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Emerging Economies Geopolitics

The Impact of China’s Growing Influence in Africa

By David H. Shinn

China is not new to Africa but the

change over the decades in its relations
with the continent is as revolutionary
as China’s own internal revolution.

Historical backdrop
China is not new to Africa but the change
over the decades in its relations with the
continent is as revolutionary as China’s own
internal revolution. From Mao Zedong’s lead-
ership in 1949 until the end of the Cold War
in the late 1980s, China’s ideological foreign
policy, Chinese internal developments and
other events exogenous to Africa deter-
mined the nature of the China-Africa relation-
ship. Although the Cold War had the great-
est impact on China’s ties with Africa, the

beginning of the 1980s. This set the stage

China-Africa trade passed the $1 billion level in 1980 and for dramatically increased economic interac-
jumped to $10 billion by 2000 while China has experi- tion between China and Africa. The end of
the Sino-Soviet conflict and the Cold War
enced an average 9 percent GDP growth rate since the opened additional possibilities for expanding
beginning of the 1980s. This set the stage for dramatically economic relations and ended any rationale
increased economic interaction between China and Africa. for supporting governments or movements
solely on the basis of their revolutionary ide-
ology. The African reaction to the events at
Sino-Soviet conflict that began in the late Algeria, in spite of its limited resources. Chi- Tiananmen Square provided an indication of
1950s and continued until the mid-1980s na even provided assistance in the late 1950s future China-Africa political relations. While
was almost as important. China’s Great Leap and 1960s to several left-wing movements in Tiananmen Square resulted in harsh criticism
Forward from 1958 until the early 1960s and countries such as Cameroon and the Congo from the West, African countries remained
the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that that opposed the existing independent gov- largely silent and a few even publicly sup-
began in 1966 and continued in a milder ernment. The Great Leap Forward and the ported Beijing’s position. China avoids criti-
form until 1976 also had significant implica- Cultural Revolution restrained China’s inter- cizing governance deficiencies and human
tions for China’s relations with Africa. The est in engaging countries far from its shores rights abuses in African countries. Nearly all
1989 Tiananmen Square protests coincided and from providing economic aid. In 1971, African governments, even those with strong
with the end of the Cold War and marked a African countries played an instrumental role democratic credentials and good human
watershed in the way Africa viewed China. in helping Beijing replace Taipei as the oc- rights records, reciprocate and almost never
Only a few African countries were in- cupant of China’s seat in the United Nations. criticize China’s human rights policies or in-
dependent in the 1950s and China’s weak China frequently refers favorably to this sup- ternal political issues.
economy limited its ability to interact with port in its political interaction with Africa.
Africa. China-Africa trade was a paltry $12 China-Africa trade passed the $1 billion China flexes its economic mus-
million in 1950, although it grew to $100 level in 1980 and jumped to $10 billion by cle at the turn of the century
million by 1960. China strongly supported 2000 while China has experienced an aver- The 21st century ushered in a dramatic in-
African liberation movements, starting with age 9 percent GDP growth rate since the crease in China-Africa interaction. China be-

16 The European Financial Review | April - May 2011

tries in Africa are surprisingly similar. Both see
Most of China’s large infrastructure projects in Africa, Africa as a major source of oil and minerals.
which are receiving significant publicity, are actually The United States and Europe each import
about one-third of Africa’s total oil exports
based on loans. They usually come with low interest while China takes only about 13 percent.
rates and long-term repayment schedules. Higher total oil consumption in the West ac-
counts for this; about 90 percent of African
exports to the United States consist of oil.
gan to assert its global economic power at a Chinese investment in Africa, which had China does import more mineral products
time when western nations were experienc- not been a significant factor until the begin- from Africa than does the United States. Nev-
ing pesky stock and housing market bubbles ning of this century, reached according to of- ertheless, western countries need to exercise
and ill-advised financial dealings that result- ficial Chinese statistics more than $9 billion care in criticizing China’s imports of raw ma-
ed by 2008 in the most serious economic re- by the end of 2009. China actually reported terials from Africa when they are doing the
cession since the American depression of the slightly higher direct investment in China by same thing on a larger scale.
1930s. China’s economy held up much bet- African countries as of the end of 2009. While
ter than did western economies. At the same China’s officially reported investment in Afri-
ca constitutes a modest amount compared
Western countries need
time, western companies had been drawing
back from Africa while China and its state- to western investment in Africa, it also seems to exercise care in criti-
owned and private companies significantly to understate significantly the magnitude of cizing China’s imports of
increased their engagement in Africa, in part Chinese investment, which would appear to raw materials from Africa
due to China’s voracious appetite for African be at least double the official amount based
on informal calculations. Although accurate
when they are doing the
raw materials. China-Africa trade exceeded
$100 billion in 2008, fell back because of the statistics are elusive, China may have been same thing on a larger
global recession to $91 billion in 2009 and the single largest investor in Africa during scale.
easily passed the $100 billion mark again in 2009. In any event, in just ten years China has
2010. China also surpassed the United States gone from an insignificant investor in Africa
in 2009 as Africa’s most important bilateral to one of its most important investors. On a global basis, Africa does not yet
trading partner. Even with this phenomenal China remains well behind western coun- constitute an important export market for
growth in trade, Africa constitutes only about tries in the amount of OECD-equivalent aid foreign goods because of its relative poverty
4 percent of China’s global trade. On the oth- that it provides to Africa. Most of China’s and underdevelopment. Africa purchases
er hand, more than 10 percent of Africa’s total large infrastructure projects in Africa, which only about 3 percent of total Chinese exports
trade is with China. are receiving significant publicity, are actu- and only about 2 percent of total American
While trade between China and Africa’s ally based on loans. They usually come with exports. This situation is likely to change,
fifty-three countries has been nearly in bal- low interest rates and long-term repayment however, now that Africa’s population has
ance during the past decade, there are some schedules. While this component qualifies as passed the 1 billion mark and African coun-
storm warnings. Because of the drop in the aid, they are also tied to Chinese construction tries have achieved on average in the last five
price of oil, China had a $10 billion trade sur- companies, sometimes with a significant Chi- years an annual GDP growth rate of about
plus with Africa in 2009. About 70 percent nese labor component. China does not pro- 5 percent. Both China and the West under-
of Africa’s exports to China are crude oil and vide annual country-by-country aid statistics. stand that Africa is becoming a more impor-
another 15 percent is raw materials, mostly In 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that China tant market for their exports; they want to
minerals. Some fifteen African oil and min- had provided $5.6 billion in foreign aid to Af- be in a position to take advantage of Africa’s
eral exporters have large trade surpluses with rican countries since the beginning of its as- growing prosperity.
China while more than thirty others have sistance program. The African Development China and western countries, especially
sizeable trade deficits. In the case of those Bank concluded in 2009 that China’s annual the United States, look to African countries
African countries with consistently large aid to Africa is averaging between $1.4 billion for political support in international forums.
trade deficits, the trade relationship is prob- and $2.7 billion, while loans had reached $8.5 China has a particular interest in mobilizing
ably not sustainable. China is taking steps billion. While China remains an aid recipient, African support in the UN Human Rights
such as duty free imports from poorer African it has also become an important aid donor to Council where it is sometimes under pres-
countries to rectify the situation, but China’s Africa, although its total assistance remains sure from the West. Western nations and
export power simply overwhelms most of its well behind that from the West. China welcome African support in the World
trading partners. The African countries just Trade Organization. African states have three
do not have significant amounts of products Motivations of China and the non-permanent members on the UN Secu-
other than raw materials that can crack the West in Africa rity Council where China, the United States,
Chinese market. The motivations of China and western coun- France, the United Kingdom and Russia all 17
Emerging Economies Geopolitics

solicit their backing on key issues. China has irrespective of the nature of the governing China also gives a high priority to inviting
often been more successful than the West in regime. China has close relations with the African chiefs of state, heads of government,
recent years in obtaining the support of Afri- Islamist government in Sudan, democratic ministers and senior military and ruling party
can governments in international forums. governments in Botswana and Mauritius officials to China. This attention has paid off
China has one interest in Africa that is not and authoritarian governments in Togo and handsomely in assuring high level access for
shared by the West—ending African diplo- Equatorial Guinea. China works hard to de- China in Africa and in helping to assure that
matic recognition of Taipei and replacing it velop the government-to-government re- African leaders do not criticize China. It helps
with Beijing. Only four African countries— lationship and in recent years has generally that China refrains from criticizing even the
Burkina Faso, Gambia, Swaziland and São been more successful than western coun- most egregious African human rights and
Tomé and Principe—still recognize Taiwan. tries in establishing close ties with most Af- governance practices.
Since Taiwan’s election in 2008 of President rican leaders. The heads of state and/or gov-
Ma Ying-jeau, there has been an informal ernment from countries as varied as Ethiopia, Mixed relations with other
truce between Beijing and Taipei concerning Kenya, Senegal, Sudan and South Africa have elements of African society
competition for diplomatic recognition. The been effusive in recent years in their praise of Governments do not, of course, represent
truce is probably temporary; this competition China. It is difficult to find similar warm state- the views all elements of society. China has
could return at any time as a major Chinese ments by these leaders directed at western not been as successful in developing strong
interest in Africa. countries. ties with other important groups in Africa.
Western countries are motivated by sev- Most Chinese engagement has been in the
eral concerns that so far have little relevance economic sphere. For the most part, Chinese
to China’s policy in Africa. Although both the companies have developed a reputation as
West and China generally seek political sta- reliable and reputable business partners. Al-
bility in Africa, western countries, especially though there are some complaints about the
France, the United States and the United poor quality of some Chinese goods, most
Kingdom, have traditionally had stronger African consumers appreciate the low prices
security ties with certain African countries. and understand you get what you pay for.
France continues to maintain several military If you want higher quality products, China
facilities in Africa while the United States has produces them so long as you are willing to
a base in Djibouti for countering terrorism pay the price. A problem that China has not
in the region. The same western countries solved is the export of counterfeit and adul-
continue to rely on the consent of African terated products, especially medicine, to Afri-
governments for military aircraft over flight ca. African countries do not have institutions
and landing rights and access by their naval that are able to keep these products from
vessels to African ports. entering the market and China has not taken
Key western nations give a higher priority measures to prevent private Chinese manu-
than China to a number of negative concerns The Africans understand facturers from exporting them to Africa.
such as terrorism, money laundering, illegal There are serious complaints from African
the need to bring in Chi-
immigration and drug trafficking that plague manufacturers (textiles come to mind) who
Africa and other world regions. The West nese for highly skilled have been unable to compete with Chinese
seeks to minimize these threats so that they positions, but not for imports and small African traders who have
do not harm western interests in Africa or work requiring minimal been driven out of business by Chinese
manifest themselves in Europe and the Unit- traders who have established shops in their
ed States. China is demonstrating increasing markets. In some cases, the Chinese traders
concern about them. For the past two years, benefit from integrated supply sources con-
China has been an active participant in the To its credit, China has made a more seri- nected to relatives and friends in China. In
anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden as ous effort to establish personal ties with Afri- other cases, the Chinese traders simply work
its own shipping interests have been threat- can leaders than has any single western coun- longer hours and in less desirable rural loca-
ened. China is also increasing its cooperation try. Hu Jintao has made six trips to multiple tions. Africans also complain when Chinese
with the African Union on counterterrorism African countries, two as vice president and companies import a high percentage of Chi-
and money laundering. four as president. Wen Jiabao has also been a nese labor to build infrastructure projects.
frequent visitor to Africa. The Chinese foreign The Africans understand the need to bring
Strong China-Africa govern- minister has made his first overseas visit each in Chinese for highly skilled positions, but
ment-to-government ties year since 1991 to a country in Africa. Senior not for work requiring minimal skills. China
China gives its highest foreign policy priority Chinese Communist Party and military offi- has tried to respond to these complaints, but
to developing strong links with governments cials have a regular schedule of trips to Africa. with limited success especially in the case of

18 The European Financial Review | April - May 2011

private Chinese traders over whom the gov- both in China and in its commercial activities for reform across North Africa has clearly giv-
ernment has limited control. in Africa suggests that Beijing is beginning to en China reason for concern. Beijing’s silence
China’s relations with several other seg- take civil society more seriously. is deafening.
ments of African society are more problem- African governments welcome China’s
atic. Although China has been surprisingly Looking forward non-interference policy; no African govern-
successful at establishing relations with new Africa offers for the time being enough eco- ment has announced that it seeks criticism
governments as they change in Africa, it has nomic opportunity for both China and the from outside concerning its governance and
not made any particular effort to cultivate West, not to mention the rest of the world, to human rights practices. This different ap-
ties with opposition political parties. West- compete amicably. There is normal competi- proach to interaction with African govern-
ern countries reach out to viable opposition tion for contracts, commercial deals and the ments does result, however, in some tension
parties; China normally does so only if the African import and export markets. There is with the West. For example, western coun-
opposition has a role in a governing coalition no reason this should result in any significant tries imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe that
or is operating in a country where the ruling conflict between China and western nations. China strongly opposed. China and the West
party has made clear that it has no objection The most serious tension over the short- will not likely reach an accommodation on
to contact with the political opposition. Chi- term is likely to result from the different ap- these competing philosophies.
na has had some difficulty interacting with
strong African labor unions, which do not
exist in China. Fortunately for China, most
The most serious tension over the short-term is likely to
African labor unions are either weak or effec- result from the different approach that China and the West
tively creatures of the government. Powerful have on human rights and democratization in Africa.
labor unions in countries such as South Af-
rica, Zambia and Kenya are, however, another
matter where western countries are more proach that China and the West have on While it is not an issue at the moment,
comfortable interacting with them. human rights and democratization in Africa. Chinese security engagement in Africa be-
Non-governmental organizations and China has demonstrated repeatedly that it yond its highly positive contributions to UN
civil society groups are more important in will not criticize African practices or encour- peacekeeping operations could pose a fu-
many African countries than they are in age improvement of African governance. ture challenge for the West. China currently
China. While China increasingly recognizes Western countries, on the other hand, con- has no military bases in Africa and says it has
the need to engage these groups, at least in tinue as a matter of principle to urge other no desire to establish any. At the same time,
African countries where they are strong, its nations, including those in Africa, to pursue it has discovered the difficulty of operating
lack of experience in dealing with them suc- economic policy reform, better human rights three naval vessels over the past two years
cessfully is evident. China’s recent attention practices and more democratic governance. in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of
to improved corporate social responsibility The strength of the recent protests and calls Aden. Naval sources in China are beginning
to suggest publicly that China might need
permanent access agreements for its ships.
As China rapidly expands its navy, the Indian
Ocean has become an object of its attention.
The Indian and American navies are finding
the ocean is much more crowded than it
once was.

About the author

David Shinn has been an adjunct professor
in the Elliott School of International Affairs at
George Washington University since 2001.
He served for thirty-seven years in the U.S.
Foreign Service at embassies in Lebanon, Ke-
nya, Tanzania, Mauritania, Cameroon, and Su-
dan and as ambassador to Burkina Faso and
Ethiopia. He is the co-author of a book to be
published in 2011 on China-Africa relations.
He has a PhD in political science from George
Washington University. 19