Author: Lucas Engel, Reed Piercey, and Deborah Brautigam, Johns Hopkins University
Chinese President Xi Jinping invited the leaders of Germany and France to join a ‘quad’ of cooperation with African countries during a virtual summit on 5 July 2021. But why did Beijing suddenly propose this partnership? And is the move likely to bear fruit?
The Chinese move was, on one level, a political response to the United States-inspired ‘Build Back Better World Partnership’ (B3W) launched in June 2021 by the G7 advanced economies — itself a rejoinder to Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While business cooperation makes strategic sense for all four parties, little is likely to materialise on the ‘Africa Quad’. Past attempts to formalise informal ties have failed, and Xi’s proposal will likely suffer the same fate.
In the past, Sino–French and Sino–German business partnerships often took the form of a contractor-supervisor relationship, a model of infrastructure cooperation that usually came about at the behest of African clients. African governments appreciate the blend of Chinese prices and European quality, encouraging German companies like Gauff, Lahmeyer and STEAG, as well as French companies like SOCOTEC, Solaria and Egis to supervise Chinese contractors.
These early relationships have evolved and become partnerships that are no longer devised by clients. They are driven by French, German and Chinese private actors. German companies and banks have begun approaching Chinese entities directly and concluding partnership agreements allowing them to profit from the BRI.
French multinationals are reimagining their modes of cooperation with Chinese companies by forming French–Chinese joint ventures and consortiums. French and German businesses operating in Africa have recognised the need to find ways of working with the Chinese if they want to remain active on the continent.
French–Chinese and German–Chinese business partnerships show no signs of slowing down, but Xi Jinping’s government-driven ‘Africa Quad’ initiative faces numerous obstacles. German officials hesitate to lend their name to projects they perceive as non-compliant with their own environmental and social standards.
The critical parliamentary inquiry into the German state-owned KfW Development Bank’s involvement with Chinese contractors in Africa is a case in point. Although KfW itself did not award any of the contracts and their relationship with Chinese companies stopped short of official cooperation, even their tentative arrangement was enough to spark considerable backlash at home.
German public opinion on China is also shifting. A new German coalition government will likely have to absorb China-critical voices in the Free Democratic Party and Green Party, meaning that outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence on constructive engagement could soon wane.
Unlike Germany, France has previously taken steps to move beyond unofficial cooperation in its engagement with China. Yet the outcome of those efforts cast doubt on future official cooperation. After China and France issued a joint declaration on cooperation in developing markets in 2015, the two countries took steps to establish a ‘Third Market Cooperation Fund’ — but France pledged only US$2 billion to China’s US$10 billion.
The discrepancy reflected a lack of enthusiasm among French businesses about government direction. France’s largest employer federation, the Movement of the Enterprises of France, rejected official Sino–French cooperation in 2016. The fund never became a reality.
Sino–French and Sino–German business and banking connections in Africa have failed to produce a consensus in favour of cooperation. Yet the first proposal for a European, Chinese and African trilateral partnership was co-authored by France and Germany in 2008.
Although the European Union’s trilateral proposal ultimately failed due to a lack of African consultation, the 13 years since have made clear that private French and German enthusiasm for practical cooperation on the ground must now contend with rising tensions — a development reflected in the European Union’s designation of China as a ‘systemic rival’.
Beijing has nothing to lose and much to gain from the ‘Africa Quad’ proposal. Although narratives about debt-trap diplomacy, corruption and lax environmental and social standards dominate mainstream media coverage of the BRI, the initiative could still benefit from multilateralisation.
The addition of partners who are perceived as responsible and compliant with higher standards could improve the initiative’s perception problem. European partners could also bear some of the business and banking risks. Given recent upticks in debt distress in BRI recipient countries and pandemic-driven domestic spending in China, the multilateralisation of the BRI is more appealing to the Chinese leadership than ever.
If Xi’s ‘Africa Quad’ push fails to find support in Europe, China will still have signalled to the rest of the world that it is prepared to work in good faith with international partners. The ‘Africa Quad’s’ failure would also illustrate Europe’s relative disinterest in infrastructure development, especially if the B3W does not take shape.
Whether or not Xi’s ‘Africa Quad’ idea comes to fruition, private French, German and Chinese actors will continue to explore new methods of competition and cooperation in Africa. A dialogue built around the promotion and preservation of global public goods, like climate, health and security, may provide an alternative framework for exploring new forms of partnership in Africa.
Even still, the fate of past efforts suggests that official cooperation on infrastructure is doomed to fail.
Lucas Engel is a Research Assistant for the China Africa Research Initiative at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Reed Piercey is an MA candidate in International Political Economy and International Economics at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Deborah Brautigam is Director of the at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
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