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Insight & Strategy 22 June 2023

China's new era: the implications for Africa

Goolam Ballim | Jeremy Stevens | Simon Freemantle

The onus is on African policymakers to draw more developmental value from relations with China 

  • This note reflects on China’s ongoing internal adjustment and evolving foreign policy, orientating Beijing’s near- and medium-term interests in Africa within this context, and considers how Africa should position itself to ensure fit-for-purpose adaptation to this new landscape. This report is the third in a new series that we are publishing that considers Africa’s place in an evolving global environment, shaped by shifting geopolitical ties, rising climate/energy adaptation imperatives, and rapid technological advances (see our first two reports in this series here and here).
  • China’s new era. We begin by discussing the dynamics shaping China’s “new era”, which predates the Covid-19 pandemic and the recent elevation in US-China tensions and is leading to major shifts in the Chinese Communist Party’s approach to the economy, politics, and foreign affairs.
  • Africa is integral to China’s new era. In basic terms, Africa has three interrelated roles in China’s new era: (i) It is a strategic exterior line for China to geopolitically contain the US whilst providing a backbone of support for China on issues involving its core interests; (ii) Africa is a source of inputs to sustain China’s economic development, including new energy; and (iii) Africa is an ally for China to play a greater role in global governance, advancing the reform of the global governance system and the reshaping of the international order. To this latter point, a recent increase in global geopolitical tensions has meant that Beijing is looking to sustain, and broaden, its political and commercial interests, and influence, across Africa – including across smaller economies that would otherwise have become more peripheral to China given its commercially focused new-era priorities.
  • However, China-Africa commercial ties remain imbalanced. Though China’s engagements with Africa are benchmarked with the delivery of “real results”, which is one of the four principles of China’s Africa policy for the new era, commercial ties remain heavily imbalanced. For instance, Africa’s trade deficit with China has consistently widened since 2015, reaching USD50bn last year. Though this principally reflects a reality that Africa doesn’t produce at scale the products that Africa’s various economies demand, it also undermines the rhetoric of a win-win Sino-African partnership. A target set by President Xi to increase imports from Africa to USD300bn before 2024 looks likely be missed by around USD100bn.
  • African policymakers and negotiators must seize the opportunities presented by the current geopolitical era to reshape commercial ties with China. Beijing’s primary task of policy is sovereignty, security, and domestic development. And, Africa is a means to that end. Therefore, the onus is on Africa to follow suit and ensure the next phase of China-Africa ties focuses on the developmental objectives of Africa – ideally as defined by the continent’s leaders and policymakers.

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