In early November, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and heads of state from 49 African countries gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to adopt a three-year action plan for the enhancement of Sino-African cooperation.
It was noteworthy that there was a clear shift by China at this session of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), away from its primarily commercial focus on the continent, towards increased aid and debt relief. This softening in attitude was then further supported by China's commitments in regards to education and training, skills and technology transfer, agriculture, and health.
According to official publications, FOCAC aims to bring about collective consultation between China and African countries, as well as dialogue and cooperation in the context of South-South interaction. The Forum was established in 2000 to advance multilateral Sino-African relations and the session in November was the fourth in this series and the most significant conference to date.
China's shift in attitude can in large part be attributed to several factors. First, China has come in for criticism, mainly from Western countries and institutions, for investing in Africa purely for commercial purposes, with little or no regard for the communities that these investments impact. Second, against a backdrop of structural imbalances in trade between China and Africa (with Africa depending on exporting its raw materials), China realises that a greater focus on the people of Africa and its social structures would serve to bolster Sino-African ties. In fact, Premier Wen, in his address at the summit, mentioned the distinct need to train Chinese companies in corporate social responsibility matters so as to limit the number of barriers that persist in hampering relations.
What the future holds
China has made commitments in a number of areas for the three year period starting in 2010:
Trade and finance: China will provide 10 billion US dollars in concessional loans to African countries and a one billion dollar special loan facility for African SMEs. Certain debts will be cancelled, and many African countries, classified as less developed countries, will receive zero-tariff treatment across 95 per cent of traded products, with 60 per cent becoming tariff-free before the end of this year.
Science and technology: Numerous scientific and agricultural joint demonstration projects will take place in Africa. China will train 2,000 African agricultural technology personnel and more than 100 African postdoctoral candidates to maintain the ongoing success of these initiatives. In energy, China has proposed the construction of 100 renewable energy projects for Africa covering solar power, bio-gas, and hydro power facilities.
Health and education: 500 million renminbi (73 million dollars) in anti-malaria materials will be provided to 30 hospitals and 30 malaria prevention and treatment centres built by China in Africa. This will complement the training of 3,000 African doctors and nurses. By 2012, China will increase the number of Chinese government scholarships to Africa to 5,500, and will train a total of 20,000 professionals of various disciplines for Africa over the next three years.
China's commitments stand in stark contrast to the lack of any formal, coherent and united policy from Africa. What is clear from the summit is Africa's distinct need for a strategy to approach and engage China on a reciprocal basis. African countries have made no pledges, nor have they established any benchmarks upon which they could be measured by 2012. This is worrying for a relationship which is purported to be based upon reciprocal values of cooperation, trust and mutual development.
Another worrying aspect was that the Conference of Chinese and African Entrepreneurs - set up to complement the ministerial summit - was almost completely devoid of representatives from the African private sector. Around 300 Chinese companies were present at the business matching sessions, yet there were only a handful of African counterparts on hand to share and discuss potential business opportunities.
Chinese businesses continue to display a willingness towards building long-term economic relationships with the continent. Yet African companies leave much to be desired in proactively seeking relationships with Chinese firms. Africa should step up efforts to meet China halfway.
Beijing has taken a bold first step in addressing some of the imbalances that exist between China and Africa by adopting a softer stance in its dealings with the continent and through its commitments for 2010-2012. The ball is now in Africa's court as to how it develops a structured, coherent, and assertive plan to guide the continent's engagement with China.