Beijing hosted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) ahead of world leaders gathering in New York by the end of September 2018. The event brought together almost all of the African heads of state and government and chiefs of the United Nations and African Union, making it one of the most important forums for African countries outside the African Union Summits.
The FOCAC summit took place against the backdrop of unprecedented and complex global challenges. Rising geopolitical tension along with an increasing arms race and military buildup, growing confrontation and provocation, as well as the rapid ceding of political influence by the global powers and the growing assertion of middle powers in international affairs have become the norm rather than the exception. No doubt, there are few alternatives to international cooperation that could tackle such challenges. As key global actors representing more than one-third of the world’s total population, China and Africa can play crucial role in setting global agendas in this regard. By endorsing the Beijing Declaration and Action Plan, which envisions a community of shared future, both China and Africa renewed their collective political commitment to preserve multilateralism and the rule-based international order.
Once labeled as “hopeless continent” and “a scar on the conscience of the world,” Africa is now on a path to transformation and change. However, it is a fact that this could not have been realized without the major role played by China. For nearly the past decade, China has been Africa’s largest business and trading partner. The announcement at FOCAC of the latest $60 billion pledge is yet another huge opportunity that will have far-reaching positive impact for the continuation of Africa’s development and stability. African leaders and African Union officials have already expressed that the Beijing Declaration and Action Plan fully reflect the priorities set by Africans in Agenda 2063, a strategic framework that envisions creating an integrated, prosperous, and peaceful Africa.
Yet there is a tendency by some to characterize and generalize China-Africa cooperation as a partnership that solely focuses on economic and development issues. This overlooks an important aspect of China’s role. China pledged that it would set up a China-Africa peace and security fund, provide free military aid to the African Union, and extend a total of 50 security assistance programs. This is an important announcement that would complement the $200 million in support that China is already providing through the United Nations Secretary-General’s Peace and Security Trust Fund, which finances peace and security projects mostly in Africa in priority areas such as peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and capacity building to member states.
Given that seven out of eight of the major initiatives China launched during FOCAC target socioeconomic and development issues, one might assume at glance that the forum gave lesser prominence to peace and security issues. Nevertheless, China is spending the bulk of its funds on areas that matters most to Africa countries: development, which will also meaningfully contribute to addressing the root causes of conflicts in Africa. This shows that FOCAC can serve as an important tool for preventing conflicts, a priority agenda that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has championed since taking the UN’s highest office in January 2017. Through FOCAC, China is therefore complementing AU’s Agenda 2063, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030, and the vision of UN reform proposal that was recently endorsed by the General Assembly.
Beyond investing in conflict prevention, China’s role in other peace and security efforts is also significant. Under the umbrella of UN peacekeeping operations, China has deployed more than 30,000 personnel to Africa over the past 15 years. The latest UN statistics also show that China is the largest troop contributor among the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the second largest from among the current 15 members of the UNSC, and the 11th largest from among all UN member states in UN peacekeeping missions. China is also the second largest financial contributor next to the United States in assessed contribution to the UN peacekeeping operations in 2018.
Furthermore, China has also been consistently lending political support to the continent by defending African interests in the UNSC and other UN fora. During its presidency of the Security Council in July 2017, China organized an open debate that focused on enhancing African capacities in the areas of peace and security, and it is one of the strong advocates for strategic, systematized, and institutionalized partnership between the UNSC and AU Peace and Security Council.
Due to its immense economic potential and increasing geopolitical importance, there is growing international interest in strengthening ties with Africa. In addition to China, Africa has various partnership ties with different actors, both traditional and new, including the European Union, United States, Japan, and India. In spite of the fact that each of these partnerships witnesses varying cooperation formats and levels of engagement, it is important to underscore that a complementary and cooperative mindset, not competition between these fora, is the only way to have mutual benefit.
There cannot be any doubt that Africa is diverse – the continent is home to 54 countries with different national interests, levels of development, and political systems. Yet it is obvious that African countries have common interests. What really matters at the end of the day is how Africans can effectively engage different partners and ensure that such partnerships help the continent achieve Agenda 2063 and SDG 2030. In this regard, the AU is the most appropriate forum for taking a lead in forging coordinated, coherent, and effective engagement with Africa’s partners. The opening of the AU representative office in Beijing to follow up the China-Africa partnership is a step in the right direction in institutionalizing that cooperation.
The fact that China pursues win-win cooperation and the “five no’s” approach in its engagement with Africa renders FOCAC of strategic importance not only as a model for South-South cooperation but also with the potential to transform into an exemplary platform for international cooperation as well.