Set up in the benign environment of the post-Cold War period, the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was a bold diplomatic initiative for China at the time and one which forged a path to ever closer relations. Twenty-one years on the world has changed in unexpected and profound ways, which put China-Africa ties under the spotlight once again. China’s rising stature on the global stage echoes the increasingly dominant economic position it holds across nearly all sectors on the continent. Chinese involvement in African security, symbolised by the opening of its first ever overseas military base in Djibouti, complements an expanding role in UN peacekeeping in South Sudan and Mali. And its vaccine diplomacy programme caps a signature effort to demonstrate that China can act as a humanitarian force in Africa in a time of international crisis.
In fact, it is the framing of ties as a development partnership, coupled by astute diplomacy by Beijing, that has enabled China-Africa relations to flourish despite the setbacks periodically experienced, and FOCAC has played a key part in this process. At the same time, the rise of Chinese power and its manifestations in Africa poses new challenges that will shape the contours of the future relationship.
FOCAC as Past
Meeting every three years, alternatively in Beijing and an African host country’s capital, the gathering of leaders and ministers serves as a site for celebrating the success of the partnership, discussing issues of mutual concern and an opportunity to set the direction for future ties. While the initial FOCAC ministerial meetings were notable for general declarations of intent on development, setting two-way trade targets and oblique critics of Western international conduct, by the FOCAC Summit of 2006 engagement was squarely aimed at China’s role in the African development process.
China’s part in fostering African industrialisation, operationalised through initiatives such the promotion of special economic zones, an unprecedented $60 billion loan package for infrastructure development, and selective investments in key resource sectors, have contributed to closer economic ties. FOCAC’s increasingly elaborated development focus is hugely appealing to African governments, so despite occasional and even strong differences, these arrangements are welcome as leading to a deepening of economic cooperation and a showcase of high-level diplomacy.
Indeed, FOCAC’s enduring success can be attributed to careful, non-confrontational diplomacy on the part of Beijing coupled to a close reading of African priorities and practices at the African Union (AU). For instance, where there have been areas of difference, such as China’s involvement in the Darfur crisis in the early years of FOCAC and the AU’s punitive approach to the Sudanese regime, Beijing has shifted its position away from defence of Khartoum to mediation to allow for AU (and later UN) peacekeepers.
This marked a considerable departure from Beijing’s stated foreign policy principle of non-intervention. The formal incorporation of the AU as a member of FOCAC in 2018 – a sticking point for African governments that Beijing had resisted until Morocco re-joined the AU in 2017 – illustrates the influence that intra-African politics can have over the relationship.
FOCAC as Future
If diplomatic acuity and development cooperation marked the first two decades of FOCAC, the current situation presents a new range of challenges to the relationship.
The first of these is the African debt crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic, which in countries such as Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia involves high levels of bilateral financial liabilities to China in excess of 70% of their existing national debt obligations. Beijing’s position as the creditor puts it in a category alongside the traditional Western donors which actively pursue collective strategies to recover interest payments from economically ailing governments. It has sought to resist this association, preferring non-transparent bilateral arrangements, but the Paris Club and the World Bank have withheld negotiations on restructuring pending the disclosure of details on African debt to China. Moreover, in those cases in which African debt was tied to resource exports, the continued low level of commodity prices has further hampered these countries’ ability to pay back while infrastructure projects have not proven to be revenue generating. Faced with these troubling conditions, Beijing has signalled on numerous occasions its growing reluctance to underwrite big ticket development projects in Africa.
In conjunction with this development, a second challenge confronting FOCAC flows from the assertive global role that China is playing. China’s leadership increasingly relies on Africa – echoing the Afro-Asian solidarity networks that once featured in the Cold War – to provide the necessary support in multilateral settings. For instance, African support on the UN’s Human Rights Council helped stave off wide ranging criticism of China’s domestic policies in Xinjiang. Beijing’s promotion of an African seat on the UN Security Council is an expression of their growing faith in African support. Indeed, there is a symmetry between China’s persistent thanks of African states’ role in voting Beijing into the UN in 1971 and the voicing of China’s support for an African seat on a revised UN Security Council. In this context, FOCAC becomes a crucial diplomatic setting for coalition-building around shared perspectives on global issues and the maintenance of these close ties through development cooperation.
FOCAC’s beginnings as a diplomatic endeavour, which rapidly became a vehicle for development cooperation, is once again asserting its diplomatic importance. This potentially puts African states in a stronger position from which they can extract concessions from China, be they economic or political in origin. However, all of this is occurring whilst Beijing is more wary of financial disbursements to Africa. The dilemma for China is how to sustain the development agenda with African governments without weakening this bedrock of support for China in multilateral institutions. If Beijing wishes, as Xi Jinping recently declared, to ‘expand its circle of friends’ in the international community, it will need to address these African concerns.
 For an overview of FOCAC see Li Anshan and Liu Haifang, FOCAC Twelve Years Later: Achievements, Challenges and the Way Forward (Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute 2018); Ian Taylor, The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) (London: Routledge 2011).
 The African Union denied Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir the right to serve as AU president in accordance with the annual leadership rota.