China’s Interest in and Strategy towards Africa

Published in the Italian Journal Italianieuropei – Fondazione di cultura politica
March 2015
David H. Shinn
The People’s Republic of China began its pursuit of relations with Africa in the
late 1950s. Over the decades, its interests and strategy have shifted from a focus
on the propagation of ideology and seeking African support for membership in the
United Nations to more pragmatic economic interaction, especially trade,
investment, and aid. China continues to seek close political relations with African
countries, but does so by emphasizing economic interaction and, increasingly, the
use of soft power such as educational and cultural exchanges and Chinese media
outreach in Africa.
But what are China’s hard interests in Africa? By that, I mean what does
China want from Africa, not what it can do for Africa? I would suggest China has five
interests. First, it wants access to Africa’s natural resources. About 85 percent of
China’s imports from African countries are raw materials. It obtains about onequarter of its imported oil from Africa and significant percentages of key minerals
such as cobalt, manganese, and tantalum. Five oil or mineral exporting nations—
South Africa, Angola, Libya, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo—
account for most African exports to China. These raw materials help sustain China’s
industrial production.
Second, China desires to increase its exports to Africa, which now has a
population of about 1.1 billion people and has the highest population growth rate in
the world. More important, the African countries on average have had over the last
ten years a GDP growth rate of 5 percent while Europe and North America suffered
with recession and unimpressive growth rates. Africa has a rapidly growing middle
class and is seen by China as an attractive export market. While Africa constitutes
only 5 percent of China’s global trade today, this number has risen from just 1
percent fifteen years ago. Most of China’s exports to Africa are high value
manufactured goods such as transportation equipment, machinery, and electronic
products. These exports also support China’s industrial sector.
Third, China seeks political support from as many as possible of Africa’s fiftyfour countries, which constitute more than one-quarter of the membership of the
United Nations. China often supports African positions in the UN Security Council,
where it holds veto power. Many African countries and China back each other in
agencies such as the UN Human Rights Council. China also looks for African votes
in international forums such as the World Trade Organization.

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Fourth, China wants diplomatic recognition from every country in Africa.
Today, fifty of them recognize Beijing and three—Swaziland, Burkina Faso, and São
Tomé and Principe—recognize Taipei. Gambia does not have relations with either.
Since 2008, there has been an informal truce between Beijing and Taipei on the
issue of competing for diplomatic recognition. Any significant deterioration in
relations between China and Taiwan will almost certainly result in a return to
vigorous efforts by China to obtain the recognition of these four African countries.
Fifth, China is concerned about the impact on its nationals and interests in
Africa of terrorism, international crime, narcotics trafficking, and piracy. Chinese
ships and crews have been subject to attack by pirates in the Gulf of Aden in
northeast Africa and the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. Chinese nationals are
increasingly subject to kidnappings and even terrorist attacks in Africa. There could
even be Africa-linked terrorist problems if the situation worsens between
government security forces and the minority Muslim population in the Xinjiang
Uygur Autonomous Region in western China. The Chinese homeland has already
experienced cases of narcotics trafficking by African nationals residing in China.
If I were to do a similar analysis of hard interests for the United States in
Africa, I would cite all of the interests listed for China except the question of
diplomatic recognition of Taiwan versus China. I would then add one more interest
for the United States: its desire for access to African ports for U.S. naval vessels and
permission for U.S. military aircraft to overfly African countries and land at African
airports. What China and the United States want from Africa is surprisingly similar.
What is China’s strategy for achieving these interests? China emphasizes the
government-to-government relationship above all else. Consequently, it has an
embassy in all fifty African countries with which it has diplomatic relations and all of
these countries have embassies in Beijing. There are frequent visits to Africa by
senior Chinese officials, including the president, premier, ministers, and Communist
Party and military personnel. Every year since 1991, the Chinese foreign minister
has made his first overseas visit to a country in Africa, usually in January. China also
frequently hosts African leaders. In order to help coordinate the relationship, China
and Africa created in 2000 the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which meets at
the summit level every three years, alternating between Beijing and an African
capital. It will meet this year in South Africa.
China surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner.
In 2013, trade between China and Africa totaled $210 billion, well over twice that of
U.S.-Africa trade. Total trade between China and Africa has been nearly in balance
in recent years, but there are huge disparities with individual countries. About
fifteen African oil and mineral exporting countries have large trade surpluses with
China while about thirty others, mostly poor countries, have major trade deficits.
China has tried to rectify this imbalance by allowing many items to enter duty free
from the thirty least developed countries in Africa. The problem is that these
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countries just do not have much that China wants to purchase and the deficits
continue.
According to official government figures, China’s total cumulative foreign
direct investment (FDI) in Africa at the end of 2012 was almost $22 billion. The
problem is that China’s official figure understates the actual amount because it does
not capture investment that passes through Hong Kong, Macau, the British Virgin
Islands, the Cayman Islands, etc. The figure is also based on FDI reported to the
government by Chinese companies and individuals. Some sources of China’s FDI
almost certainly do not report. Cumulative FDI from Western countries remains
considerably higher than Chinese FDI because they have been investing over a
longer period. For example, American companies as of the end of 2012 had
invested $64 billion in Africa. China’s FDI in Africa constitutes only 4 percent of its
global FDI. Much of it initially went into the mining and petroleum sectors; there
has been a more recent focus on business services, manufacturing, finance, and
telecommunications. China is also developing seven economic and trade
cooperation zones in Africa: two each in Zambia and Nigeria and one in Mauritius,
Egypt, and Ethiopia. In recent years, China has become a major source of FDI for
African countries.
China does not make public its bilateral aid figures. From 2010 to 2012,
China appropriated just over $14 billion in aid globally; about 52 percent of the total
went to Africa. This suggests that during this three year period, Africa received
about $2.5 billion in aid annually. This number is close to estimates by academic
experts who have researched China’s aid to Africa. Most of the aid is in the form of
the concessionary and interest free component of loans. China has a generally
good record in cancelling debt to the most debt-stressed African countries. China is
quick to point out that its aid does not have political conditions such as Western
countries often impose. Of course, it only provides aid to countries that recognize
Beijing and the aid has economic conditionality. Only Chinese companies
implement the projects, which rely primarily on Chinese material and usually a
percentage of Chinese labor. The European Union and Western countries provide far
more aid to Africa than does China. In recent years, for example, the United States
has provided about $8 billion annually to Africa.
Increasingly, China is relying on soft power to supplement its economic
relations with Africa. It offers up to 5,000 fully paid scholarships to Africans
annually to study for a college degree. Large numbers of Africans receive shortterm technical training in China. Since 1963, some 18,000 Chinese medical
personnel have served in forty-six African countries. China claims these teams have
treated 200 million patients. This program has been widely praised by Africans.
The Communist Youth League has about 300 youth volunteers in Africa during any
given year. China has opened thirty-eight Confucius Institutes on African university
campuses and ten Confucius Classrooms in secondary schools. The primary

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purpose of these Confucius organizations is to teach Chinese language, history and
culture.
The most recent emphasis has been China’s media outreach to Africa. The
official news service, Xinhua, has more than twenty bureaus in Africa with regional
centers in Kenya and Egypt. Xinhua is the world’s largest news service and
competes with Reuters, Agence France Presse, and Bloomberg. China Radio
International transmits from Kenya in several languages and has rebroadcast rights
in a number of countries. In 2012, China Central Television opened a major
production center and China Daily launched a weekly Africa edition in Kenya. The
Communist Party of China arranges numerous tours and training opportunities in
China for African journalists.
While there is much less discussion about it, China also has a growing
security and military assistance relationship with African countries. China accounts
for about 25 percent of the conventional arms deliveries to Sub-Saharan Africa and
an even higher percentage of small arms and light weapons. China has at least
sixteen defense attaché offices at its embassies in Africa accredited to some thirty
countries. There are even more African defense attachés assigned to Beijing. China
contributes more than 1,900 non-combat personnel to seven of the nine UN
peacekeeping operations in Africa. Most of the Chinese are in South Sudan,
Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Mali, and Sudan. It is sending an
additional 700 combat troops to South Sudan. China is the sixth largest financial
contributor to UN peacekeeping operations, contributing 6 percent of the budget.
Since 2008, it has provided two frigates and a supply ship to help combat piracy in
the Gulf of Aden. China’s participation in both UN peacekeeping operations in Africa
and the anti-piracy effort has been widely praised.
As Chinese nationals in Africa, who number at least a million, experience
growing threats and attacks, it is not surprising that China is giving more attention
to its security relationship with African countries. The evacuation in 2011 of 36,000
Chinese nationals from Libya was a wakeup call. In 2014, China evacuated more
than a 1,000 additional nationals from Libya. China has no military bases in Africa
and contends that its policy is not to establish any. Nevertheless, the People’s
Liberation Army Navy is almost certainly looking at ways to improve its capacity for
military operations in the region. As China increases its long-range submarine fleet
and creates its first aircraft carrier task force, the Western Indian Ocean and East
African coast are potential regions for naval deployment.
Although China has generally done well in Africa, it faces a number of
challenges and problems. Its relations with African civil society, opposition political
parties, and independent labor unions are often prickly or even non-existent. Some
Africans criticize China’s unwillingness to encourage better human rights practices
and democratic governance. Some Chinese companies have a poor record on
worker safety, performing timely and credible environmental assessments, and
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following local labor laws. Counterfeit and adulterated goods are regular problems
in countries that are poorly equipped to identify and intercept the offending items.
Large numbers of cheap Chinese products undersell comparable African produced
goods, limiting and even undercutting African production. Chinese traders and
small entrepreneurs compete head-to-head with their African counterparts. This
has resulted in some of the sharpest criticism the Chinese presence has faced so far
in Africa. Finally, Chinese small arms increasingly show up in African conflict zones
such as the eastern Congo, Darfur, and Somalia. China is aware of and trying to
grapple with these challenges, but as its presence grows in Africa the challenge
increases.

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