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FOCAC 8: Building Africa-China Relations That Are More Profitable for Africa

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi greeted upon his arrival in Dakar by Senegalese Foreign Minister Aïssata Tall Sall ahead of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation conference. Image via @AissataOfficiel.

This column was written by CORA, the Collective for the Renewal of Africa, based in Dakar. CORA brings together over 100 researchers and scientists, writers, and artists from across Africa and the diaspora. 

The Africa-China Summit currently taking place in Dakar will close on the Dakar Action Plan, the framework that will organize relations between the continent and China over the next three years. Relations between China and Africa have grown exponentially and have been booming over the past two decades. According to UNCTAD’s 2021 report, China is now Africa’s leading trade partner and its fourth-largest investment provider (measured in stock). China is also Africa’s number one provider of external infrastructure funding and its cooperation is not limited to the economic and trade spheres – it also includes culture and higher education, to name but a few. China also has a military presence in Africa.

While China has become a partner of choice for Africa, giving the continent the opportunity to diversify its economic partners, the ‘partnership’ remains deeply asymmetrical. Neither the views of African civil societies nor that of African populations are represented or taken into account. In order to set the relationship on a firmer “win-win” footing for Africa, we have drawn up recommendations in four main areas: (1) rebalancing the trade deficit for Africa (2) participation in the audit of the African debt to China (3) improving the mechanism for monitoring negotiations, especially in the area of infrastructure) and (4) the integration of environmental concerns.

Reduction of Africa’s Trade Deficit

In its trade relations with China, Africa continues to run a considerable trade deficit. A number of factors can explain these deficits, which go beyond Africa’s relationship with China: African countries are major exporters of raw materials with fluctuating prices, which exposes them to external shocks. As is the case in its trade relations with its traditional partners, Africa relies heavily on imports of manufactured goods. However, African products have very limited access to the Chinese market and are subject to high tariff barriers. While preferential tariffs have been introduced for certain categories of products, these are still extremely limited.

Against a backdrop of an economic crisis fueled by the COVID19 pandemic, which is particularly damaging to African economies and has come as a shock to African traders, it is absolutely necessary and essential that FOCAC 2021 be an opportunity to address structural asymmetries and a push for better penetration of African products in the Chinese market. It is also essential that African traders, especially women, who often face stiff and unfair competition from Chinese merchants in African markets, as is the case in the textile sector, be afforded greater protection.

Participation in the Debt Audit

China is Africa’s foremost bilateral creditor. Credits are by no means evenly distributed. However, with the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic, the risk of debt distress could become greater for some African governments should they fail to find appropriate ways to increase their spending capacity in a sustainable manner. The lack of transparency around debt, sometimes from both the Chinese and African governments, precludes stronger and more effective consultation, or civil society oversight, which could be constructive. There is also a need to bring in the voices and perceptions of African populations on the debt question, its conditionalities, and the terms of repayment by African governments. A recent survey conducted by the Afrobarometer Institute in 34 African countries between 2019 and 2021 found that less than half of the populations surveyed were aware of the existence of their country’s debt to China. FOCAC 8 in Dakar should be an opportunity to further advocate for the deferment or partial cancellation of debts, including commercial debts, especially in the context of the pandemic, since such measures could contribute to the recovery of the African economy.

Need for Improved Negotiation Frameworks

Africa-China negotiations, especially as they relate to infrastructure, are often conducted informally with agreements often signed in advance through ‘soft law’ instruments such as memoranda of understanding. This is compounded by a lack of coordination, coupled sometimes with a lack of appropriate monitoring mechanisms, all of which has a detrimental effect on the safeguarding of quality and safety standards in infrastructure work, and the enforcement of labor and environmental standards and regulations. Furthermore, African governments should have a systematic approach of requiring that infrastructure contracts be accompanied by an obligation to transfer technology and expertise in order to help create jobs in Africa. Here too, civil society organizations can contribute to systematically providing states with the tools they need to establish an adequate legal framework for Africa-China negotiations. The establishment of a working group to draft standardized contractual models that could be used by governments and discussed in advance by the various stakeholders could provide governments with very useful resources. Improved coordination and greater institutionalized exchanges on negotiation practices with China could also be part of the mandate of this working group on a continental scale (African Union).

Monitoring Environmental and Climate Impacts

A number of environmental activists, most recently in Ghana and Sierra Leone, have issued warnings about the impact of Chinese infrastructure projects on the preservation of African ecosystems. The anticipated adoption, during the FOCAC Conference, of a China-Africa declaration on climate change cooperation is commendable. However, for such a declaration to be effective, a mechanism for effective consultation and monitoring led by civil society organizations would be of great benefit to African governments and people.

For reasons mentioned above and others, FOCAC 2021 in Dakar will be an opportunity to reassess China’s cooperation with Africa. The establishment of an observatory of African civil society and multi-stakeholder dialogue and consultation mechanism involving trade unions, environmental associations, workers’ unions, traders’ unions, and think tanks, will not only help ensure that relations between Africa and China continue to flourish but will also lead to win-win cooperation that is more beneficial for Africa.

This column was written by Folashadé Soulé for CORA and it first appeared on the French-language news site Jeune Afrique. The column was re-published with the authors’ permission. For more information about CORA, please visit their website at coraafrika.org to find out more about their work to promote African knowledge through the production of quality research and seek to influence policymaking for positive change through the articulation of informed positions on key questions that confront the continent.

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