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China's wider opening up: Opportunity for Africa to strengthen its partnership

Chinese President Xi Jinping has reiterated China's commitment to further open its market. Xi urged the country's economic partners to make full use of the opportunity to achieve mutual benefit and win-win cooperation.

Recently, China has reduced restrictions to facilitate foreign investments, cutting negative list items in the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone from more than 190 in the original version to 37.

All of the latest reiteration and actions have reaffirmed that China is strong-willed in its resolve to fix the trade disparities with its economic partners.

China, for the past decade and half, has remained Africa's largest trade partner, overtaking the continent's traditional partners in Europe and North America.

The two-way trade volume of over 200 billion U.S. dollars (as in 2018) between the two means that China has become an inevitable partner in growing African economy and creating jobs for its burgeoning young population.

But more worrying is the continued imbalance of the Sino-African exchanges, though Beijing has repeatedly said it never deliberately pursues trade surplus with any of its partners.

In 2018, China's exports to Africa reached 104.91 billion U.S. dollars while China's imports from Africa remained at 99.28 billion U.S. dollars, according to the General Administration of Customs of China.

In addition to natural resource products, Africa exports to China food and agricultural products, while African countries import from China large quantities of consumer and manufactured goods and a range of machinery, including transportation and communications equipment. This places China at an advantageous position in the bilateral exchanges.

To fix the trade deficits, President Xi Jinping at the third summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018, proposed eight major initiatives that included increasing non-resource imports from the continent.

Before this, China had been actively involved in agricultural development programs across the continent. From 1960 and 2018, the country completed hundreds of agricultural aid projects, including capacity building, in Africa.

This, in addition to supports from other partners, has yielded fruitful results, with Africa's agricultural output witnessing steady growth in the past two decades.

These moves, though, opens greater opportunities for the continent, the onus on balancing the bilateral trade is on African governments.

Despite Beijing's commitment, the current production level of agricultural products shows that Africa is not fully ready to explore the world's largest market of 1.4 billion people. Comparing with other developing economies, Africa's agricultural productivity is left behind.

Africa's agricultural exports to China constitute about 3 percent of Africa's total agricultural exports and have the lowest compound annual growth rate of any trade category with China.

The root cause of this is not far-fetched. Many African countries are ravaged by political instability and violent conflicts. Those that enjoy relative peace face many obstacles, including unfavourable land property rights policies; poor agricultural infrastructure; inadequate public investment in agricultural research; climate change and corruption.

These affect the continent's effort in achieving food self-sufficiency, not to mention food export capacity.

To expand its export base and fully explore the wider opening of the Chinese market, Africa needs to address the aforementioned head-on while also leveraging on its strategic cooperation with China to develop the agricultural sector and shift from a manual to a large-scale, mechanised system.

The continent is endowed with a young, vibrant, youthful population, many of whom find agriculture unappealing due to the physical strain inherent therein. These young people could easily be attracted to agriculture if the sector is fully mechanised.

China launched the Belt and Road Initiative and invited African countries to come on board the fast train of development. Giving the specificity of African developmental challenges, no initiative is better positioned to address them than BRI, especially with its emphasis on infrastructure connectivity, the chief stumbling block inhibiting Africa's industrialisation. Africa needs to proactively engage China through the initiative.

China owes much of its progress to reform and opening-up policy launched in 1978, and during these 40 years, the country has morphed from a poverty-stricken nation to an industrial powerhouse.

In the spirit of cooperation and shared benefit, China has repeatedly expressed its readiness to share its experience and development model with other developing nations.

With China further opening its market to the world, Africa could not afford to lag while other nations take advantage of the Asian nation's investment-friendly policies to grow their economies.

In China, Africa has found a true friend, who is not only a buyer of its resource products but also presents itself as a development partner. We need to fully grab this enormous opportunity if we truly desire a prosperous Africa.

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