BRI Broadens Scope
From physical infrastructure, cooperation is expanding into digital and health sectors.
Success is about the person who achieves it, but the significance is about others. What this means is that China’s economic transformation might be about China; the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that talks about multilateralism – bringing different countries together under the framework of open cooperation and inter-connectivity – may be initiated by China, but the Chinese Government has always wanted its significance to be about others. That is why as the world goes through a rough period that has affected China-Africa cooperation, China has been quick to provide aid and support to African nations during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic under the BRI.
As such, the outbreak has highlighted the significance of the BRI in global health and information and communications technology. This significance reveals the way China has been supporting African nations’ development in these two sectors through the Health Silk Road (HSR) and the Digital Silk Road (DSR).
Health Silk Road
The concept of the HSR was first mentioned in a speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016, and it is becoming increasingly important in the current world, especially after the unexpected COVID-19 outbreak. The outbreak highlighted the urgency and the need for public health infrastructure and cross-border health cooperation that includes bilateral and multilateral health policy meetings and networks, capacity building and talent training, mechanisms to control and prevent cross-border infectious diseases, health aid, traditional medicine, and health care industry. Fortunately, this wide scope of activities is what the HSR is about, making it a timely initiative that the world needs to embrace.
In spite of a late start, the HSR is gaining momentum during the outbreak by facilitating medical assistance to BRI-participating nations, especially African nations, through donations and consultations, as well as exports. Through the HSR, China has been not only limiting economic disruption from COVID-19, but also transferring its experience and expertise in combating the virus. As such, the HSR can be seen as an platform for a timely and sustainable win-win cooperation – and one that could support African nations to cope with the effects of COVID-19.
Looking beyond hard infrastructure, new statements related to the HSR reveal China’s interest in broadening the scope of the BRI. This is because globally, health is seen as a precondition for the all-around development of human beings; as such, health cooperation is paramount in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which state the need of “ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages,” the African Union Agenda 2063, and the Action Plan released at the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Senegal in 2021, where China promised to strengthen health cooperation with Africa.
As a way of turning promises into reality and strengthening its health cooperation with African nations, China has engaged in vaccine supply and collaboration with African nations. Vaccination is progressing in the world, but Africa suffers from an immunity gap, with an immunization rate below one-fifths of the world average. This is an extremely unfair and unreasonable situation, which African leaders think the continent must immediately put an end to.
Due to close cooperation between China and Africa, the African and Chinese governments are always aware of their responsibility. FOCAC and the BRI are the platforms the Chinese and African leaders use to persevere and promote their common interests, as well as continue to deepen and widen this cooperation. Based on this mindset, as Africa suffers from an immunity gap with a low immunization rate, China is willing to provide this type of assistance, fill the void and show solidarity.
The Chinese Government believes that showing compassion to other nations is the right thing to do. As such, China’s assistance to nations battling against COVID-19 is a concrete manifestation of China’s goal to build a community of shared future for mankind since, in the battle against COVID-19, we are all on the same train. Based on this mentality, China has provided vaccines to at least 45 nations in Africa, according to Bridge, a consultancy that tracks Chinese vaccine distribution in Africa. Likewise, in order to make vaccines available to African nations by supporting them to produce the vaccines locally, on May 21, 2021, Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac’s ﬁrst batch of vaccine raw materials arrived in Cairo, Egypt, where they were processed into vaccines by a local firm.
China’s cooperation with African nations to enable them to produce vaccines locally will not only help Egypt, but also the rest of Africa to recover from the pandemic. On September 29, 2021, Algeria became the second African nation to produce Chinese vaccines locally when its vaccine facility in Constantine City started operations in collaboration with Sinovac. China’s decision to support African nations to produce vaccines locally under the HSR framework shows its intention to stabilize the global economy and help build a world where compassion and empathy are the order of the day.
In order to stabilize African economies that have been affected by COVID-19, under the BRI, China is working to support Africa to solve the continent’s trade imbalance.
China seems to want to ameliorate this situation to promote mutually beneficial cooperation. At the Eighth FOCAC Ministerial Conference, the fact that trade finance was the focus of China’s financial commitment to Africa suggests one thing: China sees growing and balanced trade with Africa as a priority. According to Xi’s statement, China aims to increase its imports from Africa to a total of $300 billion in the next three years. China’s imports from Africa in 2020 were $72.7 billion. At this rate, such imports will have to expand by 27.3 percent to hit the target, which is a fairly ambitious number.
Digital Silk Road
Likewise, to solve the trade imbalance under the DSR, the stress on digital inclusion has proven significant. This is because the pandemic-induced lockdown changed consumer behavior, and social distancing measures led to an expansion of e-commerce transactions. According to the McKinsey & Company COVID-19 Consumer Pulse Survey, users of the online grocery channel increased as much as 60 percent in the U.S. Some 20 to 40 percent of consumers in India, Japan, South Korea, the UK and Africa countries order food online for pick-up at grocery stores for the first time. In addition, 50 to 80 percent of new e-commerce consumers in these nations have indicated they will continue using these channels after COVID-19. McKinsey & Company added cumulative digital adoption to levels seen in developed markets could bolster GDP growth by 1 percent, and technology transformations could add $2.8 trillion to any economy that expands its digital adoption by 2040.
China has been taking measures to deepen Silk Road e-commerce cooperation with 22 partner nations. Chinese e-commerce enterprises are expanding to BRI-participating nations and using e-commerce to bolster trade of each other’s quality and specialty products, which in turn could also solve the trade deficit issue in China-Africa cooperation.
The launch ceremony of FOCAC African Products Online Promoting Season and the World’s Specialty (an African special event), both online and offline, was held on September 6, 2021. The event is important for promoting the China-Africa Partnership Plan on Digital Innovation, in order to deepen Sino-African e-commerce and trade cooperation in the wake of the pandemic. E-commerce is not only helping the Chinese and African economies to move toward digitalization, but also increasing consumption in Africa and China and enabling African manufacturers to tap the Chinese market. Also, it allows Chinese consumers to buy African goods at a better price and boost African exports to China for nations like Angola and Gabon, which sell more than one-quarter of their total national exports to China.
The move to promote African exports to China is partially motivated by the Chinese desire to balance trade with Africa. At the press conference before the opening of the Eighth FOCAC Ministerial Conference, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce portrayed China-Africa trade as “mostly balanced” in the past two decades, with $1.2 trillion in imports from Africa and $1.27 trillion in exports to Africa.
In 2019, China’s trade surplus with Africa was $17.7 billion ($113.2 billion exports and $95.5 billion imports). In 2020, the imbalance grew 243 percent to $41.5 billion, with $114.2 billion Chinese exports and $72.7 billion Chinese imports. The worry about the trade imbalance is why trade promotion occupies a high priority in China’s action plans for the next three years. And China is ready to beef up the efforts with faster inspection and quarantine procedures, and zero-tariff treatment to more products.
But to make the efforts successful, African nations have to do their part. However, most African nations have not developed strategies to attract Chinese investment. A good instance would be the tourism campaigns African nations run in China – they are not different from the ones in Europe. The same can be done for African exports. Therefore, to solve the trade imbalance that will help the continent cope with the pandemic, African nations need to have a real strategy for engaging with China. They have to prioritize what the continent wants to get out of Africa-China cooperation in order to attain the vision of Agenda 2063 – “the Africa we want.”
The author is executive director of the Center for Nigerian Studies, Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University.