At the 6th Forum on China–Africa Cooperation last Friday in Johannesburg, a new relationship between the world’s second-largest economy and its fastest rising continent was on display. The forum is the main platform for official high-level political and economic dialogue between Africa and China, held once every three years. China made headlines at the event by announcing a $60 billion package of loans, aid, investment, and other financial support to Africa.
Yet for all the fanfare, the relationship between China and Africa is under strain. That is why Beijing must now rethink its engagement with the continent, focusing less on the size and number of commitments it offers and more on sustainability, with an approach that goes beyond government-to-government initiatives.
First, the plusses. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled Africa’s importance to Chinese foreign policy by visiting the Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Tanzania on his first presidential trip overseas. African governments have welcomed China’s “no-strings attached” political approach, which broadly gives Africa an alternative to conditional aid from Western donors and allows China to leverage its economic position on the continent.
In a remarkable 22-fold increase, trade between Africa and China has risen from $10 billion in 2000 to $220 billion in 2014. African oil and minerals make up nearly half of the total trade with China, but Beijing has also singlehandedly revitalized Africa’s infrastructure network by financing and building sorely needed roads, bridges, and telecommunication infrastructure. Chinese firms are also slowly moving some of their manufacturing capacity to lower-cost African destinations, including to a special economic zone outside Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
But the Sino–African relationship is facing challenges. The global commodity crunch, coupled with the restructuring of China’s economy from manufacturing to services, has led to a 40 percent drop in Chinese investment in Africa since last year. At the opposition forces in South Sudan’s civil war threatened large Chinese oil investments, and in November, Islamist militants killed three Chinese executives from a state railway company in a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako.
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