by Nakubyana Mungomba
In early September, Beijing is set to host the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit. Since its establishment in 2000, FOCAC has been the main engine driving Sino-African cooperation.
By the time of the last summit in 2015, China’s funding commitments under FOCAC had grown to USD 60 billion from USD 5 billion in 2006.
However, there is a new global Chinese initiative that could potentially complement the FOCAC relationship: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI was first unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013 with the plan for China to underwrite billions of dollars of infrastructure investment along a historic Silk Route that connects China to Europe. In 2017, the Initiative was formally added to the Chinese Constitution, and thus became an integral part of Chinese global development cooperation.
In late July, President Xi visited Africa on a four-leg country tour that culminated in him attending the BRICS Summit in South Africa. During this visit, Senegal became the first country on the Atlantic coast to sign up to the BRI and was the first key indication that China is looking further afield for countries in Africa to be included in the BRI. Apparently, while the original roadmap for the BRI did not incorporate Africa, the Initiative appears open to countries off the old Silk Route.
For Zambia, one signal that the country is on China’s radar for inclusion in the BRI came in the form of a meeting between ZIPAR and a high level Chinese think tank under the International Department of Chinese Communist Party. At the meeting, the China Center for Contemporary World Studies (CCCWS) sought to explore areas of potential China-Zambia cooperation under the BRI. The CCCWS also requested for suggestions on the upcoming FOCAC Beijing Summit, as well as the next Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.
This meeting was indication that China appears to be taking a keen interest in all countries for potential investment, particularly those with which they already have strong ties of cooperation. The bilateral relationship between Zambia and China already spans several decades, from the construction of the TAZARA railway. Indeed, the BRI has become such a fundamental part of Chinese foreign policy that wherever high-level Chinese officials go, the Belt and Road is likely to follow.
Given China’s expressions of interest, if Africa as a whole and Zambia in particular are to seriously consider the opportunity presented by the BRI, they need to keep a couple of things in mind.
Firstly, all interested countries will want to get ahead of the diplomatic game and position themselves in such a manner as to understand the global conversation around the BRI. Here, the upcoming FOCAC summit presents an opportunity to interrogate and understand what the BRI would mean for countries in Africa both as individuals, and as regional communities. Moreover, FOCAC is likely to be the regional cooperation mechanism that carries out the BRI in Africa.
The Belt and Road Forum, which is likely to take place in 2019, presents an opportunity for an expanded group of African countries to engage with the BRI agenda; especially that only four African countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tunisia – were represented at the last Forum, in Beijing in 2017.
Second, African countries will want to make their investment environment more attractive if they wish to appeal to projects under the BRI. However, projects under the Initiative are primarily financed by loans. Therefore, given the fact that many African countries currently face shrinking borrowing capacity, any agreements that are vied for and entered into under the Initiative must be both viable and sustainable. Globally, concern has been raised regarding the financing for BRI projects that has, in some cases, put a strain on the host country’s ability to repay; particularly given the sheer magnitude of the projects that are undertaken. Therefore, while governments look to provide an enabling environment for the success of projects, this should not be done at the risk of unsustainable debt accumulation.
Furthermore, while the Initiative appears to provide easier access to finance for development projects compared to conventional sources, governments need to fully understand the terms of any contracts entered into under the BRI. For China, investments under the BRI are also strategic opportunities. Likewise, the host nation must therefore take a strategic approach and ensure that any agreement also works for them in the long run.
The BRI therefore presents an interesting new direction for Sino-African relations to take even under FOCAC, and Africa continues to be the next frontier for global initiatives and opportunities. At this stage, it is still unclear whether the BRI is a viable opportunity for Zambia. Nonetheless, as a country we should start formulating comprehensive and coherent long-term foreign cooperation policies to put ourselves in a position to take hold of opportunities like the BRI when they arise. But we must also be aware of the risks that might come with those opportunities and how to best mitigate them.