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Foreign Policy

China’s Presence in Africa: Implications for U.S. Africa Policy

Nov 11, 2021
  • Charles Ray

    Former U.S. Ambassador; Chair of the Africa Program, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Historians debate over how long a relationship has existed between China and Africa. Archeological evidence recovered from the ruins of Great Zimbabwe and along the coasts of eastern and southern Africa suggest trade ties date back more than 2,000 years. There is definitive evidence of contact in the 15th century when Admiral Zheng He led Chinese naval expeditions to the Arab world and Africa’s east coast from 1413 to 1419, and adequate proof of Chinese trade with Africa in the ensuing centuries. Yet it was not until the 1950s when African countries started gaining their independence that China’s presence and its relationships with African states went into high gear.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the largest nation in the 1961’s Non-Aligned Movement, China became the de facto leader of what was termed at the time the ‘developing world.’ Most of the newly independent African states were also members. At the 1955 Bandung Conference, China announced its intent to support liberation movements worldwide, a feature of its foreign policy until the late 1990s and the end of the Cold War. During this period, China provided weapons, intelligence, training, and other support to independence movements throughout Africa. Africa, in fact, became a battleground where China, the U.S., and the USSR engaged in an ideological struggle. During the Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) independence war, for example, while the USSR supported Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) while China and North Korea provided support to Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), two liberation forces fighting against Ian Smith’s white-dominated government who spent almost as much time fighting each other.

China’s current engagement on the African continent is of a different nature. China’s rapid growth over the past several decades has fueled a pressing need for resources. This and an expanding middle class has caused China to focus on securing long-term access to the resources needed to sustain its industrialization and economic development. 

Resources needed to sustain economic development 

China has looked around the globe for secure access to raw materials and oil supplies, and as part of this search, has turned to Africa. Since 2000, China’s trade with Africa has increased dramatically and as of May 2012, China surpassed the United States and Europe as Africa’s largest trading partner. Total trade between China and the nations of Africa grew from $10 billion in 2000 to $166 billion in 2011. In 2010, China received 13 percent of Africa’s global trade.

In order to sustain its rate of economic growth, China needs reliable and continuing energy sources. Africa became the second largest exporter of crude oil to China after the Middle East, importing over a million barrels a day. In 2016, Angola was China’s third largest oil supplier. While China has relied on coal for its energy needs, it has become the world’s second largest consumer of oil. 

Development is a two-way street 

In addition to trade with Africa, China is heavily invested in enterprises on the continent. China’s investment in Africa was $40 billion in 2010, and while this only represents four percent of China’s global investment, it is projected to reach 10 percent by 2030.

Africa’s trade with China helped it achieve a 5.8 percent economic growth rate in 2007, the highest in recent history. Between 2000 and 2009, China also forgave almost $3 billion in debt owed by poorer African countries. 

China’s presence in Africa: a boon and a bust 

Chinese investment, as has been previously mentioned, has led to increased economic growth on the continent, but it has not been without problems or controversy.

Chinese companies are estimated to have won almost half of all African engineering and construction contracts in 2017. China has been accused of engaging in unfair labor practices in Africa, for example, it is widely believed that Chinese companies bring in their own workers instead of hiring locally. This view is shared by some Africans and westerners. When I served as American ambassador to Zimbabwe, for example, one of my African colleagues wryly remarked, ‘when the Chinese build a hospital, they bring in all the construction workers, doctors, and nurses.’ According to an April 2, 2021, article in The Washington Post, however, studies show that Chinese firms actually do hire more African workers than Chinese expatriates. In Ethiopia between 2016 and 2017, 90 percent of the employees of Chinese firms were Ethiopian. On the other hand, these studies show that top management and technical positions are dominated by Chinese employees. In fairness, though, it must be mentioned that this is similar to employment patterns of American and European construction companies in Africa.

The bottom line is that the impact of China’s presence in Africa is more nuanced than many media reports might suggest. According to Mandira Bagwandeen, a senior scholar at the Africa Center for the Study of the U.S. in South Africa and a nonresident senior scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in the United States, Africa is in need of basic industrial infrastructure and with China offering what western donors do not, “What option does Africa have?” But, Bagwandeen said, “Relying so heavily on a single country to finance your development is a risky bet.”

In addition, even some African leaders who have benefitted from Chinese investment in their countries have criticized China for ignoring environmental standards and violating local laws. In 2013, Sanusi Lamedo Sanusi, then-governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, wrote, ‘We must see China for what it is, a competitor. Africa must recognize that China, like the U.S., Russia, Britain, Brazil, and the rest, is in Africa not for African interests but its own.” In 2011, Michael Sata won Zambia’s presidency mainly by tapping into anti-Chinese sentiment generated after labor strife at a large Chinese-invested coal mine in the country. The social sentiments are not just one-sided, as China’s government, known for its censorship of social media posts that are critical of the government or the Communist Party, has tolerated racist posts by Chinese citizens and public sensitivity to racism, particularly against Africans, has been low.

The COVID-19 pandemic also exposed some weaknesses in the China-Africa relationship. Mistreatment of Africans in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province and site of the largest African population in Asia, prompted a group of African ambassadors in Beijing to write a letter of complaint to the Chinese government about the ‘stigmatization and discrimination’ being faced by Africans. Over the years, there have also been incidents of discriminatory behavior by Chinese in Africa that have caused ill feelings on the part of locals. 

Whither the U.S.-China relationship in Africa 

While there can be no doubt that China and the United States, as the world’s two largest economies, are global competitors, U.S.-China competition in Africa should be looked at through a practical rather than emotional lens.

Some western media have termed the growing China-Africa relationship ‘neocolonialism,’ with warnings from some academics, policymakers, and the media about China’s insatiable appetite for land, markets, and natural resources. The reality is much more nuanced.

China looks toward Africa because it is rich in natural resources and is a lucrative export market. At the same time, African leaders look to Chinese engagement to bring economic development to their countries. U.S.-China global competition notwithstanding, American and Chinese goals in Africa are not necessarily in conflict, and from an African viewpoint, engagement with both of these superpowers can be advantageous to African interests.

Should the American relationship with China be one of competition or cooperation? The answer is that it should probably be some of both. What it should not be is conflict.

RAND researchers have characterized Sino-African relations as a ‘vibrant, two-way dynamic in which both sides adjust to policy initiatives and popular perceptions emanating from the other.’ The role that China plays on the continent cannot be adequately pictured in punchy headlines. China has long had official relations with the countries of Africa but has only recently become a major investor. While China and the U.S. compete for influence on the continent—the 54 nations of Africa constitute the largest voting bloc in the UN, so this competition among foreign powers, and not just the U.S. and China, is understandable—but in many areas Washington and Beijing can cooperate to their mutual benefit as well as the benefit of Africans.

Much of the analysis of China’s engagement in Africa focuses on what China gets from the continent, mainly natural resources and export markets. While it’s true that China’s interest in Africa is driven by the need for Africa’s resources, China is also a major aid donor. African leaders look to China for much-needed infrastructure development finance that is unavailable from western donors.

The key findings of a study by researchers at RAND highlight the dynamic, two-way nature of the Africa-China relationship.

1. While China is attracted to Africa for access to its natural resources and as an export market, African leaders look to China for investment and construction of critical infrastructure.

2. African reaction to the Chinese presence is mixed. Ruling elites tend to view it positively while other elements of African societies criticize China for what they see as labor exploitation.

3. China’s efforts to improve its image have often been met with skepticism.

4. Chinese and U.S. goals in Africa are not necessarily in conflict, and engagement with both powers can be beneficial to African countries.

China’s activities in Africa are mainly in resource extraction, development of infrastructure, and manufacturing, while U.S. engagement is primarily in high-tech trade and services, promoting democracy and good government, and human development. While China’s noninterference in internal affairs approach and lack of conditionality attached to its assistance can lead to inefficiencies and corruption, they have no fundamental impact on U.S. political and economic goals in Africa. Chinese-built infrastructure can lower production costs for foreign and indigenous firms, benefiting U.S. and local firms. While the U.S. and China are clearly engaged in competition for influence in Africa, this does not necessarily represent a threat to either country’s strategic interests.

There are, in fact, areas where the two should cooperate. As the world’s two largest carbon emitters, there is both a moral and practical reason that the U.S. and China should cooperate to help African countries mitigate the impact of climate change, the negative impacts of which affect Africa more than any other continent. There have been increases of extremist and terrorist organization activity in Sub-Saharan Africa which has the potential to spread and which causes population dislocations and instability, making this another area of potential cooperation.

As for Chinese business practices, it is the responsibility of African governments to address this issue. If U.S. companies and the U.S. government make themselves effective and reliable business partners, this could lead to Chinese companies changing their business practices to bring them in line with international norms. Increased foreign competition for markets and resources in Africa on a leveling playing field could be a win-win situation for all concerned.

Helping African countries overcome the impact of COVID-19 is another area where the U.S. and China can and should cooperate, and not just because it is the right thing to do. If a continent with Africa’s population becomes a COVID hot spot, the rest of the world will continue to suffer as more infections lead to more mutations and a continual cycle of surges.

Both China and the United States have long-standing ties with the continent of Africa, relationships that will continue. While the two powers are competitors, both must take care not to let that competitive relationship become a Cold War-like face off. U.S. and Chinese aims in Africa will likely never completely coincide and we are likely to disagree on many issues. But we should strive to cooperate whenever possible and disagree without becoming disagreeable. Both nations should seek to become supportive, reliable partners for the nations of Africa and strive to create conditions where everyone benefits.

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