(211129) -- BEIJING, Nov. 29, 2021 (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) via video link in Beijing, capital of China, Nov. 29, 2021. (Xinhua/Huang Jingwen)

OPINION – Understanding China’s Foreign Policy toward Africa

An important speech delivered by Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the opening ceremony of the China-Africa Cooperative Forum on November 29 marked the determination of the PRC government to persist in its cooperative and foreign aid policy toward African states.

Apart from the PRC pledge to deliver 1 billion doses of vaccines to African states to combat the rapidly mutating Covid-19 viruses, China vows to enhance cooperation with them in the projects of dealing with public health, agriculture and poverty alleviation, trade, investment, and digital innovation (Wen Wei Po, November 30, 2021, p. A10).

In the realm of public health, to realize the objective of achieving 60 percent of the African population receiving vaccination against the variants of Covid-19, China is going to provide 1 billion doses of vaccines in which 600 million doses would be provided free while 400 million will be produced jointly by the Chinese enterprises and African cooperative partners. Moreover, the PRC will send 1,500 medical experts and team members to Africa.

Under the circumstances in which most African states are belonging to an underprivileged developing world in which the inequality of vaccine provision and production can be prominently found, China’s helping hand in the aspect of public health is arguably a welcome and socio-politically important move. Public health belongs to the basic needs of ordinary people in African states and, as such, the PRC’s aid in the provision of more vaccines will be indispensable for Africa’s difficult combat against the spread and ongoing mutation of Covid-19.

In the area of poverty alleviation, China will initiate ten projects, including the dispatch of 500 agricultural experts to Africa, the establishment of a technical exchange demonstration and training centre in China to nurture a group of African agricultural specialists, and the encouragement of Chinese enterprises to fulfil their corporate social responsibility to set up model villages to elevate the standards of local peasants in Africa. If agriculture remains the backbone of many African states, the PRC assistance in agricultural development and modernization will be another progressive move with positive impacts.

In the realm of promoting trade, China will set up a “green channel” for Africa’s agricultural products, accelerate the procedures of inspecting the health conditions of imported animals, and expand the zero custom tax privilege to more underdeveloped states in Africa. The target is to help importing US$300 billion from Africa in the coming three years. China will also provide US$10 billion as a trade capital to help boost African exports. The PRC will also contribute to 10 aid projects, including the establishment of a Sino-African cooperative expert group under the secretariat of the China-Africa Free Trade Zone.

The fourth area of aid is investment promotion. China will set up an investment fund of not less than US$10 billion for a promotion platform of Sino-African civilian investment, helping small and medium enterprises in Africa to develop while setting up a cross-border Renminbi centre for China and Africa. The PRC will exempt “the most underdeveloped” states from paying any debt by the end of 2021. Instead, China will get out US$10 billion from the International Monetary Fund as loans to be given to African states.

The fifth area of aid is digital innovation projects in which ten economic items will be the concrete inputs from China. A Sino-African Satellite Distance Digital Applied Centre will be set up, together with other related laboratories, research centres, and innovative technology centre. Under these circumstances, Africans will be able to buy their products through Internet buying and selling service platforms.

The sixth area of aid is green development projects in which China will embark on ten green and environmental projects that deal with climate change. An idea of building up an “African green wall” is proposed, together with the establishment of a low-carbon demonstration zone.

The seventh area is construction projects in which the PRC will build up 10 schools and invite 10,000 African high-quality experts to participate in research and study activities, focusing on the development of vocational education. Most importantly, the Chinese enterprises in Africa will be encouraged to provide not less than 800,000 jobs for the local people in Africa.

The eighth area is human exchange projects in which China supports the Chinese citizens to form themselves as tour groups to visit African states. On the other hand, the PRC will hold Africa films festivals in China and Chinese films festivals in Africa. Sino-African youth fashion forums and women forums will be arranged to stimulate cross-border human exchanges.

The ninth area is peace and security projects in which China will participate in ten such project items. China will continue to provide the necessary military aid to African states, support African states to set up anti-terrorist and security forces, initiate joint training between China’s peace-keeping force and its counterparts in African states, and to cooperate in the usage of small armaments.

President Xi’s important speech on November 29 was made after the publication of a State Council document on “Sino-African Cooperation during the New Era” on November 26. The document emphasizes the importance of constructing the “Sino-African common destiny of the mankind,” saying that China and African will have to deepen political trust, economic cooperation, social collaboration, human exchanges and joint development of the efforts at promoting peace and security (“Sino-African Cooperation in the New Era,” www.mod.gov.cn). It also mentions the need for China and Africa to fight for international justice, to combat Covid-19, to win the battle against Ebola Haemorrhagic Fever, and to tackle natural disasters.

Clearly, in the era of the China rise, Africa occupies a central part in the PRC’s geopolitical and geo-economic strategy. The China model of development, which is characterized by a strong state, rapid economic development, and the success in dealing with the basic needs of the ordinary citizens, remains quite attractive to many governments and leaders in Africa. Although some critics of the PRC’s foreign policy toward Africa have argued that China appears to be an “imperialistic” state “exploiting” the African resources, they have totally turned a blind eye to the fact that China under the Qing dynasty suffered tremendously from foreign imperialism and foreign economic exploitation. As such, if critics understand the Chinese saying that “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you,” they should gradually appreciate the PRC’s tremendous and sincere efforts at providing various types of aid, ranging from economic and public health, from infrastructure development to digital economy, to the African states.

According to a report from Tanzania (The Citizen, November 29, 2021, in www.thecitizen.co.tz), the PRC Embassy in Uganda reacted to a recent accusation that Uganda risked surrendering the control of the Entebbe International Airport to China over a loan that could not be repaid by Kampala. The loan was made by China in 2015, but the loan agreement was criticized as having a “toxic clause” stating that Uganda’s sovereign assets would be exposed to being taken over as arbitration awards. The Uganda government sent a delegation to China to renegotiate the loan agreement, but it failed to do so. The PRC Embassy in Uganda on November 28 reacted to the media reports and asserted that China-Uganda relations often stick to the principles of openness, transparency, equity and mutual benefits.

Although the Chinese Embassy in Uganda said that China is implementing the G20 Debt Service Suspension for poorest countries, the PRC may have to deal with the problem of debt payment of these “poorest” countries in a more delicate, careful and diplomatic way, together with better coordination with a mainland Chinese bank that provided the loan concerned. Otherwise, any misstep in managing China’s relations with Africa, especially in economic aspect, would provide an easy pretext for foreign critics to point to the so-called “inequity” and “exploitation” in China’s foreign policy toward Africa.

Interestingly, about 10 days before the China-African Cooperative Forum was held, the United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, visited Africa and considered the continent as a “major geopolitical power” where the US role can be expanded to counter the penetrative influence from China. Blinken remarked that the US “does not want to limit your partnership with other countries,” and that the US approach will be “sustainable, transparent and values-driven” (www.france24.com, November 19, 2021). Moreover, he said other nations’ infrastructure deals “can be opaque, coercive, burden countries with unmanageable debt, are environmentally destructive and don’t always benefit the people who actually live there.”  

Perhaps interestingly, many African state leaders see China’s foreign aid as practical and beneficial to the development of Africa. As the Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said, China provided the necessary funding for African states. He added: “Sometimes it’s a good thing for you if you’re the attractive bride and everybody is offering you wonderful things (Ibid.).”

In conclusion, China’s foreign policy toward Africa is undoubtedly driven by its good intentions of contributing to the development of African states in various aspects, including public health, poverty alleviation, trade promotion, investment, digital economy, green development, infrastructure projects, human exchanges and the maintenance of peace and security. However, in the context of US-China geopolitics, Africa has become a hotspot for their rivalry and competition. Most importantly, critics of China’s Africa policy have ignored the history of China where the Qing dynasty was under the onslaught of foreign imperialism. China has learnt its historical lesson and is eager to assist African states with good intentions; nevertheless, it remains a challenge for the Chinese enterprises, banks, and cadres to implement the PRC aid policy toward Africa in a more delicate, skilful and diplomatic way so as to convince its critics, who have turned a blind eye to how China’s historical experiences have been shaping its recent and current policy toward the developing and underdeveloped states in Africa.