China Pledges Vaccines and Private Investment to Africa at FOCAC 2021

This week concluded the 2021 meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Hosted this time in Dakar, Senegal, the triennial summit has historically brought together Chinese and African heads of state in a public diplomacy spectacle with headline-grabbing announcements of tens of billions of dollars in Chinese investment into Africa. This year’s fanfare was somewhat muted. Xi Jinping delivered his virtual keynote address remotely from Beijing, most participating countries sent ministers rather than heads of state, and pledges for enormous Chinese state-led infrastructure projects were conspicuously absent. Stricter regulation and slowing economic growth mean that China is no longer in a position to lend as much as it has in previous years, nor are African nations as inclined toward large-scale borrowing, thus marking a shift in priorities for both parties. Nonetheless, Xi presented various proposals for deepening cooperation on pandemic response, trade and investment, climate change, and a host of other issues. Beijing’s major announcement that it will provide Africa with one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines, as Western governments struggle to maintain their engagement with Africa, showcased China’s redefining of Africa’s external relations. 

Edward Mcallister and Tom Daly from Reuters described China’s promises of large-scale assistance in fighting the pandemic:

China will deliver another 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa and encourage Chinese companies to invest no less than $10 billion in the continent over the next three years, President Xi Jinping said on Monday.

The country has already supplied nearly 200 million doses to Africa, where vaccination rates have fallen behind amid growing concern over the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which was first identified in southern Africa.

Xi said 600 million doses would be donations and 400 million doses would be provided through other means such as joint production by Chinese companies and relevant African countries. China will also build 10 health projects in Africa and send 1,500 health experts, he said. [Source]

Climate change also found its way into the FOCAC policy-outcome agenda, through the first issue-specific joint statement since FOCAC’s inception: 

On the economic and financial front, China agreed to provide 40 billion dollars through credit to African financial institutions, trade finance to support exports, a special trade and economic zone, a China-Africa industrial park, and private investment. Partially due to growing debt concerns, that figure appears to be down from the previous two meetings of FOCAC that each saw commitments of 60 billion dollars in Chinese investment. However, some argue that it is too early to tell, since the final figure depends on how China prices the value of its COVID-19 vaccine pledge. Jevans Nyabiage at the South China Morning Post described how the pivot from government money to private money was a logical outcome of FOCAC 2021:

Deborah Brautigam, a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University and founding director of the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI), said the “huge pledges of loans for infrastructure have completely dried up”.

“Beijing is also reluctant to advance funds out of its resources at a time when Chinese citizens are hurting from the pandemic. So, no pledges of grants either,” Brautigam said.

She said there was no direct Chinese support given to African governments in this FOCAC pledge. “It’s all about the private sector – trade, private investment, small and medium enterprises,” Brautigam said.

[…] “China in the past had been increasing its financial commitment to Africa steadily every three years at FOCAC – that trend simply is unsustainable,” said [Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson ­Centre in Washington]. [Source]

Despite smaller financial commitments on the surface, China sought to paint itself as an invaluable partner to Africa. Leading up to the forum, the Chinese government published a new white paper on Africa, titled “China and Africa in the New Era: A Partnership of Equals.” Chinese corporations also seized the opportunity to spotlight their role in Africa, with Huawei releasing its own “White Paper on ICT Talent Cultivation in Kenya.” 

Not everyone views China’s partnership with Africa as being on equal footing. China-Africa media scholar Dani Morales pointed out that while the Chinese government’s white paper touts notions of equality, the section on media lists content flows almost entirely from China to Africa, with very little reciprocity. CDT recently examined imbalances in China-Africa media engagement in an interview with Emeka Umejei, another prominent scholar in that field. Similarly, China-Africa international relations scholar Folashade Soule remarked that amid praise for Chinese investment, the speeches of some African heads of state included subtle critiques of the relationship, with Felix Tshisekedi, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, stating that the “conditions of the partnership” would gain from being “rectified.” 

Some of the criticism at this year’s FOCAC revolved around fears of Chinese “debt-trap diplomacy.” Fueling these accusations were recent rumors of an imminent Chinese takeover of Uganda’s Entebbe airport, the only international airport in the country, as the Ugandan government struggles to pay off a 200-million-dollar loan from China’s Exim Bank, taken out for the purpose of expanding the facility. The Chinese government denied the rumors of a takeover. Some British and American government officials and scholars, including the head of MI6, have expressed deep concerns about Chinese “debt-traps.” Others have pointed out that Uganda might have simply been using the FOCAC spotlight to obtain a better deal on restructuring its Chinese loan, and argued that Western policymakers have often resorted to smearing China as they struggle to craft positive messaging towards Africa. Encapsulating the debate, esteemed China-Africa scholar Deborah Brautigam criticized the BBC for conspicuously misrepresenting her nuanced views on Chinese debt-traps in response to Western fears:

I quickly listened to the BBC recording (my clip is about 1 hr 50 minutes into the program) and was horrified to find that the only clip they took from the interview was my explanation of the “idea” of debt trap diplomacy and the “conventional wisdom” about the case in Sri Lanka. They completely discarded all the evidence I presented after that about why that conventional wisdom was not correct. Then, they brought in a former adviser to the Trump administration whom he interviewed at some length about the China threat, but again providing no evidence about “debt trap diplomacy” aside from this: “we’ve charted it globally and it’s fairly widespread”. She also repeated the claim that the Chinese bring in all their own workers. 

The reporter leading the story clearly had his mind made up already about the point of view he wanted to present. My little clip was prefaced by a question I was never asked: “What can we do to combat this?” he said, rather than a question that would have made room for a more balanced discussion of this claim. [Source]

Cobus van Staden from the China-Africa Project argued that despite Western criticism and smaller ambitions, FOCAC 2021 demonstrated that China is the only external power meaningfully engaging with Africa

The fact that $40 billion in funding can register as a slight comedown is a testament to the sheer scale of the Africa-China relationship, and how China has redefined the continent’s external relationships. As Henry Tugendhat and Karissa Camara recently pointed out: “There is simply no comparison in terms of the depth and breadth of relationship-building that China has developed with African leaders and future leaders for at least the past decade.” Yet Western observers remain seemingly unaware of the implications of this rewiring of Africa’s international relationships.

Instead, despite much talk of new engagement, U.S. and European views of Africa this week turned openly phobic. Over the last few days, we’ve seen South Africa’s responsible and sensible reporting of the Omicron variant punished with hysterical travel bans. This is despite evidence that the variant was already present in the Netherlands before South Africa reported it. Of course, the vaccine hoarding that will keep triggering newer and scarier variants goes unchallenged. Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s revelation that the European Union funding militia-run secret prisons in Libya to detain African migrants en route to Europe put a somewhat different spin on the weekend’s EU-Africa Business Summit and presents a powerful counter-example to the Western complaint that China exports authoritarianism to Africa.

[…] [E]ven in its pandemic-muted form, FOCAC is a potent reminder that nothing happens in a vacuum. Meaning is context-dependent. Against the background of Western gates clanging shut, FOCAC did what it was designed to do: send a powerful message to African governments that the only external power who cares about their ambitions is China, that challenging China on any of its red lines might bring Western lip-service but no actual help, and that despite China’s own race issues, it is the only alternative to a Western rules-based order that is nothing but racism dressed up in liberal finery.

 Western governments would of course bristle at these talking points, but they were too busy rubber-stamping flight bans to notice. [Source]


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