Every three years, the addition of new countries at FOCAC (this year it was Burkina Faso, The Gambia, and Sao Tome and Principe), the upgrading of existing relationships, and the announcements of new financing commitments that dwarf those of other donors highlight the exponential growth in China-Africa relations and the growing importance of China in the geopolitics of development. This is defined as the system and processes by which norms of and approaches to development aid are negotiated between states at the global level. As the idea of providing official foreign aid gained prominence in the post-colonial international system, certain rules and conventions regarding development assistance gradually emerged. These were first codified with the creation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in 1961.
China is not a member of the DAC and is uncomfortable with the notion of “development” as a separate policy field, the way it is understood in the West. This was once again evident in President Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), in which he described a “five-no” approach in its relations with Africa. He re-iterated China’s development principles of non-interference, respect for sovereignty, south-south and win-win cooperation, and added that he hoped China’s approach “could apply to other countries as they deal with matters regarding Africa”.
China not so subtly changing the rules
It has been argued that China has subtly been changing the rules of development aid with profound consequences for the role of Western multilateral institutions, traditional bilateral donors, and developing country governments. This notion holds that a silent revolution is taking place whereby the emerging donors are quietly offering developing countries alternative choices for development aid and thereby weakening the bargaining powers of the traditional bilateral and multilateral donors. Others agree that China will force traditional development finance institutions, such as the World Bank, to rethink their approach to aid, and shape foreign affairs for years to come.
FOCAC 2018 suggests that this change is not quite so subtle anymore. Extensive coverage of the Forum in Western and international media underlines that traditional donors, especially the United States, are finally sitting up and starting to acknowledge China as a more serious player in international development. China took advantage of FOCAC’s high profile nature to deflect criticism of its development approach, defend its signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and highlight the maturing nature of Sino-African relations. China also utilized FOCAC to expand its influence deeper into African regions in which it has been comparatively less involved. As I have discussed elsewhere, the choice of Senegal as the next co-chair and host of FOCAC in 2021 highlights a Chinese push into both francophone and West Africa.
In addition, whereas China in the past denied having a “model” for development, Xi’s assertion that other donors should follow the Chinese approach makes a clear case for a Chinese model of development. China is thus not only presenting Africans with a choice between different development approaches, it is now also actively promoting the China model. As argued by Giles Mohan, the China model is one in which legitimacy is built on sustained growth and while its social and ecological effects are problematic, it has recalibrated the wider debates around what development means.
The creation of a new Chinese agency for foreign aid also signals a more strategic approach to foreign policy and the growing importance of development assistance in China’s global strategy. Until now, China’s foreign aid apparatus has been ad-hoc and opaque, with internal rivalries between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Commerce hampering strategic direction and the consolidation of programs. The State International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDCA), announced in April 2018 after many years of discussion, is mandated to strengthen strategic planning and coordination, and consolidate management of foreign aid under one umbrella.
Yet treading slowly
Paradoxically, despite China’s efforts to forge a new path in international development it continues to hide behind the fig leaf of multilateralism. It does so principally through its engagement with the United Nations (UN), which has been a cornerstone of China’s foreign policy. For the first time in FOCAC history, this year the UN Secretary General gave a keynote speech. China is a strong supporter of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and Chinese support for UN policies and peacekeeping operations in Africa provides international legitimacy.
The sense that China has a long-term plan to become a major actor in international development but that the details are fuzzy is also evident in its rapprochement with traditional donors. It started attending the OECD/DAC High-Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness in 2008 as an observer, and has explored trilateral development cooperation with traditional donors in areas such as disaster relief and health. Earlier this year, a Chinese representative requested to meet with USAID officials in Africa to discover how the latter manages, implements, monitors, and evaluates development projects. While this does not mean that China will adopt a more traditional approach to development assistance (which is neither practical nor desirable), it does signify that China is eager to learn, and might seek to incorporate applicable elements of other donor approaches into its own.
China’s growing role in international development is changing the paradigms of how development assistance should be conceived and perceived, with a much stronger focus on hard infrastructures and market-led solutions for developing countries to finance their own growth. On the whole, this is a welcome development. However, and despite China’s strong appearance, it is still treading cautiously and figuring things out behind the scenes. As the geopolitics of development is being re-negotiated, and before China grows even stronger, African governments should leverage their roles and seize the opportunity to secure a seat at the table.