Over two decades have passed since the first Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was held in Beijing in 2000. China-Africa relations have evolved tremendously since then: emerging trends and patterns in a changing international scenario have shifted Chinese priorities towards new directions, from a growing security presence to an increasingly central role in Africa’s digital transformation processes.
At the upcoming 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the multiple dimensions of health cooperation between China and Africa (aid, trade, and high politics) will undoubtedly take centre stage. During the past year and a half, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged through the world, China repeatedly made headlines for its alleged role as a global public goods purveyor.
2021 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Forum on China-Africa Relations (FOCAC). While FOCAC wasn’t the first of the so-called Africa Plus One summits (Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) predates it) it has come to set the template for how the continent engages with external powers. The success of FOCAC has spurred many similar initiatives between African countries and partners as diverse as Russia, India, the EU, and even Indonesia.
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.
China has a long history of engaging in Africa’s energy sector. The first Chinese hydropower station was completed in the 1960s. Known as the Kinkon hydropower station in Guinea, it was China’s first foreign aid project in Africa’s power sector, amongst other landmark infrastructure projects like the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) in that same period. However, Chinese aid was largely interrupted during the early stages of China’s economic reforms in the early 1980s, when strategic priorities shifted towards domestic economic development.
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”.
The 2015 launch of China’s Digital Silk Road — and subsequent concerns around the cybersecurity risks associated with Chinese vendors’ network gear — have prompted US and European policymakers to turn their eyes to China’s footprint in Africa’s digital infrastructure.
2021 is a significant year for Africa-China relations. It marks 20 years since the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established. China’s Communist Party, which has been in contact with African parties longer than any other political party in the industrialized world, turned 100. Meanwhile, South Africa’s African National Congress, one of the first African movements to be mentored by China, turned 109.
The geostrategic scenario around the Gulf monarchies has significantly changed, a phenomenon that is reflected by shifting American and Chinese approaches to military outposts in the area. As such, a new security season has opened in the Gulf: for the monarchies, pursuing autonomous capabilities in the defence field is, and will be, all the more strategic.
Over the course of the past decade, Russia and China have been increasingly aligning on a number of issues that encompass foreign and domestic politics. With the COVID-19 pandemic, such alignment has increased in the digital space.