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December 24, 2015

China’s Africa Policy 2015: New policy for new circumstances

By Bob Wekesa

From left, Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Nkoana Mashabane, and South African Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies in Pretoria, South Africa, December 3, 2015. Source: Xinhua

From left, Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Nkoana Mashabane, and South African Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies in Pretoria, South Africa, December 3, 2015. Source: Xinhua

The Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was held in early December 2015. The Wits China Africa Reporting Project has been analyzing various aspects of the Summit. In this installment, we consider the Africa-China dimensions embedded in the release of China’s second policy towards Africa.

Understandably, the magic figure of US$60 billion as well as the slew of economic commitments by China towards Africa has dominated media and intellectual assessment of the Johannesburg Summit and Sixth FOCAC ministerial conference (FOCAC6). The unveiling of China’s second policy toward Africa has received less incisive analysis. Yet China’s Africa Policy 2015 is important in that it provides the framework within which the 10 pillars of engagements announced by President Xi Jinping in early December 2015 should be analyzed. Indeed while the FOCAC6 Declaration and Action Plan will be implemented over a three-year period (2015-2018), the policy is expected to undergird engagements over the longer term.

Africa policy one to two

An overall observation is that China has a lot more to say to Africa today in terms of overarching policy than a decade ago. The 2006 policy is just over 3,000 words while the 2015 one is 8,000-plus words. The new policy is much more detailed and elaborate, so much so that it begins to lose a strict policy feel as it draws on and incorporates elements of the FOCA Declaration and Action Plan. This raises the possibility that the Action Plan was developed concurrent with preparations for the Johannesburg Summit.

China’s second policy towards Africa can perhaps yield insights when compared with the first policy announced in January 2006 – China’s year for Africa – probably to coincide with the first FOCAC Summit in Beijing in October 2006. Indeed it would seem that a tradition has been established where China symbolically articulates its broad guiding principles towards Africa at ‘extraordinary’ heads of state and government conclaves, i.e. FOCAC summits, rather than ‘ordinary’ triennial ministerial FOCAC conferences. Whether summits and policies will henceforth be held and launched once every decade remains to be seen.

It took six years after the formation of FOCAC in 2000 for China to formulate its first Africa policy, although broadly speaking China has since the 1950s had some guidelines in its relations with Africa. At the turn of the century and as FOCAC was taking shape, Africa’s new direction was still being charted as the African Union had been established three years earlier in 2002 as a successor to the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Clearly China was observing the engagements very closely and drawing lessons for the long term. Africa virtually had no jointly articulated policy towards China at this point in time and neither does the continent have one today.

New circumstances

The new document articulates “China's Africa policy under the new circumstances”, just as the 2006 paper also talked of “new circumstances”. China has clearly learned certain facts about engaging with Africa over the past fifteen years and concluded that relations require a re-engineering. Yet new circumstances would also account for changes in China, Africa and globally that motivated tinkering with the policy. So what are these changes and “new circumstances”? It is important to understand that China has done introspection and strategized on what it wants from Africa and what it wants to do with Africa in the global system. It is safe to conclude that Africa as a whole has not gone to the drawing board to explicitly formulate and structure what it needs from China. It may be argued that individual African countries may have developed policies towards China, but even on this score evidence is scant.

While rhetorical statements on developing nation solidarity between China and Africa as well as China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” were captured in the 2006 policy, they are curiously absent in the 2015 document. While the first policy referred often to the “long history” of engagements, the second policy at best only alludes to this. Nonetheless, China’s charm offensive towards Africa is as palpable as ever. China and Africa are “good friends who stand together through thick and thin, good partners who share weal and woe, and good brothers who fully trust each other”. The new policy clarifies the values-laden rhetoric that has been the mainstay of its official communication towards Africa by explaining what is meant by “sincerity, practical results, affinity and good faith”. Still, discourse analysis can separate the tangible economic, political and cultural interests from the euphemism, in a manner to suggest that the chummy language is a means to an end.

Despite the colorful language of solidarity and the many details on accomplishments and forward-looking commitments, the core of the 2015 policy lies in the elevation of Africa in China’s foreign policy pecking order. From the “new type of strategic partnership” status of 2006, relations are now a notch higher at “comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership”. Like any country China has foreign policy priorities; some scholars have argued that Africa ranks higher only than Latin America in terms of China’s global foreign policy calculations. Of foremost importance is said to be the so-called “big powers”, considered “key” to Chinese foreign policy; followed by nations in China’s periphery, considered “priority”; and then Africa and other regions considered the “foundation”, interpreted to mean that African poses little of a headache to Beijing’s global policy (see Africa in China’s Foreign Policy).

Against this background, it would appear that the new policy looks to elevate Africa in China’s foreign policy not so much because relations with Africa have entered turbulent territory but rather because Chinese economic interests have shifted in the “new circumstances”. The new policy’s confidence that China’s relations with Africa are on an even is clear when it expands on the accomplishments listed in the 2006 policy: “Political mutual trust has been strengthened … Coordination and cooperation in international and regional affairs … China has been Africa's largest trading partner since 2009 … People-to-people and cultural exchanges have flourished …” etc. In short, a foundation has been established that serves as a springboard for enhanced engagement.

Comprehensive and strategic

What does “comprehensive strategic and comprehensive partnership” mean? The new policy alludes to what is meant by these four loaded yet apparently amorphous words. To better appreciate the import of this phrase, we can recall former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s words at the launch of the 2004 “Sino-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” (see China’s strategic partnership diplomacy: Engaging with a changing world):

By ‘comprehensive’, it means that the cooperation should be all-dimensional, wide-ranging and multi-layered. It covers economic, scientific, technological, political and cultural fields, contains both bilateral and multilateral levels, and is conducted by both governments and non-governmental groups. By ‘strategic’, it means that the cooperation should be long-term and stable, bearing on the larger picture of China-EU relations. It transcends the differences in ideology and social system and is not subjected to the impacts of individual events that occur from time to time. By ‘partnership’, it means that the cooperation should be equal-footed, mutually beneficial and win-win. The two sides should base themselves on mutual respect and mutual trust, endeavour to expand converging interests and seek common ground on the major issues while shelving differences on the minor ones.

Given that the relations were framed as “strategic” without being “comprehensive” in the 2006 policy, Africa-China observers would do well to consider ways in which “all-dimensional, wide-ranging and multi-layered” aspects will be implemented. One way to look at this question is to consider China’s designation of relations with African countries. Most African countries seem to fall either in the “partnership” and “strategic partnership” category while a few, such as Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, fall under “comprehensive strategic partnership”. This categorization seems based on the level of economic significance of an African country to China. The upshot is that Africa as a continent now has same the strategic value and status as the likes of Egypt, Kenya and South Africa. Although Africa has long been of strategic importance to China, the new framing suggests relations will go a notch higher still and begin approaching the importance of the big powers and South East Asia in China’s foreign policy.

Centenary goals and Agenda 2063

A close reading of the new policy can reveal the motivations of China’s new policy towards Africa. The policy captures China’s goal of “centenary goals”, i.e. the “Chinese Dream” and building a “moderately prosperous society” by 2021. Broadly, this is what China wants Africa to help it achieve. But in a win-win, mutually benefical fashion, China would reciprocate and help Africa achieve its own long term goals embedded in the AU’s Agenda 2063. The fact that the new policy takes cognizance of Agenda 2063 suggests that Chinese policymakers have taken careful note of it.

Agenda 2063 is big on the integration of the continent politically and economically with for example seamless borders. Despite the Agenda talking of achieving Africa’s goals with internally generated funding, it also looks to China to leverage its “comparative advantages in development experience, applied technology, funds and market … [to address] backward infrastructure … inadequate professional and skilled personnel, [and to] translate its natural and human resources advantages and potential … speeding up industrialization and agricultural modernization”. All these are captured in Agenda 2063 and it is safe to say China realizes the importance of reinforcing the African policy, seeing Africa holistically while at the same time differentiating on a country basis; and thus the designation “comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership”. Indeed China recently established a mission at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, and has invited Africa to reciprocate. Yet it is important to remember that China is guided by its own interests in the face of the new circumstances, seeking to attain the two centenary goals and dealing with “new normal” economics.

While the new policy taps opportunities in AU’s Agenda 2063, there are instances where it somewhat diverges from it. A reading of Agenda 2063 indicates continental integration particularly with cross-border transport infrastructure at the top of the agenda, while China’s new policy seems to prioritize industrialization. It is notable that industrialization is placed at the top of the section dealing with economic and trade matters. This prioritization perhaps speaks to China’s intent on moving some of its over-capacity manufacturing to Africa in the “new normal” circumstances. The policy speaks for itself: “China will make prioritizing support for Africa's industrialization a key area and a main focus in its cooperation with Africa in the new era”. Indeed, in a separate speech, President Xi pointed out that no nation had ever developed without industrialization.

Although Agenda 2063 is bigger on cross-border infrastructure development than it is on industrialization, the new policy places infrastructure development at the third tier of importance after agriculture. In a manner of speaking, China has its eyes set on Africa’s industrialization while Africa has its eyes set on transport infrastructure development – at least based on prioritization in the AU’s Agenda 2063 and China’s Africa Policy 2015. If the AU is to draw on its Agenda 2063 strategy in developing a policy or engagement strategy towards China, it would perhaps have to negotiate for infrastructure as the starting point with linkages to industrialization, agriculture, trade and investment, human resource development, peace and security, etc. After all, these productive sectors are not mutually exclusive; as the Chinese saying goes, “if you want to get rich, build a road”.

Talking of roads as highways to wealth, one thing conspicuously absent in the new policy is the Chinese initiative dubbed One Belt One Road, or the 21st Century Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road. Although mention was fleetingly made of this initiative at the FOCAC Summit, for instance in the South Africa-China bilateral agreements signed on the sidelines of the event, the lack of explicit mention of this initiative in the policy might be interpreted that Africa is considered of secondary importance in this regard. This is a curious omission given that the One Belt One Road has since it was unveiled in 2014 loomed large over China’s geopolitical and economic pronouncements.

Dr Bob Wekesa is a postdoctoral fellow at Wits Journalism and a senior researcher with Wits China-Africa Reporting Project, email:

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