The promise of industrialization in East Africa has been on an exponential growth trajectory, remarkably transforming the economies of all the thirteen nations in the region.
The root of this massive developmental shift has been the strategic partnerships that countries across the region have engaged in with developed countries, pertinently in Asia. This is well attuned to Africa’s Agenda 2063 on the ‘Africa we want’ set by the African Union (AU), which advocates under its first aspiration, a ‘Prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development’ and ‘A Strong, United, Resilient and Influential Global Player and Partner’ under aspiration 7.
Towards the fruition of both aspirations, countries in East Africa have been forging transformative partnerships aligned to their specific national development goals strengthening trade and bilateral ties with Asian allies largely China, Japan, Turkey, Indonesia and India.
However, China has spearheaded this much-needed development, which continues to pump resources into the region’s diverse fields. Just a glance at the region’s infrastructure such as Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), the Addis-Djibouti Railway, Tazara Railway (Tanzania-Zambia), the state-of-the-art African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, just to mention but a few, stand as a distinct testament to the significance of Chinese presence in the region. East Africa is also home to China’s military base in Djibouti, chosen for its strategic location where the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operates, offering additional regional security.
The last two decades have especially strengthened Sino-African ties, with Chinese investments pertinently loans from government and state-owned banks enabling the construction of major infrastructure projects across the region, including railways, hydroelectric plants, highways, ports, airports and government buildings. In the same breath, ambitious China’s infrastructure project, dubbed as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), includes East African countries such as Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. It is bound to be a game changer in bolstering economic growth largely by spurring trade.
Conversely, China has made massive investments in other key sectors such as affordable housing, as seen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; water and sanitation; education; energy to generate affordable power such as through solar projects; healthcare and agriculture. In addition, on the technology front, China has been additionally keen to expand its digital footprint in Africa, expediting the adoption of the fourth industrial revolution, with its tech giants Huawei, ZTE and Cloudwalk reported investing US$8.43B as part of its Digital Silk Road Initiative which includes East African countries. Furthermore, China has also been keen to establish Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in various East African countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda and Tanzania to spur industrialization and economic growth. China has provided a market for East Africa’s agricultural produce, especially from Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.
China is Africa’s biggest trade partner, with Sino-African trade exceeding US$200 billion per year. An estimated 10,000 Chinese enterprises in Africa generate US$180B a year in revenues and are projected to reach US$250B by 2025.
The establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) in 2000 further increased commercial opportunities for the continent. The Forum generally defines the mechanism used for Chinese foreign policy towards Africa and is a triennial high-level forum between China and all nations in Africa, with the exception of Eswatini, which continues to recognize Taiwan; modelled akin to Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). The Eastern Asian country has come under scrutiny for this, being accused of debt colonialism and engaging in debt-trap diplomacy with African countries, which has sparked geopolitical rivalry. However, according to the 2022 African Youth Survey, millennials across the continent believe China is making positive contributions to the continent.
China and Africa, on the whole, began direct contact by sea route as early as the 7th century, initiating ties that have gone down the centuries hitherto. With perspective to the East African region, in the 15th century, Zheng He, a renowned Chinese navigator, led fleets to the east coast of Africa four times and visited where Somalia and Kenya are located today, which laid a foundation of friendship, paving the way for trade and cultural exchanges. The shared history of colonialism between China and countries in the region further cements these ties.
The birth of a new China in 1949 marked a new chapter in Sino-African relations. Since the 1950s and 1960s, many newly independent African countries in the region have established diplomatic relations with China, and this Sino-African relationship has ushered in a new era of all-around development. These ties were further fortified during the Bandung conference in 1955, where leaders from 29 Asian and African countries met, hoping to work together in the wake of Western colonialism.
According to China’s Ministry of Commerce, since 2009, China has been Africa’s biggest trading partner. Between 2000 and 2020, more than 13,000 kilometres of roads and railways were built in the continent by Chinese companies, in addition to more than 80 major power facilities, more than 130 healthcare facilities, 45 sports stadiums and more than 170 schools, according to a report released by China’s State Council Information Office in November.
China has been responsible for constructing numerous landmark projects in East Africa. For instance, Uganda’s airport, the Tazara Railway, which links Tanzania and Zambia and plays a pivotal role in the economic development of both nations.
Other major projects in Tanzania include the Kiwira Coal Mine, Murabali Rice Farm, Friendship Textile Mill and the Mahonda Sugar Cane Factory. The country synergized its Development Vision 2025 with China’s BRI, boosting infrastructure, trade, investments and bilateral cooperation.
How East Africa will benefit from the China-Africa Cooperation 2035
Under the theme “Deepen China-Africa Partnership and Promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era” the eighth edition of FOCAC took place in Dakar, Senegal, late last year, where four key resolutions were adopted as well as nine ambitious programmes.
The former include: The China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, the Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024); the Sino-African Declaration on Climate Change and the Declaration of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of FOCAC. Countries in East Africa undoubtedly will be a beneficiary of the nine programmes which are in line with China –Africa Cooperation Vision 2035.
The first is the medical and health programme, where China announced plans to undertake 10 medical and health projects for African countries, and send 1500 medical personnel and public health experts to Africa.
Through the poverty reduction and agricultural development programme, the country will be undertaking 10 poverty reduction projects for Africa, and sending 500 agricultural experts to the continent. The trade promotion programme could not be more ambitious, with China set to provide US$10B of trade financing to support African exports, with an aim to additionally reach US$300B in total imports from Africa in the next three years. Moreover, China will be undertaking 10 connectivity projects for Africa vowed to give continued support to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
On technology, China announced the digital innovation programme, to aid in Africa’s realization of the fourth industrial revolution. It has promised to undertake 10 digital economy projects for Africa, set up centres for China-Africa cooperation on satellite remote-sensing, and support the development of joint laboratories, partner institutes, and scientific and technological innovation cooperation bases. Similarly, the Eastern Asian country vowed to launch online shopping festivals promoting African products and a campaign to market 100 African stores and 1,000 African products on e-commerce platforms.
In cognizance of the continent’s susceptibility to global warming, having witnessed the continent bear the brunt of the deleterious effects of climate change, pertinently with the locust invasion and the consequent drought in the Horn of Africa China launched the green development programme, whereby it will undertake 10 green development, environmental protection and climate action projects for Africa, support the development of the “Great Green Wall”, and build centres of excellence on low-carbon development and climate change adaptation in Africa.
The capacity-building programme will oversee projects that include the building or upgrading of 10 schools in Africa, invite 10,000 high-level Africans to training programmes and promote vocational training. The investment promotion programme through the allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), is another key programme under which China promised to channel to African countries US$10B, from its share of the IMF’s new allocation of SDRs.
The cultural and people-to-people exchange programme promotes Chinese tourism in African countries. Under the Peace and Security programme, China will undertake 10 peace and security projects for Africa by fighting terrorism, conducting peace-keeping exercises such as the one in the Horn, supporting African countries in maintaining regional security and continuing to deliver military assistance to the AU.
China intends to undertake 10 industrialization and employment promotion projects for Africa, support the development of African SMEs on a priority basis, and provide credit facilities of US$10B to African financial institutions. In addition, the country will boost investments by at least US$10B in Africa from its businesses in the next three years, establish a China-Africa cross-border RMB Centre and set up a platform for China-Africa private investment promotion.
Despite increased scepticism of China’s aid to the region, East Africa looking east makes perfect sense and the region should secure more strategic partnerships with China to fuel economic growth and development.