The tri-annual Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) took place in late November in Dakar, Senegal. The theme of this year’s event was how to deepen China-Africa partnerships and promote sustainable development to build a China-Africa community with a shared future in the new era.

China invests heavily in Africa and is the continent’s largest trading partner with direct trade worth more than $200 billion in 2019.

During a speech delivered at FOCAC, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a number of major new initiatives, including specific programmes focused on health, poverty reduction and agricultural development, the promotion of trade and investment, digital innovation, green development, capacity building, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and peace and security. In addition, he announced four proposals on building a China-Africa community. The four proposals are to help Africa fight Covid-19, deepen practical cooperation, promote green development and uphold equity and justice. These proposals speak to the common aspirations of the two regions, said Xi.

The Chinese president also announced that China would provide an additional one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Africa. This is the largest vaccine aid package for Africa by a single country since the outbreak of the pandemic.

To carry the conversation which started in Dakar forward, Business Day, in partnership with the Chinese Embassy in SA, hosted a webinar moderated by Eusebius McKaiser post FOCAC which focused the spotlight on Africa’s trade and economic relationship with China, among others.

Welcoming delegates to the webinar, Business Day Lukanyo Mnyanda pointed out that the relationship between China and Africa is often criticised for being unequal given that Africa exports primarily raw materials to China but imports primarily finished products from it. Mnyanda also alluded to the fact that many African countries are becoming increasingly financially indebted to China.

Delivering the keynote address, Ambassador Chen Xiaodong, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China to SA said FOCAC represents a beacon of hope for both China and Africa.

He said FOCAC promotes solidarity and co-operation between the China and African countries and reflects the common aspirations of both regions, sending a positive signal to the rest of the world.

Trade between China and Africa is growing in volume each year, said Chen, adding that this augers well for Africa’s economic recovery.

He revealed that China will provide funding for trade finance and to support the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), amongst others. In addition, China will provide African countries with interest free loans where required and will work with Africa on climate change initiatives.

Much of the infrastructure development including roads, ports and energy infrastructure that has taken place on the African continent in recent years has been made possible through Chinese investment. China, however, frequently comes in for criticism with critics arguing that many African nations are becoming overly indebted to China and risk losing their sovereignty.

Zhou Yuxiao, ambassador for Affairs of the FOCAC at the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China and a former Chinese ambassador to Zambia, explained that China recognises Africa’s potential but considers its lack of infrastructure to be one of its biggest economic constraints and stumbling blocks. China’s intention when providing loans to African countries to fund infrastructure development, he argued, is sincere and not motivated by anything underhanded. If an African country defaults on its loan repayments, he pointed out, China is the big loser in the transaction and to claim that African states will lose their sovereignty is nonsensical, he insisted.

China sees Africa as a rising star, said Zhou, adding that the country encourages Chinese companies to invest on the continent.

Political journalist Sam Mkokeli pointed out that what FOCAC revealed is that China’s financial exposure to Africa has reduced during the Covid pandemic with an apparent $20 billion decline in Chinese investment.

Zhou said China’s reduced investment is a temporary trend only and that long term and as the investment environment improved, its investment would increase.

Centre director at the Centre for China Africa Studies at the University of Johannesburg, Dr David Monyae said that China has been instrumental in putting the spotlight on developing the global south. The relationship between the continent and China has in recent years become much more pragmatic and less ideological in recent years. Of all Africa’s strategic partners, he said China has played the most significant role on the continent making massive investments in the process.

The question, he insisted, is not whether China has investment sufficiently in the continent, but what Africa is doing to capitalise on the relationship and take advantage of opportunities available in the Chinese market. Africa needs to be developing more finished products to appeal to China’s market rather than only exporting raw materials if it hopes to establish a more equitable trade relationship.

Buyile Matiwane, deputy president of the South African Students Congress (SASCO), agreed that debt to China is not the smoking gun that it is made out to be. There is no question that African countries stand to benefit economically from infrastructure investment and there is too much false propaganda attributed to China’s relationship with Africa, he said.

Africa needs to guard against getting caught up in the tension between the US-led West and China and instead focus on building capacity in order to benefit from its relationship with China.