July 20 marked the beginning of a state visit that took President Xi Jinping to Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa and Mauritius. President Xi's fourth trip to Africa sheds light on a promising relationship that has become central to international relations since the turn of the millennium and confirms that the approach China has taken for the past 20 years in Africa is bearing fruits.
The visit is further proof of China's popularity in Africa, which can be explained by Beijing's ability to provide African countries with what they need. Whereas other countries only seem to realize the importance of Africa now, China has been there since the 1960s and deepened ties around 2000, the year The Economist infamously called Africa "the hopeless continent" and the Western world, pushed by donor fatigue, was disengaging from the region.
The nature of China's relationship with Africa is becoming sophisticated. Two of the countries President Xi will visit especially reflect this and contradict the mainstream narrative that China is only interested in Africa for its natural resources and as a market for Chinese-made goods. Despite Rwanda having few natural resources and a small new market for Chinese products, private and public companies have for years been investing in sectors such as telecoms and manufacturing and are helping Rwanda build infrastructure. Since its emergence from the 1994 genocide, the country is now aiming to become the business and technological hub of Africa.
In Senegal, another relatively resource-poor country, China has been using its experience to support agricultural modernization by sharing advanced technology and offering free training on gardening and rice. In 2016, China Geology Overseas Construction Group started building an industrial park in Senegal that has a good chance of becoming an essential driver of industrial development in the country. In the words of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, "The Chinese bring along what Africa needs."
China also has a lot to gain in the relationship. Not only Africa is home to more developing countries than any other continent, offering new prospects for China's companies and dynamic entrepreneurs, but diplomatically, several African nations share China's ideas on crucial global issues such as climate change and poverty reduction, and African leaders tend to be more open and adaptable to the currently changing international relations.
China seems to be the only country willing and able to meet Africa's demand for investment and infrastructure support at the moment. Africa will need trillions of infrastructure investment over the next 20 years, but Western donors tend to dismiss this need. They cannot afford to do so either, as they lack private capital and both their private and public sectors are reluctant to the idea of investing in the continent because of governance problems.
In contrast, with funding from China's policy banks, Chinese companies can quickly get a project started and completed. Time also seems to be proving China right, as its model of mixing aid and investment has become the dominant development model.
China's increasingly influential global position already had a positive impact on Africa. In 2016, as head of the G20, China spearheaded the Initiative on Supporting Industrialization in Africa and Least Developed Countries, a flagship plan that changed the approach to Africa on global agenda. China's pouring of trade and investment and increased diplomatic presence also helped to transform international perceptions of the continent's prospects: for instance, following the Chinese model, Turkey, India and Japan replicated the ideas of summits with African political and business leaders as diplomatic tools.
The decisions made at the forthcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in September will give us precious information about the direction China-Africa relations might take.
At the African level, all 55 members of the African Union (AU) signed in March 2018 the African Continental Free Trade Agreement which, once ratified, would result in the largest free trade area since the formation of the WTO. This free trade area has enormous potential since intra-Africa trade only represents 15 percent of the continent's trade at the moment. China's support in infrastructure could be crucial for Africa to integrate continentally. The AU has also been pushing for institutional and financial reforms, spearheaded by its current chair, Rwanda President Paul Kagame.
The establishment of a new agency in China last April focused on foreign aid, the State International Development Cooperation Agency, will also influence China's ties with Africa.
However, the developmental impact of Chinese aid will certainly continue to vary by country and sector, and the key factor in each case will be individual African countries' characteristics such as the quality of governance or the business environment.
In the future, China's presence alone will not transform the continent, but its support might become part of some African states' success story.
Under News Sharing Programme, People's Daily, China.
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