China-Africa Summit: Is China moving back from Africa?

The eighth edition of Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was convened at Dakar, Senegal from November 29-30, 2021 under the theme “Deepen China-Africa Partnership and Promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era”. FOCAC was established twenty years back as a forum to reinforce the relationship between China and Africa and uplift the relations to a new higher level.

China’s relations with Africa have, since the formation of FOCAC, expanded massively in diverse sectors with frequent high-level visits between the two sides. The trade figures boomed to US$ 187 billion and investments have soared to new levels of about US$ 2.96 billion in 2020. However, alongside, the relations have been marred by trade deficits and controversies related to debt-trap diplomacy such as the takeover by China of strategic assets in Africa in case of default of loan payments.

The recent summit at Dakar, unlike the two previous summits held under President Xi, was at the ministerial level and not at the Summit level. The last FOCAC meetings had witnessed a much higher presence of the African Heads of State or Governments. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has not left China since the pandemic began, delivered his address via video link. A drastic change in the attendance levels at the latest summit has raised questions among scholars and analysts.

Beijing, over the last 20 years of FOCAC, has consistently increased funding for Africa’s infrastructure. In 2006, China advanced US$ 5 billion during the Hu Jintao era and the amount further doubled under President Xi with massive expansion in activities and projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During the 2015 FOCAC meeting in Johannesburg, President Xi pledged US$ 60 billion and similar amount was pledged at 2018 Summit at Beijing. However, the Summit at Senegal did not conformed to earlier trends.

For the first time, Beijing, instead of doubling its investment pledges for the continent, has cut down the number from US$ 60 billion to US$ 40 billion. Similarly, China has scaled back from its other activities on the continent such as a reduction in the number of projects and a simultaneous reduction in the number of capacity building, educational and training opportunities. The word infrastructure was not mentioned even once by President Xi in his speech while till the last summit, infrastructure projects were one of the main priority areas in China-Africa cooperation. The complete disappearance of the infrastructure narrative from the summit has been the most striking element.

The forum at Senegal adopted four key resolutions: The Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024); the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035; the Sino-African Declaration on Climate Change; and the Declaration of the Eighth Ministerial

Conference of FOCAC. Major announcements at the forum included China promising one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to African governments. Other key announcements by the President included a pledge to boost Chinese imports of African products, Chinese participation in African poverty reduction programmes, a green development programme, a capacity building programme and a digital innovation programme. President Xi also pledged to encourage Chinese companies to invest at least US$ 10 billion in Africa over the next three years for championing the greener deals.

Amidst the criticism of China for being a neo-colonial power in Africa and putting several African countries under a huge pile of debt, President Xi curtailed China’s state backed exposure to Africa. Little was offered in terms of concessional loans at the summit, the primary instrument through infrastructure projects were financed across the continent. Analysts have argued that China is moving away from large infrastructure projects in the continent to strengthening balanced trade flows and commercial investments.

Experts have argued that apart from the retrenchment in financial commitments, even qualitatively, the content of the action items have thinned out. For instance, in 2018, commitments included items from maritime cooperation to wildlife protection, from policy dialogues to joint studies to professional training. The November 2021 summit at Senegal included only two items, i.e., the African Green Great Wall and ‘Demo Centres’ for low- carbon and climate change adoption. It is viewed that similar cutbacks are also evident in people-to-people exchanges and other categories like peace and security exchanges. These cutbacks are apparently evident of the shifting priorities and approaches of China in Africa. China is moving away from the infrastructure-based and loan-heavy approach to a newer approach which is still not clear and will become evident only in the coming years. The summit focused on trade issues but given asymmetry in the relationship and the fact that large-scale manufacturing is largely absent in Africa, the continent will again end up importing expensive finished products from China while exporting cheaper raw materials.

China, in future, is looking at commercially viable transactions and not just government guarantees. It would reduce lending and whatever it lends would more cautious and will work with strong viable partners. China’s own economy has slowed down in the recent years, due to the impact of Covid-19, trade war with the US and others factors. No longer can it can continue to invest in the continent as it used to in the earlier times. The summit has, to conclude, marked the beginning of the end of honeymoon period of the China-Africa relations.