In 2006 China widely publicized its Africa Policy. Although not new in substance, the document showed the world the importance that China attaches to its relations with the African continent. This became even more apparent when 48 African heads of state and government gathered for the third conference of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC III) in Bejing later that year.
Since then, relationships between China and African countries went from one success story to another. Seven years later, Africa has secured a prominent position in China’s foreign policy approach - visible in both the ever increasing two-way trade, which has passed the $200 bn threshold in 2012, and the strong flows of Chinese investments into African countries. According to The Economist, “between 2007 and 2012 the value of China’s annual exports to the continent more than doubled, from US$37.3bn to US$85.3bn”. Its imports from African countries meanwhile rose even faster, surging from US$36.3bn in 2007 to US$113.2bn in 2012.
However, more and more business and government representatives across Africa are demanding a change in the approach towards China. For example, the CEO of South African mining giant Exxaro Resources, Sipho Nkosi stated that “If you allow the Chinese to come and rape you and take whatever they do because you’re just looking at the money they bring, and if you’re looking on a short-term basis, the country will suffer, there’s no two ways about it”. Equally, last Month Nigeria’s Central Bank governor Lamido Sanusi warned African countries „to shake off their romantic view of China and accept Beijing as a competitor as much as a partner“. Zimbabwean Finance Minister Tendai Biti emphasized at the Reuters Africa Investment Summit last week “The sad reality is that they [Chinese] are not comrades. Their companies are there to make profits like everyone else”. South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma voiced similar concerns at FOCAC IV in 2012, where he highlighted the unsustainability of trade patterns between China and Africa.
As we have argued earlier it is key for African governments to develop national China strategies that ensure that their cooperation with China is targeted towards the achievement of national developments goals. China has always taken a flexible and pragmatic approach regarding its engagement in Africa. Hence there is room for African countries to steer China’s engagement in line with their preferences.
In order for African countries to respond in a strategic and long-term beneficial way to the multitude of opportunities that China offers, it is necessary for each country to create a cross-ministerial China desk that ensure coherence in China-relations. Some countries have already created China desks within different parts of their government. For example, Ethiopia seems to have China desks in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development (MOFED) and the Prime Minister’s Bureau. According to an Ethiopian government official, these three entities harmonize their activity towards China through their China desks. MOFED leads the coordination on loans and infrastructure and MOFA on issues related to international affairs. Key issues in both areas receive direct support from the Bureau of the Prime Minister at the highest level, if necessary.
A cross-ministerial China desk would also be an important institutional arrangement for making effective use of various coordination mechanisms established under FOCAC as well as for establishing follow-up mechanisms regarding commitments made in FOCAC action plans or other FOCAC outcome documents. While Li Anshan, He Wenping et al. praise the remarkable achievements that the Forum made over the last 12 years, they also acknowledge that only Ethiopia and South Africa have established a functioning follow-up mechanism regarding FOCAC commitments.
Any successful partnership requires mutual understanding. While China has built deep knowledge of African countries through its constant multi-level engagement in Africa over the last sixty years, African decision makers need to focus more on equipping their governments and businesses with knowledge on the language, culture, political and economic realities of their Asian partner. This is crucial for African countries and businesses to have the best bargaining position towards China and a prerequisite for a truly mutual-beneficial and sustainable partnership.
Cross-ministerial China desks could not only ensure policy coordination towards China, but also coordinate the build-up of China expertise within governments and support businesses on their strategic engagement with Chinese counterparts.