China and Africa tie the knot: one of the biggest gatherings of African heads of state and ministers outside the continent took place in Beijing last month. The summit has confirmed the new relationship between a resurgent China and Africa. Trade is expected to hit $100bn a year by 2010 and a whole slew of new projects are in the pipeline. Neil Ford assesses what this means to Africa.

Author:Ford, Neil
Position:Focus - Sino-African Summit

The growing economic relationship between China and sub-Saharan Africa was confirmed by November's grand meeting in Beijing. The Sino-African Summit had been heralded by the Chinese government as a breakthrough in relations between the two regions--and African leaders left the Chinese capital in no doubt that a major new source of foreign direct investment (FDI) had emerged.

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Chinese interest in the continent has widely been portrayed as a campaign for hydrocarbons but there are growing signs that the relationship could yield far more than oil revenues for investment hungry African states.

Heads of state and ministers from most African governments participated in the summit. At the meeting, the Chinese government promised to double its aid to African countries by 2009. It is difficult to put such a pledge into context because Beijing does not publish details of its aid budget. Moreover, there is likely to be a blurred line between the level of Chinese investment and bilateral aid as a result of Beijing's tendency to tie infrastructural projects with oil and gas sector investment.

Chinese officials also revealed that the country's import duty regime will be made more favourable to African exporters. In particular, the number of goods that will be able to enter the country duty free will be doubled, although again Beijing has yet to flesh out the details of the new regulations. Another announcement concerned the creation of development funds intended to build new hospitals and schools and train 15,000 African workers for skilled positions.

The Chinese government predicts that total annual trade with Africa will reach $100bn by 2010, a massive increase on the 2005 figure of $42bn, which itself is 10 times bigger than bilateral trade in 1995. As recently as 1990, just 9% of African imports went to Asia; today, that proportion has tripled to 27%. According to the World Bank, the value of African goods exported to Asia is rising by 18% a year, although most of this figure is accounted for by oil exports.

The main participants seemed enthused by the opportunities afforded by the summit. Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi said: "We take great pride in China's strong and warm friendship with Africa," while China's President Hu Jintao commented: "Our meeting today will go down in history. China will forever be a good friend, good partner and good brother of Africa." Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, said: "Our main challenge now is not to fight colonialism, but fighting poverty and backwardness and achieving economic independence. Africa needs the support of its friends to overcome this challenge."

This pledge could be seen as an effort to overcome what has been seen as one of the main drawbacks of Chinese projects in Africa. Chinese companies, whether state owned or private sector firms, have a track record of using Chinese designs, engineering, labourers and sometimes also raw materials to build projects. The host country is...

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