In a year when headlines have been dominated by conflict in Europe and the Middle East, and geo-economic tensions between China and the West, China-Africa relations were, in comparison, a steady and stable norm.
Having followed China-Africa relations for two decades, I wanted to flag a few key moments from this year. These reveal that the relations between China and the continent have focused on building momentum and deepening ties, especially when it comes to trade and the promotion of African exports.
They also highlight China’s growing commitment to supporting the development of African countries.
China-Africa trade and the expo
In June, the third China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo was held in Changsha, Hunan province.
It’s the most intensive China-Africa trade event in the calendar because of its scale and focus. It’s also a chance for small and medium enterprises to be involved.
This year’s expo reportedly recorded some 100,000 visitors and agreed some 120 projects worth a total of US$10.3 billion.
The expo allows face-to-face interaction to happen in the hope of developing commercial partnerships and sales. There were deals around essential oils from Madagascar, gems from Zambia, wood carvings from Zimbabwe, and flowers from Kenya. One Chinese food group displayed its first imported batch of Kenyan anchovies to seafood distributors. This helped catapult demand – on one day in September, 52 tons of dried wild Kenyan anchovies landed in Hunan for distribution across China.
There were a few important take-aways from the event:
- It flagged the emerging role of Hunan in China-Africa relations. Hunan is the source of a sizeable share of China’s own food supply. It’s also home to advanced agricultural processing and heavy industry capabilities.
- There were high-level “green lanes” dialogues where issues in clearing more African fruits, vegetables, and other African products for export to China were discussed. The aim of these dialogues was to support agricultural modernisation in Africa and increase export revenue.
- The emerging Hunan-based “Africa Brand Warehouse” project used the event to support the entry of more (106 specificially) African brands into major Chinese shopping malls
The China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue
In August President Xi Jinping visited South Africa for a summit of the five-country bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), Brics.
Parallel to the Brics summit the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue – a dialogue initiated by China and co-chaired by Presidents Xi and Cyril Ramaphosa – was held.
A couple of things stood out from the dialogue.
First, its emphasis on promoting African integration and the participation of African regional organisations that play key roles in fostering intra-African trade. Discussions focused on the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and trade-related infrastructure and policy.
Second, Xi announced three new plans for Africa relating to agriculture, industrialisation and talent development. The plans aim to address challenges in China-Africa economic relations, such as laggard agricultural productivity, lack of manufacturing and economic diversification, insufficient job creation and educational opportunities. They also aim to address hurdles in Africa’s development.
These actions speak to Xi’s promise to create a “new type of China-Africa strategic partnership”.
This involved the growth of trade, especially with respect to African exports to China.
It would also see a change in the structure of trade. A long-standing pattern is that Africa sells raw materials and buys manufactured goods, which entrenches the continent’s under-development. China is trying to move past this by buying more processed goods, and fostering services like tourism and finance.
China’s foreign minister comes to Africa
As has happened every year for at least the past 30 years, China’s foreign minister visited Africa. Qin Gang’s trip in January included visits to Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt.
From my lens, Qin’s visit was conservative in its announcements and continued to demonstrate China’s commitment to the continent.
He cemented important bilateral and multilateral ties, for instance with the African Union and China-Arab relations.
One moment that stood out was the launch of the Horn of Africa Peaceful Development Concept, which aims to bring lasting peace and economic stability to countries of the conflict-afflicted region. This stands out because China has a long-held foreign policy doctrine of non-interference, and a much shorter history of US or European-style proactive roles in seeking to foster cross-country peace.
Infrastructure changes around Lagos
Various infrastructural developments around Lagos, Nigeria were a milestone in China-Africa relations this year. These will gradually change the scale with which Nigeria can trade with the world.
In April, Lekki Deep Sea Port – Nigeria’s first deep sea port – launched its commercial operations. It’s administered by Lekki Port LFTZ Enterprise Limited, a joint venture enterprise owned by a group of investors (comprising China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd and Singapore’s Tolaram Group), the Lagos state government and the federal government of Nigeria through the Nigerian Ports Authority.
The port, one of the largest in Africa, will eventually connect to Lagos’ Rail Mass Transit system. The first phase of the rail system, the Blue Line, was opened in September.
The Blue Line was built by China’s Civil Engineering and Construction Corporation. Its corridor spans 13km and covers five stations. It’s the first rail infrastructure traversing Okokomaiko, a densely populated area of western Lagos, and the Marina district, notable for high-rise commercial offices.
Relations look set to keep evolving and growing into the new year.
Later in the year, a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit is due to be hosted by China. Typically the forum leads to announcements of new directions in China-Africa ties by both sides, and commercial deals being agreed.
Otherwise, there are some key bilateral anniversaries to be marked, such as the 60th anniversary of China-Tanzania and China-Zambia relations. In addition, China and Tanzania are expected to launch the flagship East Africa Commercial and Logistics Centre project. This is expected to expand trade and investment ties between China and other landlocked economies within the region.
Lauren Johnston is Associate Professor, China Studies Centre, University of Sydney