China-Africa declaration on climate change: old wine in new bottles?

China and Africa’s ground-breaking declaration on climate change will profoundly impact China’s future international development strategy. In this blog, IDS Fellow Wei Shen highlights how and what more needs to be done to successfully implement this vision.

A ground-breaking joint declaration on combating climate change was announced during the eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) ministerial meeting that took place in Dakar, Senegal between 29 and 30 November. In this document, China and 53 African countries announced their visions to strengthen cooperation in areas such as green energy, agriculture, forestry, and other low-carbon infrastructure projects. This joint declaration, along with three other key documents released after the summit, is expected to have some profound implications for how China will engage with Africa and implement its international development strategy in the coming years.

Shifting away from a history of commerce driven global development

In the past three decades, China’s engagement with African countries has predominantly been characterised by large conventional infrastructure projects, mostly undertaken by its fleet of state-owned enterprises and financed by enormous state banks and export credit agencies. The introduction of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 further consolidated this infrastructure centred approach with billions of dollars being poured into railways, roads, airports and power stations across African countries.

Although the Belt and Road Initiative is often viewed as an ambitious geopolitical strategy outside China, there is increasing consensus among scholars of Chinese international development systems that most of the projects under its banner are essentially driven by commercial rather than political interests of Chinese state-owned enterprises and banks. In other words, behind these massive infrastructure projects is the similar mercantilist logic of boosting Chinese exports and investment overseas that serves as the dominant drive for Chinese engagement with most African countries.

Several structural changes, both externally and internally, are now on the horizon. At the outset, China is expected to move into the high-income country club in the foreseeable future, which is fundamentally shaping its political status and image as the largest and arguably most influential developing country.

As the framings around South-South cooperation are likely to expire, China needs urgently to establish a new identity in relation to other developing countries. Second, and related, China as a rising global power is now expected to provide more public goods rather than pursuing merely commercial gains within its current win-win narratives. Third, on a sectoral level, projects with notable environmental and social co-benefits to local communities in recipient countries, such as climate change adaptation, energy poverty, and public health are gaining importance but do not necessarily fit with current business and financial models dominated by gigantic state-owned enterprises and policy banks. Lastly, the changing global geopolitical situation is also affecting China’s engagement strategy with Africa as, understandably, Chinese activities are now evaluated not just by their commercial or developmental value but increasingly by their political significance too.

Towards a new framing of China’s international development strategy

As a result, since 2017 the policy framing of the Belt and Road Initiative has been gradually shifted towards a more sustainability and development centred one. New policies and guidelines on green Belt and Road Initiative projects have been developed alongside by both Chinese state agencies and leading think tanks. The announcement of Chinese president Xi Jinping earlier this year to stop funding Chinese overseas coal fired projects can be viewed as a crucial milestone for the overall shift towards a new approach. All these political statements, including this recent joint declaration, are indicating China’s determination to depart from the previous mercantilist approach.

Such transition would not be an easy task, but positive signals can be noted from large state-owned enterprises and policy banks. In October, one of the leading Chinese policy banks, China Development Bank, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Green Climate Fund to facilitate multilateral cooperation. In November, China’s official export credit agency, SINOSURE, also announced new schemes to support overseas renewable energy projects. Leading Chinese state-owned enterprises, such as Power China and SINOMACH, are actively exploring and contracting non-hydro renewable energy projects.

The wind has indeed changed. We can expect the gigantic institutional complex that was once behind those massive infrastructure projects, now being re-steered into a greener direction in the coming years. But more can and should be done. China needs to quickly boost its foreign aid system and scale up its support for smaller projects with higher developmental benefits, such as in areas of rural energy poverty, clean cooking, and local health facilities, that are unlikely favoured by state-owned enterprises or state banks. New actors and ideas are needed for much more flexible and innovative solutions for these projects.

Another noteworthy message from the joint declaration is that the proposed cooperation on low carbon development seems to be highly technologically driven. It specifically mentioned space and satellite technology for weather monitoring and disaster prevention, plus digital and smart technologies around energy efficiency and circularity. Previously, technology transfer from developed countries has been long discussed on paper, but little has been achieved on the ground.

It is increasingly clear that reducing the knowledge gap between the North and the South on low carbon technologies is crucial to achieve a sustainable and just transition. If China is willing to share its knowledge, skills and technology with Africa, it may even motivate other major donors, namely the EU and US to do the same, which could be one of the few good news amid rising geopolitical tensions.

This blog was first published on the IDS website on 15 December 2021. 

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