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Forget bugging - The African Union needs to be in China

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Forget bugging - The African Union needs to be in China

Hannah Wanjie Ryder

08 Feb 2018

3min min read
  • Economic policy
  • Regionalism

rriving in Beijing for his first visit as Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat is likely to receive an impressive welcome. Not only because he is visiting just weeks after a scandal that Chinese authorities reportedly “bugged” the Chinese-built African Union (AU) headquarters, but also because the Chinese leadership and government officials are always extremely hospitable of African leaders. 

He is in Beijing to co-host the 7th China-AU strategic dialogue with the Chinese Foreign Minister, and if my experience of the Chinese Foreign Ministry is anything to go by, his counterparts will begin by emphasising the close and longstanding relationship between China and African countries since the Bandung conference in 1955. His Excellency Mahamat can expect these reminders, grand gestures and more, particularly because he represents the only international institution that is a full member of the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

FOCAC was initiated in 2000, at the request of a number of African ambassadors at the time, and has since then become a triennial Summit where overarching deals with the African continent are finalised. In my previous role in the UN, I was invited to observe the FOCAC Summit in 2015, but the actual negotiations over the declaration and action plan were privy only to diplomats directly representing African countries and one institution – the AU.

Chairperson Mahamat’s visit this week is therefore extremely important, not just because of his institution, but because FOCAC itself will this year turn 18.

Oh, to be 18 again. The excitement and transition from being seen as “a child” to finally being seen as “an adult”.  The burden of responsibility not feeling like a burden at all, but more like honour and freedom. In this context, Chairperson Mahamat will have a great responsibility.

Since 2009, there has been an invitation for the AU to set up a Special Representative office in Beijing, and vice versa. In May 2015, the Chinese Representative office at the AU in Addis Ababa opened and even has a dedicated bilingual website.

However, on the other side, little has happened. Why? In 2015, on route from FOCAC, I visited the AU offices and discussed the issue with the AU’s top officials. The challenge they admitted was procedural as well as financial. The AU currently has limited representative offices abroad, including two to the UN (in New York and Geneva), one to the US, one to the League of Arab States in Cairo and one to the EU in Brussels. There are demands to have representative offices in locations such as Japan and elsewhere, and AU member states have not yet prioritised further.

Why prioritise China? My consultancy Development Reimagined last month published an infographic showing that over the last 10 years, the Chinese leadership have visited the continent 79 times, setting foot in 43 countries in Africa.  Indeed, Chinese leaders visited Chairperson Mahamat’s native country Chad three times over the last 10 years. There is no other country that can boast such a record of high-level diplomatic engagement with the continent. Yes, French President Macron has made visits to 6 African countries already, but his predecessors did not take such a strong interest in the continent. Since as far back as 1943 – a period of 75 years – US presidents have made just 33 visits to 14 sub-Saharan African countries. The last visit a UK Prime Minister made to Africa was in 2013. In addition, more and more African leaders are visiting China to further their economic and political relations. They are not visiting other countries – whether India, Germany or Japan – at the same rate.

During her last visit to China, former AUC chairperson Nkosazana Dlami-Zuma reassured African ambassadors that the Special Representative office would open soon. Such an office is badly needed, especially to support African embassy representatives to continuously plan for and engage actively in FOCAC. China is, after the US, the country that hosts the largest number of African missions – a total of 46 in Beijing. While some having consular/economic offices in other Chinese cities, others have just two or three extremely stretched staff. Now that FOCAC is in its eighteenth year, supporting their coordination would be a superb responsibility to assume. It would also set an excellent precedent for others such as the African Development Bank to find ways to better understand and work more directly with Chinese stakeholders.

There are multiple reasons for the AU to prioritise engagement with China, not least diplomatic. At 18, China and Africa relations need to become more “adult” – with African counterparts expressing and using their bargaining power with China to deftly stimulate investment, green growth and poverty reduction on the continent. AU support is fundamental to that.

I sincerely hope that His Excellency will have an enjoyable time during his visit to Beijing as well as a frank and fruitful dialogue with the Chinese leadership. I also hope, back home, he will take new steps to ensure his organisation helps the China-Africa relationship to blossom this year. 

(Main image: African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat (4th L) speaks during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (3rd R) in Beijing on 8 February 2018.  – Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.