Rebalancing an unbalanced relationship

For a government which stresses that FOCAC – the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation – is not about demanding handouts from China, South Africa has a remarkably long wish list from the FOCAC summit which takes place in Sandton in a fortnight.

This will be the sixth FOCAC, and the first at summit level in Africa. FOCAC was launched in 2000 and has met every three years since then, usually at ministerial level, though the 2006 event in Beijing was also a summit.

South African President Jacob Zuma and Chinese President Xi Jinping will co-chair next month’s summit, and the South African government expects most African leaders to attend.

It is clear from Pretoria’s expectations of the meeting – which will be held under the banner ‘Africa-China progressing together: win-win cooperation for common development’ – that Chinese industrial investment is the new aid, so to speak. At a media briefing on FOCAC on Wednesday, Ghulam Asmal, director of NEPAD (the New Partnership for Africa's Development) and international partnerships in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, was asked if the government expected Xi to announce a new major aid package for Africa.

‘We have to get out of that mode of “What can Africa get from a relationship?”’ he chided. ‘It’s not about what we can get. It’s what we put in, we will get. And we will get what we ask for. And what we are asking for is development and socio-economic upliftment.’

Chinese industrial investment is the new aid

Asmal added that Africa’s expectation had been met because it was in discussion with China about areas of cooperation.

Asmal said that although FOCAC has already added impetus to Africa’s developmental agenda, ‘South Africa feels China can further strengthen the partnership by assisting Africa’s development in its industrial and manufacturing capacities; the beneficiation of minerals, skills and technology transfers, and local sourcing of materials for cross-border industrial development.’

Africa also wanted to deepen cooperation in the areas of infrastructure development, debt relief, industrialisation, investment promotion, market access and expansion, agriculture, science and technology, medical care, education cooperation, people-to-people and culture exchange, among others.

Asmal also noted that Zuma was chair of the AU’s Presidential Infrastructural Championing Initiative (PICI) and through FOCAC, South Africa and Africa could champion the North-South road and rail corridor, which is one of the PICI projects.

The aim of this corridor is to connect the Cape to Cairo by road and rail. ‘South Africa hopes to work very closely with the Chinese side to ensure that these infrastructure projects are successfully realised,’ Asmal said. ‘And that they will enhance intra-regional trade and attract trade and investment towards Africa.

‘We also believe FOCAC has the potential to support South Africa’s initiative, to address many of the challenges identified by the National Development Plan, specifically skills development and training, infrastructure needs such as water and sanitation, transfer of technologies, clean energy, transport and poverty eradication.’

FOCAC has been misunderstood as the vehicle for China’s ‘colonial invasion’

Furthermore, as co-chair, South Africa was determined to ensure FOCAC served Africa’s development agenda, including fusing the first 10-year implementation plan of Agenda 2063 into FOCAC.

This pertained especially to poverty, income inequality, job creation, youth unemployment, water and sanitation, access to electricity, social security and peace. Apart from Agenda 2063, South Africa and Africa also wanted FOCAC to advance the goals of NEPAD. 

‘The most challenging aspect of the relationship for Africa was to convince our Chinese partners to create more industrial capacity on the continent, to have more beneficiation, and to make this a development relationship – rather than one which is extractive of natural resources,’ Asmal said. So this is all quite a tall order, quite a lengthy wish list, when Africa is ‘not looking for handouts.’ Of course these are not handouts in the literal sense.

‘Cooperation’ is about mutual benefit, after all. But in practice FOCAC is, in the end, still largely about what China can do for Africa (to balance what Africa has been doing, involuntarily one might say, for China.)  

FOCAC has sometimes been misunderstood as being the institutional vehicle for what China’s critics regard as its ‘colonial invasion’ of Africa in pursuit of the raw materials it has needed to feed its insatiable manufacturing machine. In reality, FOCAC has been much more about Africa’s concerted efforts to try to shift that unbalanced, colonial-style economic relationship towards a more balanced one of equals, as Asmal explained.

Is it succeeding? As Asmal noted, Beijing has been receptive to Africa’s argument. And this is reflected in the Beijing Action Plan agreed on at FOCAC V in 2012. Among other things, China agreed to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa and to phase in zero-tariff treatment for 97% of imports from Africa’s Least Developed Countries – or at least those that have diplomatic relations with China. We’ll get back to that.

Nonetheless, 15 years after the founding of FOCAC, the relationship remains largely unbalanced with China still importing mainly raw materials and exporting manufactured goods. But Asmal said things were changing on the ground too. ‘We have seen a number of Chinese enterprises establishing industrial capacity in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia and other countries.’

FOCAC has guided Beijing away from its traditionally rigid policy of non-intervention

As Africa’s most industrialised economy, South Africa has begun to see some of these changes, as Chris Alden and Yu-Shan Wu of the SA Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) noted in an article last year.

They said the joint agreement between the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and China’s Hebei Iron and Steel Group to open a steel mill in Phalaborwa could have signalled a new stage in economic relations between South Africa and China. This is the sort of project South Africa has been urging China to embark upon for some time, going beyond mere extraction of resources for export towards manufacture, adding value and generating local employment.

Other, similar, projects were in the pipeline. And Asmal said South Africa expected to see more changes at the summit, including in an exhibition of China-Africa business partnerships. FOCAC is not only about economic cooperation, of course. It includes many other areas of cooperation such as peace and security, agriculture, international relations, health and, yes, development.

And so one can expect some Chinese handouts too, despite Asmal’s remarks. In the peace and security field, FOCAC has guided Beijing away from its traditionally rigid policy of non-intervention towards greater involvement in peacekeeping in Africa.

It is revealing, incidentally, that while the African side tends to throw its toys out the cot when the European Union (EU) threatens to bar someone like Robert Mugabe, for instance, from the annual EU-Africa summit, there is never any fuss about the non-participation in FOCAC of the four AU member states that recognise Taiwan and not Beijing; Swaziland, Burkina Faso, The Gambia and São Tomé et Príncipe.

Nor about the converse participation of Morocco, which stormed out of the Organisation of African Unity years ago when it recognised Western Sahara as a member. And Sudan’s Omar al Bashir? Asked about this, Asmal said Sudan, like all the other African states that enjoy diplomatic relations with China, had been invited and would decide for itself who would represent it at the summit.

However, official sources are adamant that both China and South Africa have quietly made it clear to Bashir that he will not be welcome. They don’t want him to spoil the party, as he spoiled the AU summit in June.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

feature-5icon-printerlogo-chlogo-fr