Opened on November 29 in Dakar, the eighth Forum on Sino-African Cooperation (Focac 2021) is supposed to reorganize relations between the two parties for the next three years. Fairer cooperation involves discussing taboo subjects like debt.
It is an indisputable reality: Sino-African relations have experienced a revival of dynamism and have intensified significantly over the past two decades. Thus, China is now the continent’s largest trading partner, its fourth provider of investment (according to the 2021 report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, UNCTAD), and its largest provider of finance in the field of infrastructure. But, far from being limited to the economic and commercial sphere, cooperation between China and its African partners extends to the fields of culture and higher education, in particular, and Beijing appears more and more as a military player. on the continent.
Although China has become a partner of choice for Africa – which has enabled the latter to diversify its economic partners – their official relations still remain highly asymmetrical and do not sufficiently take into account civil societies and even less opinions. African public. In order to make these relations more equitable and therefore more profitable for our States, we formulate four recommendations: a rebalancing of the trade balance; participation in the audit of Africa’s debt to China; a better mechanism for monitoring negotiations, particularly in the area of infrastructure; and better integration of environmental issues.
Africa still suffers from a very negative trade balance. This is due to factors that are not specific to its relationship with China: African countries largely export commodities at volatile prices, which exposes them to external shocks. Likewise, as in the context of its trade with its traditional partners, Africa mainly imports manufactured products while, conversely, access to the Chinese market remains very limited for African products which are subject to severe customs barriers, despite the introduction of preferential tariffs on certain product lines.
The lack of transparency around the debt, on the part of African leaders and their Chinese counterparts, does not allow effective consultation
In a context of economic crisis linked to the Covid-19 pandemic – which particularly affects African economies – it is essential that the Forum on Sino-African Cooperation (Focac) 2021 be an opportunity to put these asymmetries back on the table structural to ensure better penetration of African products on the Chinese market. Better protection of African traders, the first economic victims of the pandemic, is also desirable, in particular women, who often face stiff and unfair competition from Chinese merchants in African markets, particularly in the textile sector.
China is the continent’s largest bilateral creditor. The breakdown of its claims is far from uniform. However, with the economic crisis induced by the pandemic, the risk of debt distress could increase if African governments do not find the appropriate means to increase their spending capacity on a sustainable basis. The lack of transparency around the debt, both on the part of African leaders and their Chinese counterparts, does not allow enhanced and effective consultation, nor does it allow the contribution of civil society to the debate while it could prove to be constructive.
It is also necessary to take into account the voices and perceptions of the African populations on the debt, its conditionalities and its repayment terms. A recent survey by the Afrobarometer institute conducted among populations of 34 African countries between 2019 and 2021 revealed that less than half of the populations surveyed were aware of the existence of their country’s debt to China. The Dakar Focac should be an opportunity to campaign for a postponement, or even for at least partial cancellation of the debt, including commercial debt. Such measures could help revive African economies.
In terms of infrastructure, for example, the Africa-China negotiations are often conducted in an informal setting. The agreements are thus signed beforehand by means of “soft law” instruments, in particular memoranda of understanding. This practice, as well as the lack of coordination and the absence of suitable monitoring mechanisms, have a deleterious effect on the execution of works, mainly with regard to the application of national and international standards and regulations for construction, labor and respect for the environment.
In addition, making operating contracts accompany a requirement for the transfer of technology and expertise should be a systematic approach that will aim to create more jobs in Africa. Civil society organizations can help here too to systematically provide States with the tools to place the Africa-China negotiations in an adequate legal framework. The constitution of a working group on the drafting of standardized contractual models that can be used by States and previously discussed by the various parties concerned could provide governments with very useful resources. Better coordination and more institutionalized exchanges on negotiation practices with China could also be part of the missions of this working group at the continental level (African Union).
As recently in Ghana and Sierra Leone, several environmental activists have issued warnings about the repercussions of these projects on the preservation of African ecosystems. The planned adoption of a China-Africa declaration on climate change is to be welcomed. But, for its implementation to be effective, a mechanism for dialogue and systematic consultation with civil society organizations would be more beneficial to governments and the populations of Africa.
Focac 2021 will be an opportunity to take stock of Sino-African cooperation. The establishment of an African civil society observatory and a mechanism for dialogue and multi-stakeholder consultation involving both unions, environmental associations, workers ‘unions, traders’ unions and think tanks , would contribute to the good pursuit of Africa-China relations but also to implement cooperation that is more “win-win” for Africa.