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What Should Be on the Agenda at This Fall’s China-Africa Summit

Fifty-two African leaders will meet with their Chinese counterparts in Beijing this September for the triennial Forum on China Africa Cooperation summit. This fall’s FOCAC gathering comes at a critical time in the Sino-African relationship as Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) gains momentum, putting new pressures on Chinese trade and investment flows to Africa as PRC companies increasingly diversify their investment portfolios in other regions.

Typically the big headline that emerges from FOCAC summits focuses on how much money will the Chinese provide Africa in loans, grants and other financial assistance. The figure has steadily increased over the years from $5 billion in 2006, to $10 billion in 2009, and to $20 billion in 2012. At the 2015 summit in Johannesburg, Beijing tripled its previous financial commitment to an eye-popping $60 billion. But a growing number of analysts are wondering now if Beijing will, or even should offer these staggeringly-large financial packages.

“Platforms like FOCAC – trumpeted as the continuation of the Bandung spirit, hearkening to the landmark conference on South-South cooperation in 1955 – are stages where actors showcase their identities, affiliations, and role in the world.” — Yu Shan Wu, Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs

Now that the BRI is up and running, the Chinese are spending huge amounts of money on infrastructure development in central Asia, the Persian Gulf, South Asia and pretty much everywhere along the Belt and Road trade route. Africa, particularly Kenya, Egypt and Djibouti, are no doubt significant points along the route, but they’re definitely not central to the broader plan. So that has some wondering if Beijing will begin to divert funds away from places like Africa to other destinations along the Belt and Road trade route.

The more difficult question to consider is whether China shouldoffer African countries these vast sums of money. Remember that a lot of the funds in these packages are not unconditional grants, they’re interest-bearing loans that have to be repaid. With surging debt levels, largely to Chinese lenders, in places like Kenya, Uganda, Angola, and Ghana among others, there are real worries African countries are taking on too much debt that will be difficult, if not impossible, to repay. For their part, policymakers in these countries refute these concerns by pointing out that most of these Chinese loans are being used to build vital infrastructure that will ultimately help spark economic growth, thereby making it possible to pay back the loans. It’s a big gamble but one these lawmakers say they have no choice but to take given the bulging population of young people who need to be employed.

Although little is known about the FOCAC agenda in advance, based on previous summits it’s safe to assume the 2018 forum will cover a wide range of issues including academic exchanges, aviation laws, wildlife conservation and more. This week, Eric & Cobus offer their view on what either will likely be on the agenda or should be even if some of the issues are not explicitly discussed by the dozens of presidents and prime ministers in attendance.

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