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ADHERE: Will China be Africa’s trusted partner?

Thursday June 04 2020
CHINA

President Uhuru Kenyatta with other African Heads of State arrive for a high level business meeting at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation 2018 in Beijing, China. PHOTO | PSCU

By ADHERE CAVINCE

Not surprisingly, many of the apocalyptic projections of the impact of Covid-19 on Africa are yet to materialise. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control, the continent had by May 30 registered 3,922 Covid-19 deaths and 135,292 cases. The global toll was 360,000 and case tally six million.

Africa’s young population, ecological dynamics, experience dealing with epidemics and mitigation measures by governments are seen as behind its better showing in managing the disease. But this could just be end of the good news.

With no vaccine in sight and World Health Organization indicating that the coronavirus is here to stay, the pandemic continues to be an existential threat to humanity. Yet, even in the face of such grim realities, the global consensus to wrest it is elusive — President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the WHO the latest indication that an international bipartisan approach to contain the pandemic is hard to realise.

Although Africa has performed reasonably well in saving lives so far, the same cannot be said of livelihoods. Many countries are reeling under the yolk of economic hardships. Firms are closing down. Millions of jobs are lost every week. A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics survey report indicates that nearly a third of the population could not pay their house rent in April. Women constitute 51 per cent of the most afflicted.

As the US abandons its seat at the WHO high table, China is emphasising functional multilateralism; an idea that an overwhelming majority of the countries also subscribe to. In his address to the 73rd World Health Assembly, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, pledged $2 billion (Sh200 billion) to the WHO and called for solidarity to build a healthy global community.

Should China succeed in developing a Covid-19 vaccine, President Xi added, it will be both accessible and affordable, as a global public good. This view contrasts with that of Washington, where President Trump stated that the US will develop a vaccine only for the American people.

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President Xi has also committed to pair 30 leading African hospitals with their Chinese counterparts and expedite construction of an Africa CDC headquarters.

The work of post-Covid-19 economic reconstruction will be a steep climb for emerging economies, especially those reliant on commodity exports. Many of the traditional partners of Africa in Europe are yet to climb out of the pandemic affliction, leaving them little room to extend a helping hand to the continent. With the US indifference towards Africa, only Beijing provides some dependable basis of long-term and pragmatic relations with the continent.

Drawing from nearly two decades of sustained economic cooperation between China and Africa, surveys over the past five years indicate increased acceptability of Beijing as a strong development partner.

A 2016 Afrobarometer survey, for example, revealed that 76 per cent of Kenyans welcomed China’s economic cooperation with Nairobi. Two years later, an Ipsos poll in Kenya placed China ahead of the US, for the first time, as a development partner. Then in 2019 a Pew Research showed 68 per cent of Kenyans believed that a stronger Chinese economy is good for Nairobi.

But it will take serious efforts to translate this into productive economic cooperative arrangements that can be a force to pull Africa out of the Covid-19 conundrum. To promote industrialisation that can create the much-needed jobs and wealth, African countries should implement investor-friendly policies to tap from the burgeoning Chinese private sector.

Secondly, official development assistance from Beijing should be invested in productive sectors that create value for the majority and not a tiny elite.

Thirdly, according to statistics from the General Administration of Customs of China, the volume of trade between China and Africa was $204.19 billion in 2018. Africa’s exports to China was, however, $99.28 billion, a 70 per cent drop in surplus compared to 2017. Interestingly, 96 per cent of all African exports to China are oil, minerals and timber.

Although the surplus looks good continentally, at the country level, the prospects are totally different. Trade volume between Nairobi and China in 2017 was valued at $4 billion, yet Kenya only exported goods worth $500 million to Beijing that time.

China should, therefore, open up its vast market of 1.5 billion people to more African products. Recent sanitary and phytosanitary agreements signed between Kenya and China is a good example of efforts to promote the entry of African agricultural produce into the Chinese market.

Mr Cavince is a PhD student of International Relations. [email protected] @Cavinceworld

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