The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and the Prospects for “Trilateral” Development

This week, African leaders will descend upon Beijing for the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Hosted alternately every three years by China or an African nation, the FOCAC is a spectacle – sometimes over-the-top and sometimes more muted – where heads of state extol the economic, political, and social ties between country and continent.

The FOCAC serves to reinforce China’s image of an emerging commercial and diplomatic power in Africa. It also overshadows the prospect for coordinating Chinese programs with other players, such as the United States, in support of Africa’s development objectives. Given that Africa is a recurring topic of discussion in the U.S.-Chinese Strategic & Economic Dialogue, it is timely to ask how a “trilateral” approach to economic development might emerge from these parallel but separate forums among senior U.S., Chinese and African officials.

Emerging Diplomatic Coordination?

For all of Beijing’s assertiveness on the African continent, there is no question that there is scope for enhanced diplomatic dialogue on Africa between Beijing and Washington, especially on critical issues.

In fact, when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Washington earlier this year, South Sudan was at the top of his agenda. Given China’s long-term support for Khartoum and its reliance on Sudanese oil, when South Sudan gained its independence in July 2011 and took most of the oil reserves with it, Beijing found itself uncharacteristically with few diplomatic cards to play; since then, it has been trying to play diplomatic catch-up with South Sudan.

In February, as rising tensions between Sudan and South Sudan threatened the stability of South Sudan and oil exports were disrupted, a plan was hatched between Xi and senior White House officials over the course of two days of meetings in Washington. It was proposed that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, travel together to Khartoum and Juba in an effort to normalize relations and persuade South Sudan to resume oil production. The plan, which was ultimately aborted, demonstrates the instinct of Washington and Beijing to look for areas of cooperation while also exercising caution when it comes to implementation in Africa. Nevertheless, the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, remains in close contact with his Chinese counterpart, Zhong Jianhua.

There are fundamental differences between the U.S. and China on major issues such as transparency, human rights, democratization and corruption.

The Challenges

The South Sudan example underscores some of the significant challenges to finding tangible and meaningful ways to cooperate. First, the Chinese are sensitive to African opinions and do not want to be perceived as aligned with the West. Some observers argue that Africans are better off without cooperation between the U.S. and China because what is perceived as “competition” between the two countries provides African countries with diplomatic and programmatic options. Second, the ebb and flow of U.S.-Chinese relations could lead to an inconsistent implementation of coordinated development programs which hurt Africa’s development and growth. Finally, there are fundamental differences between the U.S. and China on major issues such as transparency, human rights, democratization and corruption.

The Opportunities

On the other hand, these challenges are not insurmountable with the right approach. In order to mitigate the tensions between the United States and China, engagement through multilateral institutions – both international and regional – is critical. The fact that China is a member of the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Health Organization, and is a partner to African sub-regional bodies, makes these organizations prime platforms for engagement. Moreover, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), now embedded in the African Union, which articulates priorities for Africa’s development that both the U.S. and China support, makes the AU an appropriate partner for indentifying areas for “trilateral” initiatives. In order to put Africans at ease, any proposed projects or initiatives should include extensive consultation with stakeholders in the relevant African countries. Finally, any effort to collaborate must be truly mutually beneficial, and perceived as such by all parties.

With these principles in mind, there are a number of areas in which Chinese, Americans and Africans have overlapping interests and goals. While there is also potential in agriculture, resource extraction and infrastructure, the following areas are among the most promising and critical:


Improving outcomes in health is one of the greatest priorities for many African countries, and because the U.S. and China both have comparative advantages in the sector, the advancement of African healthcare is a promising priority for U.S.-China collaboration.

Through USAID, PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the President’s Malaria Initiative, the U.S. government has worked closely with local partners in Africa to fight malaria and HIV/AIDS as well as reduce maternal and child mortality. China has sent experienced medical teams to work in African countries for decades and more recently has trained thousands of African health professionals, distributed anti-malarial medications, and invested in 30 malaria treatment facilities across the continent.

Further cooperation between the U.S. and China in improving public health in African countries could be directed toward lowering the cost of medicines, combating neglected tropical diseases, and investing in water and sanitation systems. In addition, stronger U.S.-Chinese ties could be fostered through partnerships with multilateral institutions that have health mandates such as AFRO (the Africa region of the World Health Organization), UNAIDS and the Global Fund. Ultimately, sufficient planning and coordination needs to be carried out among the U.S., China, and African countries to improve healthcare systems on a collaborative and sustainable basis.

Security and Peacekeeping Efforts

In the Obama administration’s June 2012 “U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” one of the four pillars is to “advance peace and security.” This is clearly a common interest for China and African nations alike. Toward this end, the United States provides the largest amount of funding for UN and AU peacekeeping missions. For its part, China has recently embraced multinational peacekeeping efforts by sending nearly 1,500 military and civilian personnel on seven missions in Africa. In addition, China has expressed a desire to work with the international community to counter the illicit proliferation of small arms, drug-smuggling, and threats to off-shore oil facilities. In recent years, both the U.S. Navy and Chinese Navy have worked together in the Gulf of Aden and other waters off the coast of Somalia as part of the international effort to counter piracy. Clearly, these actions provide a basis for a deeper collaboration in responding to globally recognized security threats in Africa.

With a new administration in both Beijing and Washington early next year, and now at the AU, the time may be appropriate to explore deeper cooperation between the U.S. and China in Africa.

Implementing Trilateralism

In 2013, China’s President Hu and Premier Wen will be stepping down, which means the 2012 FOCAC is the last for this regime. Over the years, this particular regime has overseen an unprecedented rise in stronger relations between China and Africa countries. Some observers in Beijing, however, expect that Africa policy under Xi Jinping, China’s next presumptive president, will be just as active if not more so.

With a new administration in both Beijing and Washington early next year, and now at the AU, the time may be appropriate to explore deeper cooperation between the U.S. and China in Africa. As long as cooperation is closely aligned with African objectives and integrated with African partners, taking advantage of overlapping diplomatic interests and exploring the areas of health and peace and security are good places to start.