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How diplomacy reinforces China’s political influence in Africa

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Daouda Cisse

Increasingly, China’s political influence in Africa is deepening. Such an influence is reinforced through Beijing’s political, economic, and foreign policy mechanisms and strategies as well as diplomacy. While China’s political and economic engagement in Africa remains the backbone of Africa-China relations, diplomacy is the main foreign policy tool which Chinese officials use to exert influence across the continent. China’s multilateral diplomacy contributes to driving state-to-state engagement, and growing party-to-party relations with the Chinese Communist Party’s interest in exerting influence on African governments and expanding its political governance and practices across the continent.

The piece explores how multilateral diplomacy plays an important role in China’s political influence in Africa. It focuses on a number of aspects of Beijing’s multilateral diplomacy in Africa: the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the UN voting, party-to-party diplomacy, and health diplomacy.

Multilateral diplomacy 

The Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)

‘Africa+1’ summit diplomacy shows external actors’ interests to strengthen their relations with African countries. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) one of the first ‘Africa+1’ summit follows this trend. Through FOCAC China seeks to promote win-win partnership, south-south cooperation and solidarity, and strengthen political, economic and diplomatic ties.

FOCAC plays an important role in growing political and economic relations between African countries and China. With its rhetoric of win-win cooperation, mutual respect, south-south cooperation, and solidarity Beijing puts forward mutual partnership and cooperation in its approach to engage with African countries. Even though China’s approach is different from Africa’s traditional partners (mainly donor countries) it will certainly have consequences for China’s interactions with African countries. China’s strategic approach led to its increasing engagement in Africa. FOCAC 2006 organised in Beijing saw the massive participation of African governments which recognise China’s political and economic role and its impacts on the continent. With action plans defined as roadmaps in each FOCAC meeting, the forum determines the current and future state of Africa-China relations. FOCAC VIII action plan is more detailed and reflects the further maturation and deepening of Africa-China relations.

However, FOCAC is likely to relate to changing political expectations of African countries’ relationship with China, and changing political and economic policies in China.

China’s political leadership role in FOCAC is influential and effective in Africa-China relations and contributes to strengthening its foreign policy strategy. FOCAC ministerial conferences and meetings serve as platforms to set roadmaps for the future of Africa-China relations, and in the various areas of partnership and cooperation between African and Chinese governments. Changing global political, economic, and diplomatic landscape in the current and complex geopolitical context with a multipolar world order, Africa’s traditional partners’ renewed interests in the continent, and emerging partners’ growing interests shape Africa-China relations.

China’s growing engagement in Africa drives competition and geopolitical rivalries between external traditional and emerging actors across the continent. Such a competition offers an opportunity to African governments to express and exert agency in both symbolic and substantial ways. Through the numerous ‘Africa+1 summits’ like FOCAC, African governments seek to diversify their partnership, and strengthen political, economic, and diplomatic ties. In China’s quest for political influence on the continent through multilateral diplomacy, African governments must exert agency to engage with Chinese officials and other external actors. Such an approach contributes to negotiations which benefit their respective country, Africa, and their populations. It also enables them to engage in debates and discussions that concern the continent and its future as well as negotiations which have impacts and implications for the global political economy.

In China’s global political engagement, Chinese officials strongly count on the vote of African countries at the United Nations. Therefore, a multilateral political engagement with African countries becomes important and favourable to China’s political and diplomatic influence in Africa as well as globally.

UN voting

Political and diplomatic engagement is at the heart of Africa–China relations. Beijing’s needs for support from African governments in international organisations shows the importance of Africa as a regional voting bloc of which Beijing is fully aware of. African countries can dominate and influence voting outcomes of global issues in international affairs. African countries’ support through voting alignments enhances China’s domestic and international legitimacy. China’s aid flow and investments in Africa play an important role in guiding many African countries’ strategic partnership and position vis-à-vis Beijing in UN voting. African countries’ support to China at the UN is expected to continue for a long time, as Beijing exerts political and diplomatic influence through economic investments across the continent. To justify their voting decisions on issues that involve China (i.e. human rights issues related to the situation of the Uyghur in Xinjiang, China’s national security law in Hong Kong, among others), many African governments focus on political rhetoric of south-south cooperation, solidarity as well as economic gains, and reciprocal support from Beijing at the UN. China’s pledge of economic and development aid to Africa thereby appears to give Africa more international influence, to enhance its negotiating power in multilateral institutions and, ultimately, to help China. The rhetoric of South-South cooperation and solidarity reinforce political and diplomatic ties between African countries and China.

South–South cooperation

Through the so-called South–South cooperation framework, countries of the global South in general, and emerging economies in particular, have created a space for political and economic dialogue. Such a cooperation framework is somehow shaping and rebalancing the world political economic order and is increasingly changing Africa’s position vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Beyond China’s interest in African votes at the United Nations, Beijing officials use South-South cooperation rhetoric to achieve China’s political and diplomatic goals. They claim that China’s growing presence in Africa is an example of South-South cooperation based on mutual benefit, win–win, and equal partnership among others. Such a rhetoric contributes to positioning China with a positive image among African political elites. China’s approach to reaching its economic objectives helps to leverage donor–recipient cooperation and leads to win–win development and self-reliant development, particularly among low-income developing states. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), with China and African countries on the one hand, and BRICS, with the emerging economies on the other, continue to foster a renewed debate on the importance of South–South cooperation and strengthen Africa’s place in global fora and in international affairs. Even though the South–South cooperation rhetoric is politically and diplomatically framed, it enables a strengthening of economic relations between African countries, China, and emerging economies, and contributes to unlocking development prospects.

Health diplomacy

Health diplomacy has become a key topic in China-Africa cooperation, particularly since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic once more revealed the importance of global public health diplomacy in relation to Africa. There was a race to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and masks and to make vaccines available and accessible for developing countries left behind in the early phases of the pandemic. China, the United States, the European Union, Russia, and India competed for sales of their home-grown vaccines and donations to developing countries. Such a strategy, with its political, social, and economic implications, contributes to influencing public perception among African governments and populations. With the advent of Covid-19 vaccines, home-grown national vaccines, when distributed all over the world, can play an integral role in nation branding as a technique for projecting soft power and capitalising on new economic and geopolitical opportunities.

China mainly engages with African governments in the field of public health diplomacy by providing assistance to set up health infrastructure and strengthen capacity building through medical exchanges and training. State-led engagement (to the detriment of the African civil society and the public at large) dominates China’s public health diplomacy in Africa. However, such an engagement contributes to constructing positive perceptions among African populations, notwithstanding Chinese officials’ controversial poor-handling of Covid-19 at home as well as globally.

For African governments, China is filling a gap left by their traditional partners and donors. While critics of China’s involvement in Africa claim that China’s health diplomacy is motivated exclusively by economic self-interest, it is difficult to determine the extent to which this is true. China typically favours horizontal initiatives in global health that focuses on supporting individual African countries. Global health crises are shaping and changing dynamics for more multilateral partnership and collaboration between actors.

China’s health diplomacy in Africa contributes to leveraging Beijing’s political influence and public diplomacy among African governments and building a positive image favourable to Chinese officials.

Party-to-party diplomacy

Since Xi Jinping took office, the CCP through its International Department (ID-CCP) has bolstered its efforts to reach out to other parties and maintains a widely stretched network to political elites across the globe. China’s increasingly uses the party cooperation as a vehicle of authoritarian learning by sharing experiences of its economic modernisation and authoritarian one-party regime. China’s party diplomacy in Africa has impacts on authoritarian or one dominant party regimes that learn from the CCP’s through party-to-party visits, exchanges, training, and strategies. However, it is noteworthy to mention that party-to-party relations in Africa-China relations go beyond interactions between the CCP and African authoritarian regimes as they also involve African ruling parties in democratic regimes. Bilateral visits between the CCP and African ruling parties seek to contribute to party building and country construction based on learned experiences and China’s development model.

Many African parties express their idea to have the CCP train their senior leaders and party members. The CCP’s party diplomacy in Africa revolves around training, official visits by CCP heads, support for the establishment of communist party schools, and youth party member exchanges, amongst other means. With China’s engagement in Africa, by 2012 the CCP had managed to secure relations with 81 African political parties and, over the years, Beijing’s strategy shifted from primarily supporting African ruling parties to collaborating with various political parties to ensure good working relations with whichever party is in power. China is increasingly involved in political and electoral processes in African democracies, whether intentionally or coincidentally. Beijing deploys three overarching modes of influence that can have a compounding impact on democracy in targeted countries: economic investment, promotion of CCP-style governance, and, in some instances, explicit support for political and electoral outcomes favourable to China. Besides, China’s digital expansion contributes to influencing Beijing’s political engagement in Africa with the export of ICT infrastructure and technologies against freedom of speech, expression, and press. China’s digital expansion (with Chinese censorship, surveillance, control, and disinformation practices) and political influence in Africa fosters autocracy and weakens democracy across the continent.

While China’s economic investments in Africa are increasing and strengthen Africa-China partnership and cooperation, political influence through multilateral diplomacy is gaining traction and may determine the current and future of African governments’ engagement with Beijing. The current geopolitical context with the rebalancing and restructuring of partnership and cooperation also shapes competition and rivalries among external actors and in their political, economic, and diplomatic engagement with African countries.