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 leadership 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 determined the nature of the China-Africa relationship. Although the Cold War had the greatest impact on China’s ties with Africa, the Sino-Soviet conflict that began in the late 1950s and continued until the mid-1980s was almost as important.
China’s Great Leap Forward from 1958 until the early 1960s and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and continued in a milder form until 1976 also had significant implications for China’s relations with Africa. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests coincided with the end of the Cold War and marked a watershed in the way Africa viewed China. Only a few African countries were independent in the 1950s and China’s weak economy limited its ability to interact with Africa. China-Africa trade was a paltry $12 million in 1950, although it grew to $100 million by 1960. China strongly supported African liberation movements, starting with Algeria, in spite of its limited resources.
China even provided assistance in the late 1950s and 1960s to several left-wing movements in countries such as Cameroon and the Congo that opposed the existing independent government. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution restrained China’s interest in engaging countries far from its shores and from providing economic aid. In 1971, African countries played an instrumental role in helping Beijing replace Taipei as the occupant of China’s seat in the United Nations. China frequently refers favorably to this support in its political interaction with Africa.
China-Africa trade passed the $1 billion level in 1980 and jumped to $10 billion by 2000 while China has experienced an average 9 percent GDP growth rate since the beginning of the 1980s. This set the stage for dramatically increased economic interaction between China and Africa. The end of the Sino-Soviet conflict and the Cold War opened additional possibilities for expanding economic relations and ended any rationale for supporting governments or movements solely on the basis of their revolutionary ideology. The African reaction to the events at Tiananmen Square provided an indication of future China-Africa political relations.
While Tiananmen Square resulted in harsh criticism from the West, African countries remained largely silent and a few even publicly supported Beijing’s position. China avoids criticizing governance deficiencies and human rights abuses in African countries. Nearly all African governments, even those with strong democratic credentials and good human rights records, reciprocate and almost never criticize China’s human rights policies or internal political issues.
China Flexes its Economic Muscle
The 21st century ushered in a dramatic increase in China-Africa interaction. China began to assert its global economic power at a time when western nations were experiencing pesky stock and housing market bubbles and ill-advised financial dealings that resulted by 2008 in the most serious economic recession since the American depression of the 1930s. China’s economy held up much better than did western economies. At the same time, western companies had been drawing back from Africa while China and its state owned and private companies significantly increased their engagement in Africa, in part due to China’s voracious appetite for African raw materials. China-Africa trade exceeded $100 billion in 2008, fell back because of the global recession to $91 billion in 2009 and easily passed the $100 billion mark again in 2010. China also surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s most important bilateral trading partner. Even with this phenomenal growth in trade, Africa constitutes only about 4 percent of China’s global trade. On the other hand, more than 10 percent of Africa’s total trade is with China.
While trade between China and Africa’s fifty-three countries has been nearly in balance during the past decade, there are some storm warnings. Because of the drop in the price of oil, China had a $10 billion trade surplus with Africa in 2009. About 70 percent of Africa’s exports to China are crude oil and another 15 percent is raw materials, mostly minerals. Some fifteen African oil and mineral exporters have large trade surpluses with China while more than thirty others have sizeable trade deficits.
In the case of those African countries with consistently large trade deficits, the trade relationship is probably not sustainable. China is taking steps such as duty free imports from poorer African countries to rectify the situation, but China’s export power simply overwhelms most of its trading partners. The African countries just do not have significant amounts of products other than raw materials that can crack the Chinese market.
Chinese investment in Africa, which had not been a significant factor until the beginning of this century, reached according to official Chinese statistics more than $9 billion by the end of 2009. China actually reported slightly higher direct investment in China by African countries as of the end of 2009. While China’s officially reported investment in Africa constitutes a modest amount compared to western investment in Africa, it also seems to understate significantly the magnitude of Chinese investment, which would appear to be at least double the official amount based on informal calculations. Although accurate statistics are elusive, China may have been the single largest investor in Africa during 2009. In any event, in just ten years China has gone from an insignificant investor in Africa to one of its most important investors.
China remains well behind western countries in the amount of OECD-equivalent aid that it provides to Africa.
Most of China’s large infrastructure projects in Africa, which are receiving significant publicity, are actually based on loans. They usually come with low interest rates and long-term repayment schedules. While this component qualifies as aid, they are also tied to Chinese construction companies, sometimes with a significant Chinese labor component. China does not provide annual country-by-country aid statistics. In 2006, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that China had provided $5.6 billion in foreign aid to African countries since the beginning of its assistance program. The African Development Bank concluded in 2009 that China’s annual aid to Africa is averaging between $1.4 billion and $2.7 billion, while loans had reached $8.5 billion. While China remains an aid recipient, it has also become an important aid donor to Africa, although its total assistance remains well behind that from the West.
China and the West in Africa
The motivations of China and western countries in Africa are surprisingly similar. Both see Africa as a major source of oil and minerals. The United States and Europe each import about one-third of Africa’s total oil exports while China takes only about 13 percent. Higher total oil consumption in the West accounts for this; about 90 percent of African exports to the United States consist of oil. China does import more mineral products from Africa than does the United States. Nevertheless, western countries need to exercise care in criticizing China’s imports of raw materials from Africa when they are doing the same thing on a larger scale.
On a global basis, Africa does not yet constitute an important export market for foreign goods because of its relative poverty and underdevelopment. Africa purchases only about 3 percent of total Chinese exports and only about 2 percent of total American exports. This situation is likely to change, however, now that Africa’s population has passed the 1 billion mark and African countries have achieved on average in the last five years an annual GDP growth rate of about 5 percent. Both China and the West understand that Africa is becoming a more important market for their exports; they want to be in a position to take advantage of Africa’s growing prosperity.
China and western countries, especially the United States, look to African countries for political support in international forums. China has a particular interest in mobilizing African support in the UN Human Rights Council where it is sometimes under pressure from the West. Western nations and China welcome African support in the World Trade Organization. African states have three non-permanent members on the UN Security Council where China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Russia all solicit their backing on key issues. China has often been more successful than the West in recent years in obtaining the support of African governments in international forums.
China has one interest in Africa that is not shared by the West—ending African diplomatic recognition of Taipei and replacing it with Beijing. Only four African countries— Burkina Faso, Gambia, Swaziland and São Tomé and Principe—still recognize Taiwan. Since Taiwan’s election in 2008 of President Ma Ying-jeau, there has been an informal truce between Beijing and Taipei concerning competition for diplomatic recognition. The truce is probably temporary; this competition could return at any time as a major Chinese interest in Africa.
Western countries are motivated by several concerns that so far have little relevance to China’s policy in Africa. Although both the West and China generally seek political stability in Africa, western countries, especially France, the United States and the United Kingdom, have traditionally had stronger security ties with certain African countries. France continues to maintain several military facilities in Africa while the United States has a base in Djibouti for countering terrorism in the region. The same western countries continue to rely on the consent of African governments for military aircraft over flight and landing rights and access by their naval vessels to African ports.
Key western nations give a higher priority than China to a number of negative concerns such as terrorism, money laundering, illegal immigration and drug trafficking that plague Africa and other world regions. The West seeks to minimize these threats so that they do not harm western interests in Africa or manifest themselves in Europe and the United States. China is demonstrating increasing concern about them. For the past two years, China has been an active participant in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden as its own shipping interests have been threatened. China is also increasing its cooperation with the African Union on counterterrorism and money laundering.
China gives its highest foreign policy priority to developing strong links with governments irrespective of the nature of the governing regime. China has close relations with the Islamist government in Sudan, democratic governments in Botswana and Mauritius and authoritarian governments in Togo and Equatorial Guinea. China works hard to develop the government-to-government relationship and in recent years has generally been more successful than western countries in establishing close ties with most African leaders. The heads of state and/or government from countries as varied as Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, Sudan and South Africa have been effusive in recent years in their praise of China. It is difficult to find similar warm statements by these leaders directed at western countries.
To its credit, China has made a more serious effort to establish personal ties with African leaders than has any single western country. Hu Jintao has made six trips to multiple African countries, two as vice president and four as president. Wen Jiabao has also been a frequent visitor to Africa. The Chinese foreign minister has made his first overseas visit each year since 1991 to a country in Africa. Senior Chinese Communist Party and military officials have a regular schedule of trips to Africa.
China also gives a high priority to inviting African chiefs of state, heads of government, ministers and senior military and ruling party officials to China. This attention has paid off handsomely in assuring high level access for China in Africa and in helping to assure that African leaders do not criticize China. It helps that China refrains from criticizing even the most egregious African human rights and governance practices.
Mixed Relations with other Elements of African Society
Governments do not, of course, represent the views all elements of society. China has not been as successful in developing strong ties with other important groups in Africa. Most Chinese engagement has been in the economic sphere. For the most part, Chinese companies have developed a reputation as reliable and reputable business partners. Although there are some complaints about the poor quality of some Chinese goods, most African consumers appreciate the low prices and understand you get what you pay for. If you want higher quality products, China produces them so long as you are willing to pay the price. A problem that China has not solved is the export of counterfeit and adulterated products, especially medicine, to Africa. African countries do not have institutions that are able to keep these products from entering the market and China has not taken measures to prevent private Chinese manufacturers from exporting them to Africa.
There are serious complaints from African manufacturers (textiles come to mind) who have been unable to compete with Chinese imports and small African traders who have been driven out of business by Chinese traders who have established shops in their markets. In some cases, the Chinese traders benefit from integrated supply sources connected to relatives and friends in China. In other cases, the Chinese traders simply work longer hours and in less desirable rural locations. Africans also complain when Chinese companies import a high percentage of Chinese labor to build infrastructure projects. The Africans understand the need to bring in Chinese for highly skilled positions, but not for work requiring minimal skills. China has tried to respond to these complaints, but with limited success especially in the case of private Chinese traders over whom the government has limited control.
China’s relations with several other segments of African society are more problematic. Although China has been surprisingly successful at establishing relations with new governments as they change in Africa, it has not made any particular effort to cultivate ties with opposition political parties. Western countries reach out to viable opposition parties; China normally does so only if the opposition has a role in a governing coalition or is operating in a country where the ruling party has made clear that it has no objection to contact with the political opposition. China has had some difficulty interacting with strong African labor unions, which do not exist in China.
Fortunately for China, most African labor unions are either weak or effectively creatures of the government. Powerful labor unions in countries such as South Africa, Zambia and Kenya are, however, another matter where western countries are more comfortable interacting with them. Non-governmental organizations and civil society groups are more important in many African countries than they are in China. While China increasingly recognizes the need to engage these groups, at least in African countries where they are strong, its lack of experience in dealing with them successfully is evident. China’s recent attention to improved corporate social responsibility both in China and in its commercial activities in Africa suggests that Beijing is beginning to take civil society more seriously.
Africa offers for the time being enough economic opportunity for both China and the West, not to mention the rest of the world, to compete amicably. There is normal competition for contracts, commercial deals and the African import and export markets. There is no reason this should result in any significant conflict between China and western nations.
The most serious tension over the short-term is likely to result from the different approach that China and the West have on human rights and democratization in Africa. China has demonstrated repeatedly that it will not criticize African practices or encourage improvement of African governance. Western countries, on the other hand, continue as a matter of principle to urge other nations, including those in Africa, to pursue economic policy reform, better human rights practices and more democratic governance. The strength of the recent protests and calls for reform across North Africa has clearly given China reason for concern. Beijing’s silence is deafening.
African governments welcome China’s non-interference policy; no African government has announced that it seeks criticism from outside concerning its governance and human rights practices. This different approach to interaction with African governments does result, however, in some tension with the West. For example, western countries imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe that China strongly opposed. China and the West will not likely reach an accommodation on these competing philosophies.
While it is not an issue at the moment, Chinese security engagement in Africa beyond its highly positive contributions to UN peacekeeping operations could pose a future challenge for the West. China currently has no military bases in Africa and says it has no desire to establish any. At the same time, it has discovered the difficulty of operating three naval vessels over the past two years in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of 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.