This is the first in a series of regular FOCAC Watch posts that we will be publishing over the next few months ahead of the Sixth FOCAC Summit on 4-5 December.
By Bob Wekesa.
The announcement of the dates and location for the sixth conference of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) last Friday caught keen observers of the Africa-China engagement flatfooted. Initially, information filtering through was that the event would be held sometime in the last quarter of 2015. Subsequently, the grapevine had that it would be in December. All along, no specific dates were on offer. This is not surprising: dates for past conferences held in 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2012 have always been unveiled only days before the event. The announcement that the event would be held in Johannesburg on 4-5 December 2015 was thus unexpected, coming as it did three months ahead of time.
Do we waste ink discussing the dates of an Africa-China jamboree? For the uninitiated, it may seem so at first glance. But students of Africa-China relations would likely tell you that FOCAC dates speak to deeper issues in the relations between country and continent. For instance, withholding conference dates until the very last moments gives the impression that FOCAC specifically and Africa-China relations generally are a closely guarded secret which has in turn attracted charges of unhealthy opaqueness. It is with this hindsight that the announcement by South African Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi is seen as heralding more openness in the relations.
Africa-China watchers should thus not be overly taken aback by the unexpectedly early unveiling of the FOCAC dates; the key factor here is that FOCAC will be held in South Africa, by the far the most significant nation in Africa’s geopolitical engagements with the rest of the world. FOCAC events have been held triennially between Africa and China: Beijing (2000); Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (2003); Beijing (2006); Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt (2009); and Beijing (2012). It can be expected that the country that plays host to FOCAC has a lot of leverage as to the event’s thematic thrust and logistical arrangements. With regards to the Beijing conferences, nothing short of well-organized can be expected as indeed the case has been. In the case of Addis Ababa and Sharm el Sheikh, speculation has been that the Ethiopian and Egyptian governments relied a lot on Chinese support to pull off the events. Nonetheless, the 2003 and 2009 events in both countries were not half as significant as those held in Beijing in alternate years. Consider for instance the poor showing of African leaders at both events, or the relatively less significant financial commitments outlined at these events.
With South Africa hosting, pressure will be on for the Zuma administration to show that it is equal to the task of hosting an event memorable in both substantive and symbolic terms. Evidence suggests that South Africa is putting its best foot forward to meet expectations, and the early announcement has given rise to speculation that South Africa may have persuaded China on this.
The manner of the announcement itself potentially provides a perspective on South African agency. While past events have largely been announced in Beijing by Chinese leaders, the announcement was this time made jointly by Chinese and South African ministers. One only needs to put media statements featuring the announcements side by side to decipher an apparent South African strategic agency. The South African media release begins thus: “Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane has today, Friday, 4 September 2015, officially announced …”; while the terse Chinese statement starts thus: “Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and South African Foreign Minister Mashabane jointly announced …” Unfortunately, the South African statement gets it all wrong by headlining the statement as “the Second Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)” – it is the sixth!
High level summit
The early announcement must be seen in a holistic context as one way in which FOCAC Six in Johannesburg promises to be substantially different from previous events. A crucial point is that the conference has been elevated from a ministerial meeting to a summit. This enhancement is the product of a bilateral meeting between President Zuma and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of China’s seventieth anniversary of the end of World War Two in early September. What this means is that the conference will not just be a congregation of ministers in charge of dockets such as foreign affairs and finance, with a light showing of some African presidents. It will likely also draw the participation of all African heads of state and governments with which China has diplomatic relations – that is 50-plus. If for some reason some African leaders fail to show up, South Africa’s influence on the continent would be put to question. The last time FOCAC was thus elevated in 2006, 48 African leaders showed up in Beijing and the whole world sat up and took notice. This time round, the same is likely to happen but on African soil. The symbolism alone is enough to have analysts scrambling to make sense of the event. For South Africa, it will be the coming out party for a country that has trained its sights on asymmetrical continental leadership, albeit a party tied to Chinese interests in Africa. In all likelihood, South Africa must have either lobbied for the raising of the stature of the conference or gladly welcomed any such overtures from China.
Initially, it was expected that the conference would be held in Durban or perhaps Cape Town. In due course, we shall understand the factors that impelled the choice of Johannesburg as the host city, but a number of speculative factors can be considered. Foremost, hosting over 50 heads of states portends innumerable logistical challenges, key among them accommodation. Obviously, the 50-plus leaders will descend on Johannesburg with sizeable delegations, not to mention the numerous side events that other delegates would be attending. Sitting in the greater Gauteng metropolis and a short distance from Pretoria, the political capital, Johannesburg must have been deemed the ideal rendezvous for the bureaucrats, businesspeople, supra-national organization delegates and scholars attending the event. Indeed, the summit itself, happening on 4-5 December, will be a fairly formal event set aside for promulgation of action plans and declarations. It will be preceded by meetings of senior officials and followed by academic and business forums as well as an exhibition. All these events will bring in hundreds of delegates who will consume the magnitude of services that perhaps Johannesburg is best placed to offer. Additionally, the city enjoys the kind of stature that could help shape the perceptions of the visitors, thereby positively branding South Africa as whole.
Greater role for non-state actors
Beyond state-to-state perspectives, FOCAC Six promises to draw great interest from non-state actors, among them civil society, media and academics. Upon the announcement, numerous research organizations and think tanks focused on Africa-China issues sought to sound out the potential for their being invited to the party. In the past criticism has been leveled at FOCAC for excluding certain kinds of non-state actors. Increasingly, such groups have devised their own ways of engaging in the process outside of officialdom. It is thus likely that some researchers and activists passionate about Africa-China relations will find their way to Johannesburg to participate in their own side events. This view is bolstered by the fact that South Africa boasts research organizations such as the Wits China Africa Reporting Project, the South African Institute of International Affairs, and Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Chinese Studies, that have been churning out studies and activities focused on FOCAC and Africa-China. The sum of all this is that FOCAC’s presence in South Africa will likely train sharper focus on Africa-China relations, more so than past FOCAC events, and it would be a good thing if the organizers also embraced independent analysts.