China-Africa Think Tanks Forum (CATTF): Role and Impact

Published on 26th April 2016

The Peoples Republic of China and African countries have developed warm enduring ties. The ties between China and African countries go back to the 1950s when shortly after the proclamation of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949, Chinese leaders of that era, namely Chairman Mao Tse Tung and Prime Minister Zhou en-Lai declared their intent to establish links of friendship and solidarity with newly independent African countries.  Thus in 1964, when Premier Zhou visited 10 African countries, he outlined the five principles that would guide China’s relations with African countries. The most important of the principles outlined by Premier Zhou was non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.  It was in the framework of solidarity and friendship that the Peoples Republic of China offered a concessional loan to Tanzania and Zambia for the purpose of constructing the historic Tanzam Railway linking Zambia’s Copperbelt with the Tanzanian port of Dar-es-Salaam; to date China’s largest foreign aid commitment.

It is in this historical context that the evolution of The China-Africa Think Tanks Forum (CATTF) must be understood. CATTF is a unique platform that brings together intellectuals and Think Tanks of the Peoples Republic of China and counterpart think Tanks from Africa to deliberate on deepening the strategic political and economic partnership between China, an emergent global economic powerhouse and the African continent. The CATTF concept was introduced in 2011 by the Peoples Republic of China to become an intellectual pillar to buttress the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) framework . (See Yun Sun ‘China-Africa Think Tanks Forum: China broadens soft power campaigns in Africa’,   October 1, 2015 9:40am;

The CATTF concept has been promoted by China to offer an alternative perspective to the Western narrative in regard to global development. Indeed the intellectual paradigm vis-à-vis global development has been dominated by the Washington Consensus, as a result of the ideological triumph of the United States and its Western allies at the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s/early 1990s. A recently unveiled  book  published by an African think Tank describes the alternative Beijing Consensus  as a ‘new development approach driven by a desire to have equitable, peaceful, high quality growth which turns traditional ideas like privatization and free trade on their heads’  (See Charles Onunaiju China’s Struggle for Modernization: From Revolution to Reform, Yaliam Press, Abuja, Nigeria, 2016, p.24)

After the first meeting of the Forum in 2011, The 2nd Meeting of the CATTF took place in 2012 under auspices of the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS), a Think Tank housed by Addis Ababa University (AAU), Ethiopia. CATTFII dealt with issues of China-Africa collaboration in governance, peace, security and post-conflict peace building. The third Meeting of CATTF took place in October, 2013 Beijing, China and focused on how to contextualize China-Africa development cooperation in the context of globalization. The fourth meeting of CATTF, hosted by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), a South African Think Tank, dwelt with Africa’s grand development strategy; Agenda 2063 and how evolving China-Africa strategic partnership could help realize Agenda 2063. The 5th meeting of CATTF which took place in Yiwu, China 14-16 April, 2016 provided a platform for Chinese and African thinkers to deliberate on Africa’s record in industrialization. The key point about this meeting was to provide a platform for Chinese and African Think Tank Scholars to candidly assess the reasons for failure of industrialization in Africa.

Deliberations at the meeting in Yiwu demonstrated that China’s experience in opening up its economy to foreign investors as part of the reforms of the late 1970s is very popular in Africa. Indeed China’s model of establishing industrial zones for joint ventures between foreign enterprises and State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) is being experimented with   all over the continent. Broad consensus emerged among Chinese and African academics that whilst Africa countries may establish these Special Economic Zones, they (African countries) should pay attention to their own   unique socio-cultural specificities.  Chinese Think Tank scholars advised their African counterparts that development models cannot be externally imposed.  Sustainable development models can only succeed if they command local ‘authorship’ and ‘ownership.’

Whilst meetings of CATTF have been most productive in terms of high quality of presentations and ensuing deliberations, African Think Tanks appear not be fully in the driving seat. African Think Tanks need to be more proactive in order to assume ‘authorship’ and ‘ownership’ of the CATTF process. 

Deliberations at CATTV in Yiwu, generated the impression that the evolving China-Africa strategic partnership which is anchored on a ‘win-win model,’ if well managed by both sides, could mark  a ‘tectonic’ shift in the balance of power in the emerging post-Cold War global political, economic and security architecture.  The strategic partnership between China and the African continent has made other global powers uneasy. It has been argued by both Chinese and African scholars that the United States (US) government’s decision to establish the US Africa Military Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 was in large part motivated by Washington’s grand objective of ‘containing’ Beijing’s rising influence in Africa

If there is a single noteworthy impact that the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum (CATTF) has accomplished thus far; it has been to contribute to an emergent realization among   African Think Tank intellectuals that there is a credible alternative to the neo-liberal economic paradigm, commonly known as the Washington Consensus. The Beijing Consensus offers a credible alternative wherein the Developmental State takes the lead role in   promoting socio-economic development at national level.  Indeed CATTF has created a critical mass of Chinese and African Think Tank Scholars who contextualize global development processes and dynamics within new and innovative intellectual insights and   perspectives.      

By Dr. Njunga Michael Mulikita

The author is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science in the Dag Hammarskjöld Institute, Copperbelt University (CBU); Lusaka, Zambia. He presented papers at Conferences of the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum(CATTF) in 2013, 2015 and most recently in 2016.

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