The China-Africa Think Tank Forum and the negotiation of soft power

12 December 2015
SERIES Think tanks in China 11 items

International think tank summits offer a window to explore the development of international relationships between countries and regions. In that sense, the 4th China-Africa Think Tanks Forum (CATTF IV), that took place the 9th and 10th of September in Pretoria, South Africa, gives us a good opportunity to explore to what kind of relationship is being built between the Asian economic giant and the world’s poorest continent.

The Africa-China Think Tank Forum

CATTF IV was hosted by Zhejiang Normal University (ZJNU)Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in South Africa. It is understood to be knowledge branch of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which this year held its 6th edition.

It was presented as a high platform for dialogue, a two-way meeting, in order to discuss the implementation of African Union’s 2063 agenda, as well as new ways of strengthening China and Africa’s development initiatives and bilateral relations. 50 out of 54 African countries participated.

A quick word about Chinese think tanks

China has a rapidly increasing think tank scene, both in numbers as in global importance. Today China is the second country with more think tanks in the world, after the USA ,with a total number of 429 organizations. This number precipitated after Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the need to create a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics, making this process a national interest.

We have described Chinese think tanks as window into the political Chinese community, which is characterised by being quite hermetic. Now we can expand this idea by stating that Chinese think tank’s actions on international summits -such CATTF IV- provide a window into China’s interests in global geopolitics.

An agenda behind the forum?

Is the summit a part of a greater strategy from China to enhance its cultural influence over the African continent? According to Chinese President Xi Jinping, China does not have expansionists ambitions and is not seeking to augment its sphere of influence, but rather is standing on the side of developing countries.

However, certain elements make it clear that there is a growing interest in China to increase its soft power in Africa and, with it, its global influence.

According to Peter Kagwanja, head of the Africa Policy Institute, the China-Africa think tank forum followed closely the four pillars of China’s strategy for Africa:

  1. The developmental peace approach, which implies the replacement of the current hard-power and West-centric world with a soft power, multi-polar global order. This has also been described as the Beijing Consensus.
  2. An agenda on development co-operation, expressed in Beijing’s support for the African Union’s 2063 agenda.
  3. Trade and investment, which involves substantial financial support for Africa’s industrialisation and infrastructure building, including roads, modern railways and airways.
  4. People-to-people diplomacy, signified by the growing interaction between Chinese and African non-State actors in spaces such as CATTF IV (as opposed to FOCAC, which is mainly government-to-government).

Interaction between Chinese and African think tanks is not the only space for people-to-people interaction. Over the last few years, China has established more than 30 Confucian institutes across Africa, which can be seen as a way to enhance its cultural influence over the African region. This kind of activities, Kagwanja stated, would be a way of applying the “power/knowledge” model (quoting Foucault) “to win the hearts and minds of African thinkers and wielders of power in governments and regional groupings”.

According to China-African relationship expert Yun Sun, China has an “intellectual disadvantage” in Africa, as most of African political and business leaders receive their education in the West, “causing them to identify more closely with Western culture, ideology, and interests”. Forums like this one would seek to answer this problem by targeting the African elite rather than the general public.

This interest in the African region can be seen as an example of China and other emerging economies (now new superpowers) taking up space left by the West’s drawback in global geopolitics. The New Development Bank (previously known as the BRICs Development Bank), which has its headquarters in Shanghai, China and a regional office in Johannesburg, is another example. It is explicitly poised as an alternative to the existing US-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Other examples of China’s interest in expanding its soft power is the publication of regional magazines, such as ChinaHoy (for Latin America) and ChinAfrica.

In regards to the third pillar, trade and investment, The Brooking Institution has raised awareness over China’s growing economic influence over the African country. According to Brookings, China’s financing commitments to Africa have doubled in each of the previous three FOCAC meetings. By doing this, the South-Asian giant would be pushing for greater investment in infrastructure development, while Africa’s priorities would be structural reform and capacity building.

This has sparked criticism towards China’s for what would be its “mercantilist” approach toward Africa. According to Brookings, China’s model of infrastructure development “does not address Africa’s most urgent needs in agricultural transformation, economic structural reform or human resources capacity building”. This echoes the views of US President Barack Obama, as he has stated “what is true is that China, over the last several years, have been able to funnel a lot of money into Africa”.

Furthermore, Peter Kagwanja states that China faces growing accusations of “extracting and siphoning” African resources to fuel its economic growth.

Could Africa unite to gain counterweight?

Despite the fact China insists on still considering itself a developing nation, today it is one the world’s leading economies. And negotiations between developing countries and major economies are hardly an even exchange. So, nobody’s is surprised to hear that the agenda of the FOCAC and CATTF IV meetings is mainly determined by China, particularly because it is difficult for 50 African countries to agree on it.

According David Shinn, from the The George Washington University, China “has created a structure for continuing contact with African countries” (through FOCAC), while still maintaining daily individual interactions through bilateral diplomacy.

As the CATTF IV summit is part of FOCAC’s Sub-Forums, its worth asking how influential its outcomes will be on the general process. Is the knowledge branch of FOCAC a good opportunity for African policymakers and thinkers to stand their ground and establish collective goals? In order to counterweight China’s influence, unity between African nations is the way to go. African countries could organize in order to make collective demands. Unity, however, is not an easy task for African countries.

Could the African Union (AU)  step up to the challenge? According to a 2013 paper from South African Foreign Policy Initiative on China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation, China’s support to the AU dates back to the early 70’s, providing various forms of assistance, including cooperation in fields such as infrastructure development, capacity building and mechanism construction. Furthermore, the AU Conference Centre was, built on a Chinese $200m donation.

Does this disqualify the African Union as a platform where African think tanks can sit together and present a solid, unified point of view for gaining leverage against the South-Asian giant? Not necessarily. However, it does raises the need for more independent spaces for African regional coordination.

Can African think tanks do better?

Perhaps the African Think Tank Summit can serve as better platform for African think tanks to consolidate a collective position. Specially because among its main objectives there was the need to examine “Africa’s engagement with the rest of the world”, looking especially at how Africa can make “more effective use of its interactions with the G-20 and the numerous bilateral framework cooperation agreements such as Africa and the BRICS, Africa and the European Union, Africa and the United States of America, etc.” But this isn’t why the think tanks were convened.

Another option remains in the Africa-led Global Economic Governance – Africa initiative (GEGAfrica), which is influenced by the BRICs economies.

Be as it may, this is an ongoing story. FOCAC summit will be in December 2015. We can assume some serious conversations are happening right now.