China supports African integration, and not merely in rhetorical terms. Perhaps nothing symbolizes this support more than the impressive 800 million RMB Headquarters and Conference Centre China built and fitted for the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The complex, which was inaugurated at the beginning of 2012, epitomizes China’s stance as a supporter and even facilitator of African integration. Allegations in Western media reports earlier this year that the building was bugged by China did not noticeably tarnish China’s reputation in this regard, at least not in Africa. The Chinese government dismissed the reports as “preposterous”, whilst African Union chairman Moussa Faki likewise called the allegations “lies.”
China “is here” for African unity and for peace
Ideological interests lay at the heart of China’s earliest support of African unity. To China, bodies such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the AU’s precursor founded in 1963, represented a spirit of growing independence, self-reliance and cooperation among Third World countries and an encouraging step towards ridding the world of colonialism and power politics. China’s current-day presence in Africa is driven by a new and different set of motives, first and foremost among which is the search for economic opportunities. Nonetheless, China still sees the AU as an important partner and takes the principles, priorities and objectives that African countries jointly agree upon through the AU seriously. China supports the formation of an African consensus on key issues affecting the continent not least because it is more practical to deal with a single entity and follow a single position than to try to cater to the interests, needs and views of 55 highly diverse countries. Institutional channels have been created to incorporate the AU in current-day Africa-China relations such as the China-AU Strategic Dialogue, participation of the AU Commission in the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation (FOCAC) alongside individual African countries and the establishment of a Chinese Permanent Mission to the AU, similar to the Missions of the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). More recently, China has expressed support for plans to establish an AU Representational Office in Beijing.
China’s 2015 Africa Policy Paper has a section dedicated to China’s relations with regional organisations. It mentions “development planning, experience sharing in poverty reduction, health, peace and security and international affairs” as areas in which China will seek cooperation with the AU. Among these areas one of the earliest and most prominent until today is peace and security. As a Permanent Member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, a seat obtained through massive African support in 1971, China habitually insists that the Council should heed the views of African regional organizations on African peace and security issues and even allow these entities to settle conflicts in their region by themselves in accordance with their mandate and within the confines of international law. In the discourse of Africa-China relations this is called “African solutions to African challenges without interference from outside the continent.” In 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced in a UN speech entitled “China is Here for Peace” that, in addition to sizeable contributions to UN Peacekeeping, China would disburse US$100 million to the AU to build its standby force and rapid response capacity. Lack of capacity has been a major stumbling block to the AU’s ambitions in terms of peace and security. Through its financial support China has taken a significant step in terms of putting its money where its mouth is in supporting African self-reliance.
Bilateral Africa-China cooperation and regional integration: How to square the circle?
China’s interest in African peace and security is a sign not only of Chinese goodwill in Africa, but also of the commercial interdependence between the two entities and of China’s desire to ensure a smooth flow of goods and returns on its investments. While specific economic projects are usually negotiated and performed at the bilateral level, the AU has sought to mediate and plan Africa-China cooperation at the continental level. This is not only to ensure maximum benefit extraction from China, but also to enact regional integration. This is possible and mutually achievable. But it is complicated, to say the least. For instance, notwithstanding the fact that the free trade area of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was launched in 2008, scholars have noted with concern that intra-regional trade remains very low, at only 10%, and largely dominated by South Africa whose exports constitute 70% of the intra-regional imports. SADC economies are characterised by high concentration on the production of primary products for export with little value addition. A 2016 study by Udeh Nwangbo of North-West University in South Africa revealed that the Sino-SADC relationship had accrued mixed outcomes. While the relationship with China contributed to a substantial Chinese presence in the sub-region, the trade pattern also added to SADC’s over-reliance on primary products for export earnings, and thus “encouraged the influx of Chinese products into the region, undermining its intra-regional trade and integration.” This is generally reflected in other parts of the continent, with total intra-ECOWAS trade in West Africa for instance standing at a mere 12%.
This is the essential problem of the Africa-China relationship when it comes to regional integration: the very features which have allowed this bilateral relationship to spike (i.e. China’s thrust into the continent at the behest of an economic boom) are amongst the main obstacles to fruitful economic integration in the continent. To make Africa-China ties more mutually beneficial in terms of regional integration, efforts should be made to improve Africa’s industrial manufacturing base. There is need for the continent to engage China in a collective negotiation to boost its bargaining powers and to avoid what may appear as a divide and rule outcome in the bilateral engagements. Political coordination, therefore, should lead the process of economic integration. Observers have pointed out the need for African regional organisations to come up with measures that would reduce the cost of trade within the continent. Crucially, China may have a role to play here; in its 2018 FOCAC commitments, China has officially endorsed the AU’s Agenda 2063 and formally declared Africa a partner entity in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such a rollout of infrastructure, traversing and criss-crossing the continent is expected by the AU to heighten intra-African trade, currently at 12%, to close to 50% by 2045. The continent has got a unique opportunity to leverage on Chinese support for its agenda to build “the Africa we want”, as stated in Agenda 2063. However, at the end of the day much will depend on whether Africa can truly get its act together.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)