commitment was more weighted towards aid than previous instalments, with 25% of these commitments – or $5bn a year – in the form of grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans.
In a May speech, Chinese finance minister Wang Yi said that over 85% of the eight major initiatives announced at the 2018 Beijing Summit have been implemented, 70% of the $60bn supporting funds have been disbursed or earmarked, and a large number of cooperation projects have been launched or completed.
Other analysts are less enamoured of the track record of FOCAC in delivering benefits to Africa. Writing for African Business, former Liberian public works minister Gyude Moore says that a vast economic chasm has opened between Africa and China. He argues that this year’s forum presents an opportunity for African states to recalibrate and correct their courses using lessons from China’s past.
Also writing for African Business earlier this year, Hannah Ryder, CEO of Development Reimagined, an African-led international development agency based in Beijing, called for “a more organised, collective approach to engagement” on the part of African leaders at this year’s FOCAC, and summarised her organisation’s blueprint for an African China strategy.
For Ryder, writing in the November issue of African Business, the factors that drove China to commit $60bn to African countries in 2018 remain as strong as ever, but the outcomes of this year’s forum remain uncertain.
Future trajectories of China-Africa relations
The report FOCAC at 21: Future Trajectories of China-Africa Relations published in October by the China Foresight project at the London School of Economics brings together a number of international experts to examine emerging trends likely to shape China-Africa relations in coming years.
- Stephen Paduano, executive director of the LSE Economic Diplomacy Commission, says that the crux of China’s foreign economic policy since the death of Mao has been running trade surpluses. It is far from certain that China can pull back from its overseas spending spree, as a decline in overseas capital flows would create a decline in China’s trade surplus that could be politically unpalatable.
- Mzukisi Qobo, head of Wits School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, highlights three areas that are likely to be important at the forum:
(1) cooperation on trade, using the African Continental Free Trade Area as a basis for broadening agreement;
(2) digital technology – China is likely to “aim to draw Africa to its digital orbit on the back of technology cooperation and possibly development assistance that is tied to the use of Chinese technology”;
(3) supporting Africa’s economic recovery through ramped up development assistance and sectoral cooperation, encompassing both agriculture and industrial sectors.
He argues that African leaders must use their agency more effectively at FOCAC to seek greater market access in China, while also using the African Continental Free Trade Agreement as a basis for industrial development and engagement with external actors.
The report also contains articles by experts examining China’s security engagement with Africa, its digital infrastructure in Africa, educational exchanges, collaboration on space technology and China-Africa health cooperation and vaccine diplomacy.
What will be on the agenda at this year’s FOCAC?
Chinese credit and debt forgiveness
Analysts have predicted that an era of “easy” Chinese credit in Africa is drawing to a close, as an economic relationship primarily based on the resource trade has shifted towards infrastructure and a political and strategic relationship.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a catastrophic financial impact on many African countries, leading to fears of debt defaults on the billions of dollars that China has lent the continent over two decades. The World Bank estimates that Africa’s funding gap stood at $290bn in 2020.
Without debt support, unaffordable payments on the vast portfolio of loans from China and other wealthy nations could lead to a series of chaotic defaults by individual African countries.
For its part, China says it is a participant in the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, and says it has signed debt suspension agreements or similar understandings with 19 African countries.
It has also cancelled interest-free loans due to mature by the end of 2020 for 15 African countries. Yet African countries concerned by their fiscal situation are likely to push for much more generous debt renegotiation and forgiveness.
Financial transparency and African agency
There will be increasing pressure to see transparency in deals made with China, as the details of many have been withheld from the public in African countries over the years.
“For FOCAC to deliver for African citizens,” says the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “both African and Chinese leaders must be held accountable to prioritize citizen interests and be compelled to demonstrate transparently how all agreements undertaken at FOCAC are doing so.”
The institution situates this within the need for Africa to elevate its agency in its relationship with China and for African countries to leverage their position by working together at FOCAC.
In a May speech, Chinese finance minister Wang Yi said the conference will also focus on joint efforts against Covid-19, including the provision of more vaccines for the continent. Africa’s share of China’s total global vaccine distribution remains at 8% compared to 61% for Asia, according to a Chinese vaccine tracker report from @BridgeBeijing.
In FOCAC at 21: Future Trajectories of China-Africa Relations, Lina Benabdallah, assistant professor at Wake Forest University, points out that in the early stages of the pandemic, when China was in need of assistance, African states provided much of that aid.
China’s reciprocation of that assistance, she says, has filled the void left by the absence of other partners but has yet to reach its full potential. FOCAC 2021 will provide the opportunity “to negotiate better delivery deadlines of the Chinese vaccines, more efficient capacity building programs in public health, including the possibility of actually producing the vaccine locally instead of just ‘mounting’ the parts.”
Writing for the China Africa Project, Eric Olander reports that in his speech to the China-ASEAN Summit on 22 November, President Xi Jinping called for the setting up of a “health shield” against Covid-19 and promised support for ASEAN countries to strengthen their health systems.
“It is almost certain that a similar announcement will be made at FOCAC for African countries,” writes Olander.
Following President Xi’s criticism at the same summit of what he sees as unilateral sanctions imposed on China by the US and his denunciation of “hegemonism and power politics”, Olander also predicts multilateralism will emerge as a prominent theme at FOCAC.
“China wants to expand its “low-cost, low-risk, and high-yield” security strategy in Africa given its growing interests and the security dimensions of the Belt and Road,” says the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. “In the process, China is steadily increasing its security presence (and leverage) and is keen to consolidate its engagements in peacekeeping, military education and professionalism, and military sales and exercises.”
Belt and Road Initiative
There will also be talks on deepening cooperation on China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure plan and adopting sector-specific cooperation measures for priority areas such as healthcare, investment, trade, industrialisation, agricultural security, climate change, peace and security, human resources and digital economy.
Private enterprise is likely to feature strongly at the forum. “Private enterprises will play a greater role in the future… The next conference will open up a broader space for the development of private enterprises in Africa,” Chinese ambassador to the Seychelles Guo Wei told that country’s news agency on 17 November.
Agriculture and tariffs
According to the South China Morning Post, African countries will be “pushing to grow their agricultural exports into China” at the forum.
The newspaper quotes an interview by Bloomberg with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in which he says that China should “provide tariff-free, quota-free access” for African goods, such as that allowed by the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) or a deal mirroring Europe’s Everything But Arms arrangement for least developed countries.
“The only new thing we shall insist on is market access to the Chinese market, because that will help Africa a great deal,” Museveni told Bloomberg on 1 November. “The next thing I would ask from them is to allow our products to enter their market quota-free, tax-free.”
Mauritius is the only African country to have signed a free trade agreement with China.
In a news conference on 17 November, Chinese vice commerce minister Qian Keming said that China would “boost green, low-carbon, and clean energy cooperation and conduct technology exchanges to support Africa in enhancing its capacity to adapt to climate change and achieve sustainable development.”
Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden of the China Africa Project see the potential for “real movement” in the area of green investment by China (see box below).
Minister Qian also said that China and Africa would “work together on setting new measures in accordance with our development strategies. The new measures should be in line with China’s vision of 2035 and the adaptation of ‘dual-cycle development.’ For Africa, the measures should also align with the African Union’s 2063 Agenda.”
According to China’s CGTN.com, the “dual circulation” strategy is “an economic development pattern that takes domestic development as the mainstay” which “indicates an accelerated shift from China’s export-oriented development strategy.”
Under this system, China’s economy will be “dominated by domestic economic circulation and facilitated by circulation between China and the rest of the world”.
For more background, listen to our July 2020 podcast China-Africa relations with Jinny Yan, Chief China Economist, ICBC Standard Bank.
A very different FOCAC in 2021?
Discussing the forthcoming forum on the China in Africa podcast, Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden predict that the 2021 edition will be “a very different FOCAC than in recent years”.
They foresee the announcement of smaller infrastructure projects than at previous editions, but believe digital and tech will be big – “expect lots of smart cities projects to be announced,” says van Staden.
Agriculture is a theme that they expect to be much higher on the agenda this year, as it will give China a chance to “stick it to the West”.
On the question of whether China will bring a big chequebook to the table, they say that as no other countries have announced the size of their commitments in recent bilateral meetings with Africa, this will be a chance for China to make an impression.
However, the area in which they most expect China to announce a big number is in the amount of vaccines it will be sending to Africa.
As regards green investment, they ponder whether there will be any gesture to replace the investments in coal on the continent that Beijing has recently cut. Given China’s lead in renewable technology, they see the space for a “real movement forward” in this area.
Additional research and reporting by Charles Dietz.