2017 in Review: What the future holds for Africa-China relations, writes UJ’s Dr David Monyae

here to From Here?

It is hard to make predictions on what to expect in the future for Africa-China relations, but we can, with the benefit of past patterns and standing promises and pacts, be certain of some developments.

Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), together with Bhaso Ndzendze, UJ Research Assistant penned an opinion piece entitled “2017 in Review: What the future holds for Africa-China relations “, published on China Global Television Network (CGTN), 31 December 2017.

In the very least, the revenues of Chinese firms in Africa are expected by economists Kartik Jayaram, Omid Kassiri, and Irene Yuan Sunto to grow “at a healthy clip to reach around $250 billion in 2025,” from the present-day level of $180 billion. On the other hand, should acceleration take place, these firms could reach revenues of $440 billion in 2025. “In this accelerated-growth scenario, not only do the three established industries of Chinese investment grow faster than the economy, but Chinese firms also make significant forays into five new sectors: agriculture, banking and insurance, housing, information communications technology and telecommunications, and transport and logistics” a McKinsey report entitled ‘Dance of the lions and dragons: How are Africa and China engaging, and how will the partnership evolve?’ writes.

FOCAC 2018

China’s President Xi Jinping (L) shakes hands with Zimbabwe’s President (R) Robert Mugabe while South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma looks on during a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Sandton, Johannesburg, December 4, 2015. REUTERS

Chinese President Xi Jinping shocked the world when he announced plans to plough $60 billion into African development projects at a FOCAC summit held in Johannesburg in 2015, saying it would boost agriculture, build roads, ports and railways and cancel some debt as part of the Johannesburg Plan of Action. The forum, which is the meeting-point of some 50 African countries and the PRC, will be meeting in 2018 for the seventh time, where follow-up on this and other agreements (including millions of dollars for counter-terrorism activities) are expected to feature on the agenda.


Although Africa was not part of the belt and road plan when it was first proposed by President Xi in 2013, Beijing has as of late enhanced its inclusion of the continent. And compared with the other regions which are elemental to the initiative (especially those of the Middle East and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-member Central Asian states), Africa, especially the Horn of Africa and the East African states, are slated to feature prominently in the initiative, which in its finality is to span from Southeast Asia to Scandinavia. 2018 is bound to see more developments in relation to this, and FOCAC may become a platform for more discussions on this.

BRICS Summit in Africa

The 10th BRICS Summit, to which South Africa will play host, will be an important milestone. Most likely to be on the agenda are issues of development, the establishment of a BRICS ratings agency, and the NDB, which has already committed $1.5 billion in loans to member-states, but scantily in African countries. South Africa will also be celebrating 20 years of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, and may seek to harness this to as much benefit as it can; this is especially true in light of the fact that national elections will be approaching in the following year (indeed with the ANC seeking to re-correct itself post-Zuma, campaign season is already in full mode).

Intra-African Changes Matter

Any attempt to encapsulate the scope of Africa-China relations must take into account not only explicit changes in the relationship, but also (both minute and large-scale) changes in the political situation in both Africa and China. For example, the 19th CPC Congress explicated a Chinese grand vision of playing a larger role in the world, and this indicates a more rapid enactment of the OBOR. On the African side, five elections took place this year in the continent, and at least five countries (Angola, the Gambia, Liberia, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe) saw changes in heads of state or government. These changes are expected to further enhance relations with Beijing. China has pledged that it will enhance cooperation with the Gambia in infrastructure, agriculture, tourism and other fields, as established from a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in August of 2017. Both the new presidents of Angola (an important source of oil for the PRC) and Zimbabwe (a traditional partner for Beijing, with whom it stood by despite global sanctions) have set themselves on a developmental path, and that will inevitably translate to further coalescence with China.

Expect more Competition for a Piece of the African Pie

There is a battle being waged by the U.S., Japan and (China’s fellow BRICS member) India, on the other, to gain access to Africa at the expense of the PRC. In the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI) held in Nairobi, Kenya between the 27th and 28th of August of 2016. During the meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $30 billion in public and private support for African development over the next three years, including $10 billion for infrastructure projects executed in cooperation with the African Development Bank (AfDB) .

And earlier this year, to counter China’s One Belt One Road initiative, India and Japan proposed the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC). The two governments launched the initiative during the 52nd annual general meetings of the AfDB, in which Japan has (after the U.S.) the third-highest number of shares, held in Gujarati’s capital of Gandhijinagar on May 24, 2017 with the expressed hope that the project would be “a cheaper option and have a smaller carbon footprint when compared to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.” On May 25, the two nations jointly presented a vision document for the project “that is largely meant to propel growth and investment in Africa, by curtailing the ever-increasing presence of the Chinese on the continent.” The AAGC is an attempt to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” by rediscovering and creating new sea corridors that will link the African continent with India and countries in the South Asia and Southeast Asia subregions as well as Oceania through both public and private efforts, with joint ventures and consortia to take up infrastructure, power and agribusiness projects in Africa.

Already Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia are on board and on the African side, Mozambique, Kenya, and Djibouti have expressed interest with plans being made to connect ports in Jamnagar, India with Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden. Additionally, ports of Mombasa and Zanzibar will be connected to ports near Mudarai; Calcutta will be linked to the Sittwe port in Myanmar. India is also developing ports under the Sagarmala programme specifically for this purpose.

Do these Indian-Japanese efforts not signify a direct repost towards China in Africa? An ‘alternative to the Chinese alternative order’ as it were? Perhaps so. The grouping of the “like-minded” democracies comprising Japan, the U.S., and India to buttress the rising power of China met in the middle of November in Manila on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits to discuss regional and global cooperation, with representatives from the U.S., India, Australia and Japan present. The meeting was the first since the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” was first proposed by Japan a decade ago.

Liberian children hold Chinese flags before the arrival of China’s President Hu Jintao in Monrovia February 1, 2007. Thousands of cheering Liberians lined the streets of the capital Monrovia on Thursday to greet Hu, hoping for desperately needed investment for their war-scarred nation. REUTERS/Christopher Herwig (LIBERIA)

What we are seeing play itself out in the African theatre is therefore a proxy war between these Asian and Pacific states in an attempt to prevent a rising China. Japan’s “resources diplomacy” in Africa is well known. A report on TICAD by the Institute of Security and Development Policy states that “Japan’s ODA to Africa was concentrated on only a few countries. There was a clear correlation between countries being the recipients of Japanese ODA and being sources of important raw materials.” Indeed, in 2005 Japan had attempted to use what it saw as its leverage over African countries to gain their votes in order to be a United Nations Security Council member; a process which would serve the (perhaps intended) purpose of balancing China out in the Council, as no doubt Japan would be a vote on the US side.

These rivalries should be of great concern for the African continent; quite simply, on the basis of the Cold War, Africa has been here before. And some difficult dilemmas face Africa because, on the one hand diversified streams of investment are good for the continent, and on the other, there has to be caution because each of these countries have different interests that they are pursuing and Africa should not be a pawn for either of them. What the continent should do, in a coordinated and singular interface, is interact with Washington, New Delhi, Tokyo and Beijing in an ideology-free manner that is based on its own set of interests; and cooperate with either one of these states only insofar as they fit directly into its long-range plans for itself. In other words, Africa has the opportunity to use these strategic rivalries by modulating their African presences into pre-existing and evolving Afro-centric strategies of its own.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg


dr david monyae
Dr David Monyae
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