When the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was launched in 2000, it was hardly a high-profile meeting. It was held at the ministerial level, hosting heads of governments rather than heads of state as in later summits. As such, the first FOCAC flew relatively under the radar in terms of international media coverage. We recall the iconic (and infamous) cover photo of the Economist in 2000 defining Africa as an “hopeless continent”. Few countries and institutions had the vision to disconnect Africa from the colonial tropes of poverty and conflict narratives and see in it a partner in development.
FOCAC 2000 was, in many ways, the launch pad of a new type of China-Africa relations and it increased attention to Africa in the global market, too. Since 2000, FOCAC has introduced viable alternatives for Africans seeking a development path different than the one ascribed to them through international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. The forum has consistently taken place every three years, with momentum increasing as times passes. As more African countries have switched their official relations from recognizing Taiwan to the Popular Republic of China (PRC), the numbers of guests invited to FOCAC has steadily increased. In addition, in 2010, the PRC invited the African Union to be a member of FOCAC. Consultation with the AU has since then continued as FOCAC and the AU’s Agenda 2063 have a number of shared development goals.
The reasons for the success of FOCAC are many, but they can be summarized with three vital keywords: consistency, concrete alternatives, and mutual respect.
Perceptions of China-Africa relations within Africa
Surveys conducted by Afrobarometer in 2016 and 2019 show that despite some inequalities and imbalances in the China-Africa relationship, the majority of African perceptions of Chinese involvement in the continent remain quite positive. The 2019 round indicates that some regions within Africa perceive Chinese investments and China’s development model more positively than they did in the previous round of surveys. In Burkina Faso, for example, the positive perception of China’s development model almost doubled going from 20% in 2016 to 39% in 2020.
However, despite largely positive perceptions across Africa, there are two limitations to the Forum format that should be noted: the unequal distribution of FOCAC-announced resources among African states, and the impact the overlap between BRI and FOCAC objectives has had on the distribution of resources.
In fact, Chinese engagements and investments are not equally distributed across the continent. Because FOCAC is a multilateral forum, most of the items on the agenda do not specify the allocations per country, which are not equal shares. Despite the images of unity and representations of African government leaders attending FOCAC, not all African countries have access to major loans, investments, and projects from China. When the FOCAC action plan is announced, it typically gives the overall picture of the multilateral engagements and not an itemized list of allocations per country. Moreover, at FOCAC 2018, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was introduced as a platform whose development goals align both with FOCAC and with the AU’s Agenda 2063. Foregrounding the BRI (especially with its maritime Silk Road) and placing it at the center of China-Africa relations has the potential to favor some African countries over others in terms of Chinese foreign policy priorities. One could imagine that an African coastal country would be viewed as more strategic (and thus worthy of more investments and resources) to China’s geopolitical goals in the region than a landlocked one. In this way, FOCAC-announced resources could be further skewed in favor of African countries which demonstrate a greater overlap of strategic goals for China at the expense of smaller states.
After all, despite the optics of FOCAC being a multilateral one-country-one-continent platform, African countries compete against one another to pitch and win BRI projects. If we go by the overall trend that BRI loans in Africa are likely to decrease over the next few years, this competition might be even stiffer for African governments trying to secure infrastructure and other investment deals.
Perceptions of China-Africa relations outside of Africa
China’s engagement in the African continent has been viewed through a far more critical lens by Europe and the United States. For quite some time, US officials have made a habit of denouncing alleged malicious debt traps set by Chinese investment actors in Africa. Along the same vein, news outlets such as Le monde have repeatedly reported on the risks of trusting Chinese telecommunication companies such as Huawei with wiring sensitive government buildings in various African cities.
For many Africans, such strong warnings issued from Europe and the US hardly come from a place of concern for the well-being of Africans. Instead, they view them as self-interested narratives spun as part of a larger strategy to counter China’s influence in the Global South (including Africa) whenever possible. From this vantage point, China’s evolving engagement in Africa (and the Global South) is creating insecurities around the configuration of the current Western-led global order.
External views on FOCAC are of course not limited to the US and EU. Emerging powers including BRIC (Brazil, Russia, and India) countries, the Gulf countries, and Turkey, among others, now host some version of the summit diplomacy that has become iconic to China-Africa relations. In 2008, both India and Turkey hosted their first Africa summits in Delhi and Istanbul respectively. The Arab-Africa summit was established in 2010 and held twice. The Russia-Africa summit was launched in 2018 and hosted in Sochi. Overall, the proliferation of these summits indicates that hosting high-level forums is perceived to be a successful diplomacy vehicle worthy of emulation.
Far from being perfect, FOCAC is still a consultation mechanism that allows the Chinese government and its agencies to pay close attention to feedback provided by representatives of the African Union as well as African member states attending the Forum. Moving forward, it will become even more urgent for African states to strengthen their bargaining power and leverage the advantageous and competitive position that FOCAC has placed the continent in since its launch in 2000. As such, developing and strengthening an African position when negotiating with China and other partners alike will help mitigate the potential scenario of a race to the bottom, which might occur if Chinese engagements in Africa retract or shift their focus on some regions of the continent instead of others.