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COVID-19 and China-Africa partnership: the need for more cooperation

Africa forged cooperation and partnership with major economies like the US, China, Japan, France, Germany, other EU member states, Russia, the Arab League, India, Turkey, South America, and Korea, among others. No other partnership has attracted as much attention and as much scrutiny as the China-Africa one.

One can be curious and eager to understand the interest behind such attention. It, however, is not my intention to delve much into it now. No doubt, it would be worthwhile to have evidence based analysis as to why this partnership has received much attention compared to others. Partnership and cooperation are undertaken on the political will of both sides to promoting mutual benefits of both participants from the synergy it creates. It is on that premises, I intend to briefly look at China-Africa cooperation through the prism of the current challenges posed by the pandemic and well beyond.

Let me give the matter the proper context it deserves. To begin with, this is an intergovernmental process and as such it is assumed that both sides articulated not only the purposes and objectives but also defined goals as to what they both desire to achieve from the cooperation. And a successful cooperation is best when there is strong political commitment. An organizational framework and well defined areas of cooperation further enable both sides to make an optimal use of their cooperation. China and Africa enjoy long standing and historical relations which were elevated to Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership couple of years ago. The formation of Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) two decades ago enhanced the existing relations between Africa and China to a new height. The institutionalization of the cooperation framed not only areas of cooperation but it also made it predictable and measurable.

The narrative

Many analysts, policy and newsmakers have been preoccupied in narrating their perceptions and views on this particular partnership. Some tend to sound ideologically driven, while others fell short of evidence and some are even gravitated to be based on perceptions. As a result, many lacked balance, objectivity and suffer from some elements of prejudice. To the astonishment of many, much of such dominant narratives about China-Africa are set not by those who own the partnership but by outsiders. I am not in any way implying that others cannot hold or share their opinions on the matter, as all of us are entitled to air out our notions and we should respect the diversity of opinions as well.

Some two decades ago, The Economist magazine came out with a headline, “Africa – a hopeless continent”. That is when FOCAC came into existence. The time is very interesting to note. The same magazine in a matter of 10 years later wrote another headline, “Africa rising.” That is how narratives are set about Africa – Africa is so huge and diverse for anyone to make such a hasty generalization. The recent narrative that China is ‘re-colonising Africa’ economically is strongly refuted by African leaders and apparently not corroborated by evidence. To talk about re-colonisation in the 21st century, in whatever form or shape, is just mind boggling.

Africans are mature enough not to allow re-colonisation by China or any other power for that matter. Nor, does China have any intention of the sort. It is also a puzzling paradox for many observers that those who criticise Africa for its engagement with China and those who gratify such a prejudice against the partnership do by far more businesses with China than Africa.

The essence of China-Africa partnership

“If you want to go fast, go alone and if you want to go far, go together,” is an African maxim of expressing the imperative of unity and solidarity. I believe that China-Africa Cooperation is a choice to go together and to go far. Many global geopolitical observers tend to agree that the current global situation is volatile, complex and uncertain. No country big or small, developed or developing, south or north or east or west can address the enormous challenges facing human kind in its own. Hence, to navigate through uncertain global situations, the need for partnership and strong multilateralism cannot be overemphasised.

Therefore, China-Africa partnership should also be seen in this context, as a levelled platform of purpose and of action to forge a concerted intercontinental approach for mutually beneficial partnership and responses. And judging from complementarities of multifaceted areas of interactions and convergences of interests, partnership between China and Africa is not only important but it is absolutely necessary. Let me explain. Africa, a continent of 55 nations, with a voting block of 28 percent at the United Nations (UN), with a population of 1.2 billion, of which majority are young and productive, a continent endowed with huge natural resources; to partner with China, a country of 1.4 billion people, second largest economy, the largest manufacturer and exporter and second largest importer, inter alia, is unmistakably unavoidable.

Principles governing the cooperation

The partnership between Africa and China is based on core principles of equality, mutual trust, respect and interest. Both sides uphold the rights of sovereign nations to choose their development and governance models and policies. Unlike the liberal world order that prescribed one set of development and governance models for all countries or “one-size-fits-all”, without taking into account the socioeconomic, political, cultural and historical contexts of each country, the China-Africa partnership respects policy independence for each partnering country to make its own policy choice as it finds it fit to its own situation.

An Ethiopian saying to this effect goes like this; “only a witchcraft knows better than oneself.” It is also democratic to respect the rights of nations to make their own choices, chart their courses forward and determine their own destinations. In other words, no one knows better what is good or bad than oneself. Such guiding principles are the solid foundations for a cordial friendship and political trust that created ample economic, social, and political benefits to the peoples of China and Africa.

Let me hasten to stress here that only mutually beneficiary partnerships can be sustainable, and conversely, an unsymmetrically skewed partnership stands little chance of survival and is deemed to yield dismal results. It must also be noted that as much as Africa needs China, China also needs Africa. Therefore, there is convergence of interests for the two sides to cooperate, collaborate and partner on issues of common interest.

Go Global, Go Africa

China achieved what can be described as a phenomenal fast social and economic transformation over the past 40 years that marked a successful path of reform and opening up. During this period, China lifted up over half a billion of its citizens out of absolute poverty, unparalleled in a recent history of development. The government declared to make poverty the thing of the past in 2020. Whether this will be achieved under the current circumstances of COVID-19 is to be seen. Inspired by this profound social and economic success of China, other emerging economies and developing countries, including Ethiopia, have been attracted by China's economic progress and made efforts to adapt some of its best practices to their own settings.

This is a very sensible and rational decision as China stands out as a lodestar for impressive structural transformation to many countries in the world.

The long standing relations between the two created a fertile ground for the “Go Global” Chinese policy that encouraged Chinese enterprises to engage in outbound investment. Africa, considered as one of the new frontiers for Chinese outbound investment, was one of their destinations. In this case, China is partnering with African countries in sharing opportunities and experiences of its success stories and best practices.

While the Chinese enterprises found market and investment opportunities in Africa, Africans also benefit from Chinese investment in manufacturing and infrastructure development, trade, tourism, technology transfer and human resource development, making the engagement a win-win one. The capital inflows to Africa have placed China firmly at the wheel of the discourse of development in numerous countries in Africa.

Institutionalizing the Cooperation

To guide and shape the ever growing interactions between China and Africa, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has been instituted and it became the main platform for China-Africa partnership since the year 2000. FOCAC is not a mere concept that defines one country as the only actor or organizer-in-chief in the process. In fact, it clearly implies a common journey of both African countries and China which takes their domestic and international resolves channeled towards a shared destiny with an incremental course of synergetic cooperation Under FOCAC, African countries are accessing to China’s accumulated industrial, technological and production capacity and financial resources. China plays a pivotal role in enhancing connectivity, infrastructure development and industrialization in Africa. Chinese investments are creating employment opportunities and contributing to Africa’s economic growth and also transfer knowledge, skill and technology. However, it must be noted that Africa gets about five percent of outbound Chinese investment and the trade between the two makes about four percent of Chinese trade volume. Since its inception, FOCAC has proved to be an effective cooperation mechanism between Africa and China.

The 6th FOCAC Summit held in South Africa in December 2015 clearly underlined the importance of FOCAC to pursue socio-economic and political interest of both Africa and China. The Johannesburg Action Plan for the period 2016-2018 that has articulated a comprehensive cooperation package between China and Africa, was given impetus by a pledge of USD 60 billion by President Xi Jinping at the Summit. This could be taken as concrete demonstration of strong commitment and partnership between the two parties.

In September 2018, in Beijing, FOCAC summit, another USD 60 billion was earmarked for the eight areas of cooperation: industrial promotion, infrastructure connectivity, trade facilitation, green development, capacity building, health, people-to-people exchanges and peace and security. This political commitment of the Chinese leadership to the mutually beneficiary and strategic partnership with Africa for common growth and prosperity has created a rare historic opportunity in pursuing win-win and sustainable partnership. The goals set forth in various declarations are priorities for Africa and hence reflect mutual interest. What is in progress is full implementation of the pledges made at the summit.

To that effect, action plans have been worked out at the coordinators meeting in June 2018. China also takes an active interest in peace and security programs and missions in Africa and hence working together to realize peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa, which are the key pillars of the 2063 African Agenda. FOCAC is serving as a platform for dialogue, consultation and cooperation between China and African countries, and it has become a model of South-South cooperation. Nearly in two decades, China has become Africa’s biggest economic partner in trade, investment, infrastructure development, financing and development assistance. Currently, there is no other country with such depth and breadth of engagement in Africa as China is, as illustrated by recent studies. The concrete results of cooperation on the ground in Africa speak volumes for themselves.

Another milestone in China Africa partnership that will complement FOCAC is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Given that the Belt and Road Initiative has its own vision and action plan, dedicated political arena, financial institutions and resources, it will not simply account for FOCAC achievements, but will reinforce and expand the scope and depth of cooperation. For African Belt and Road Initiative participating countries, it means that resources in addition to those under FOCAC become available under the Initiative. But perhaps more importantly, it also means that cooperation areas that are being promoted under the Initiative and FOCAC, such as industrialization and infrastructure will receive even stronger political support from China, which may help fast-track the implementation of projects in those areas. As BRI is not limited to bilateral relations between China and African countries, but aims to connect Asia, Europe and Africa, African Belt and Road Initiative countries can benefit from new connections and expand cooperation with countries along the Maritime Silk Road in South Asia and South East Asia.

Let me be very clear here. Like any partnership, the China-Africa partnership was never spared from criticism, misperception and often times suffer from gross generalization and lack of evidence based approach. One should always bear in mind that when talking about successes or failures of such partnership, micro level analysis is important. Africa, however, continues to suffer from being treated as one single entity and generalization of this diverse and huge continent is bound to be misleading. Let me also add that there is no country or region or continent that can afford avoiding China or Africa. As indicated above, it is obvious that Africa also has partnership with multiple countries and unions.

But why is there too much of a deafening noise surrounding China-Africa relations? Are we running the risk of politicizing it or are we lacking balance and objectivity? I believe, time has come to treat Africans as grownups who, can differentiate what is good and what is bad for themselves. The patronizing attitude by some who set patchy narratives about the partnership does not seem to be in good faith. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that this is a perfect partnership. No partnership is perfect. Not even China-Africa partnership. The capacity to implement projects, lack of technological capability, issues related to good governance, trade imbalances, value addition, debt stress et cetera are challenges that are being addressed progressively in the framework of FOCAC. In all earnest, the solution is more cooperation and not less.

COVID-19 and China-Africa cooperation

When COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was made public, the African Union Commission (AUC), and many Africans leaders expressed their strong solidarity and support to the people and government China. All across, they also stated their trust and confidence in the measures put in place by the government of China to the protection and control of the virus and also believed in the determination, commitment and capability of China to defeat COVID19. Those who had the means also sent emergency medical equipment as a sign of friendship and solidarity.

Because of the stringent measures put in place and because of its elaborate and devoted execution of the policies and strategies, most importantly because of the unity of purpose displayed by the nation, China contained the virus in the shortest possible time than many expected. The effectiveness of the measures also yielded very positive results and mitigated the negative impact in social and economic aspects of the Chinese society. Now, China is steadily returning to normalcy and reopening the economy in orderly fashion.

As the spread of the virus situation greatly improved in China and as the spread of the virus began to be confirmed in Africa, China in return extended its support and solidarity to African countries. Two batches of medical supplies in the form of diagnostics kits and protective gears were donated to all African countries. No other country of Africa donated as much support as China did in these trying times. Understandably, many are looking inside and grappling with their own situation at the moment.

Secondly, the medical equipment needed were mainly from China, as many countries suspended export and directed to internal use. Apart from the public donations, foundation like that of Jack Ma, donated three batches of the supplies badly needed by African countries as needs become dire in Africa. Many private and public sector enterprises which have investment and trade links with African countries carried out their corporate social responsibility in a very commendable way and they are continuing to do that.

As the country where the outbreak was first observed, China has developed experiences and expertise in diagnosis, testing and treating COVIV 19 and hence Chinese experts were in Africa to sharing their experiences. The impact of COVID19 will go far beyond health challenges. Its effect in social and economic sectors, unless contained effectively and shortly, will pose social unrest, instability and insecurity challenges. Therefore, China- Africa cooperation should not only focus on short term solutions and in addressing the immediate health concerns due to the pandemic. Joint efforts in searching for remedy and Post COVID19 economic recovery need be strategized.

The issue of debt relief and suspension within the agreed framework of G20 appears to be well under consideration. However, as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) said in a recent piece he contributed to The New York Times, this is by no means sufficient to save the fragile African economies from collapse. In other words, the need for post-COVID-19 recovery and reconstruction plan is evidently clear. I also believe that it is time to adjust and prioritize some of the ongoing FOCAC programs in consideration of the new situation dictated by the pandemic. China has investments in Africa. The situation calls for more investment, financial, support and economic cooperation. Trade facilitation as one major pillar of If not, chances are that the investment made so far will be negatively impacted and both sides will incur losses. And for sure, that is not in the interest of both sides. That is why there is a need for more cooperation and engagement.

In conclusion, the China- Africa partnership is a mutually beneficiary endeavor. It is a work in progress and with strong commitment and determination, I have no doubt that it will be a model of success for South-South Cooperation. It is not a slogan, nor is it an empty talk as some allege but it is a concrete project delivering results and changing the living conditions of Africans. In order to overcome the challenges, more cooperation and not less is the solution. Ed.’s Note: Teshome Toga Chanaka is currently Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia to the People's Republic of China. The author contributed this article on his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Ethiopian government, the organization that he represents and The Reporter.

Contributed by Teshome Toga Chanaka