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African Integration: A New Opportunity for China-US Cooperation

Mar 19 , 2015

The start of 2015 witnessed good news, one after another, in terms of the process of African continental integration and the deepening of China-Africa relations.

On February 24, Kipyego Cheluget, assistant secretary of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), said in Nairobi, Kenya, that the largest free trade zone in Africa, by merging the COMESA, the East African Community and Southern African Development Community, is expected to be launched in May in a move to speed up regional economic integration.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited five African countries in early January: Kenya, Sudan, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the last 25 years Africa has always the first destination of visits by Chinese foreign ministers after the New Year. And in early February, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that China would soon send missions to the African Union. The missions would consist of departments responsible for political, economic, cultural, peace and security affairs, and are expected to inject new impetus to the exchanges and cooperation between China and the AU. Analysts believe that the China-AU relations are set to become the “engine” and “front-runner” in the future China-Africa relations.

Indeed, with the acceleration of African integration, the bilateral-toward-multilateral development of China-Africa relations and the implementation of an increasing number of trans-border and trans-regional projects in the past few years, it is only natural that relations between China and the AU (an Africa-wide political entity) have become increasingly closer.

In January 2012, the 20-story AU Conference Center, constructed with an aid of 800 million yuan from China, was delivered to the AU and put into use. In July that same year, the Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation officially admitted the AU as a member. In May 2014, Premier Li Keqiang, during his African visit, made a special trip to the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa and delivered a speech elaborating China’s policy towards Africa. Li proposed to vigorously promote cooperation with Africa in six major fields, namely, industry, finance, poverty alleviation, ecological and environmental protection, humanistic exchanges and peace and security, and laid out goals to help Africa build the high-speed railways, expressways and regional aviation networks. The Chinese premier hopes that the construction of the three major networks will help materialize the “century dream” of connecting all capital cities in Africa with high-speed railways and help promote African integration.

It has been a long-cherished aspiration and goal of post-colonial African countries and their people to be united and strong and to achieve integration on the African continent. However, African economies generally share the following features: small scale with limited markets; similar structures that do not complement one another (all dependent on exports of low value-added primary agricultural and mineral products); and over-reliance on imports of intermediate and finished products. The only solution to break the bottlenecks of such economic structures is to cultivate and grow internal markets and to establish a supranational integrated economic organization.

In fact, under the waves of economic globalization, African economies developed very fast in the past decade. Due to the facts of a low starting point and weak economic foundations, however, the economic gap between Africa and other regions in the world is still widening, and the economies of many African countries still have to face risks of being further marginalized. For instance, the proportion of African trade in the global total has dropped from 6 percent in 1980 to the current 2 percent. The African population accounts for 12 percent of the world’s total, but foreign direct investment in the continent accounts for merely 2 percent of the global total, making Africa the continent that attracted the smallest amount of FDI. Therefore, to cope with challenges of globalization and current sluggish and volatile international economic environment, Africa will have no choice but to stay united to be strong and embark on the road of economic integration. Only by doing so could African countries jointly ward off external economic impact to the maximum and to mitigate the negative effects from the global financial crisis.

The promotion of African economic integration calls not only for consensus and impetus from African countries, but also external investment to drive the process.

In the past decade, economic integration has always been one of the topics at all AU summit meetings. The 18th AU Summit in early 2012 even set a four-step timetable and vowed to accomplish the goal of setting up the continent-wide free trade zone before 2017. If the largest African free trade zone, formed by merging the three sub-regional economic organizations – the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community and Southern African Development Community – can be successfully launched in May, the free trade zone, consisting of 26 member countries (half of all AU members), with a population of 625 million and combined GDP of about $1 trillion (about 58 percent of Africa’s total GDP), will greatly accelerate the integration process of the African continent.

The first stage of the free trade zone will focus on infrastructure construction, industrial development and market integration. In terms of external driving forces, the United States and China, as the largest and second-largest economies in the world, have the capability of increasing investment and financing in three fields to assist and accelerate the integration process.

In fact, China has taken action already. On January 27, 2015, Zhang Ming, special envoy of the Chinese government and vice foreign minister, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chair of the AU Commission, inked a memorandum of understanding to co-operate on major infrastructure networks and industrialization processes in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. According to the MOU, China will, within the strategic framework of “Agenda 2063,” strengthen cooperation with African countries in the fields of railways, highways, regional aviation and industrialization, and help promote the African integration process. In early January, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed repeatedly during his African visit that China would vigorously push forward the “industrial connectivity between China’s industrial structure adjustments and Africa’s industrialization,” and will help accelerate Africa’s industrial development and industrialization.

On the U.S. side, from the issuance of U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa by the Obama administration in June 2012, the economic and trade cooperation plan valued at more than $33 billion with Africa put forward at the US Africa Leaders Summit in August 2014 to promote African economic growth, trade and investment, to the implementation of infrastructure projects such as “Power Africa,” they move towards the same goals of African integration and the future development of China-Africa relations. Therefore, China and the United States have every reason to seize the opportunity of the accelerating African integration and jointly contribute to the takeoff of the African economy through strengthening cooperation in the construction of African infrastructure facilities, industrialization and market integration.

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