China and the African Regional Economic Communities: transforming multilateral cooperation

China and the African Regional Economic Communities: transforming multilateral cooperation

Recently, China has increased its economic, political and military co-operation with the African Union (AU). The diversity of members within the AU makes the continental approach more complicated for both Chinese and African actors. This is largely due to the AU’s lack of instrumental capacity, resulting from its financial and structural weakness, as an inter-governmental actor.
 
This policy brief highlights an alternative platform through which co-operation could be fostered. African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) increase the bargaining power of African states, without losing the instrumental capacity of implementing and monitoring policies effectively. China’s engagement with the RECs would not only nurture regional integration, but also enhance China’s co-operation with Africa as a whole. In the following briefing, it is argued that increased co-operation with regional organisations is necessary as China’s bilateral and continental engagements face institutional, political and economic challenges. The RECs need to move to the forefront of the Sino-African dialogue in order to satisfy Africa’s aspiration for global markets and China’s interest in increased political, economic and cultural co-operation.
 
Given the aforementioned issues, the following recommendations should be considered by both African and Chinese actors in order to harmonize trade policies:
  • the AU needs to reorganise its functions and rationalise the issue of subsidiarity: (1) The AU develops substantive policy targets for its member states, but provides (2) the RECs with discretion to take the appropriate procedural measures to meet the objectives. This requires increased autonomy for the RECs and a binding legal mechanism for member states to implement the specified policies
  • the RECs need to receive increased financial backing from the AU, the African Development Bank and member states to be able to co-ordinate regional policy implementation
  • given Africa’s cultural, political and economic diversity, the AU should limit itself to target setting and monitoring, as well as sharing of best practices
  • China could invest its expertise in regional organizations to develop a more decentralised system of governance that bridges the bilateral and continental approaches
  • the AU, the RECs and China need to develop a framework that provides sectorial monitoring to the varying levels of governance. For example, while the AU maintains authority over security-related matters, the RECs are in charge of trade agreements. It is this kind of rationalization process that is absolutely imperative, as three levels of governance, without clear procedural norms, creates problems of accountability
  • military interventions, mediation and peacekeeping missions should still remain in the hands of the AU that may, however, delegate the regional communities to take action
  • China needs to maintain its close ties to the AU, especially with regards to security-related matters
  • the RECs also overlap in membership, which creates an increasing web of complexity. Thus, a clear structured separation and formulation of the regions is necessary
  • the RECs need to identify their comparative advantage in terms of industry (energy, textile, mining, manufacturing, service), develop a continental supply chain, harmonise their trade policies in this regard and engage China strategically. This would simplify China’s trade relations by cutting transaction costs
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