China in Africa: The Diplomatic New Normal

Under President Xi Jinping, while China has turned assertive in Asia, its Africa policy seems to be marked by continuity. The current Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, continues with the twenty year tradition of Chinese foreign minister’s first yearly foreign visit being to Africa. Upon assuming power, Xi launched his maiden foreign trip to Russia and then to Africa in March 2013 visiting Tanzania, Congo, and South Africa where the BRICS summit was held in Durban. Two years later he attended the 60th anniversary of the Bandung conference in Indonesia in April 2015 where he stressed solidarity with the third world while meeting with African and Asian leaders.

President Xi returned in early December 2015 to Africa to co-chair the sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg with South African President Jacob Zuma, Compared to the changes and turmoil in Chinese foreign relations in East Asia, its Africa policy seems to have proceeded under the radar through well-established diplomatic practices and institutions. In reality, China has undertaken a set of initiatives laying the foundation for a diplomatic new normal for a steady, sustainable rise in Chinese influence on the continent. 

After embarking on reform and opening in the late 1970s, China effectively neglected Africa for nearly two decades. The creation of FOCAC in October 2000 marked China’s renewed identity with the third world. Soon, beyond the diplomatic imperative of rallying African states to resist raging Western interventionism, China discovered the market potentials and the value of the continent’s rich natural resources, particularly oil and minerals, for its economy.

Thus its trade with Africa surged from $10 billion in 2000 to $222 billion in 2014.  China replaced the United States as the top trading partner for the continent in 2009 and has since maintained that position.  Bilateral trade values saw a decline in 2015 and 2016 with respectively $179 billion and $149 billion due to sluggish demand for commodities in China and elsewhere. However, China’s direct investment in Africa now amounts to around $200 billion and is growing apace despite overall economic slowdown on the continent.

Compared to the Western approach, Chinese economic presence is known to be heavily state-directed, focused on extractive industries, and oblivious to social and political responsibilities. Beijing has been accused of practicing neocolonialism for its lack of concerns for sustainability of local economies. There are a variety of Chinese business activities, but major infrastructure and business deals often involve the Chinese state-owned enterprises with the official approval of the local African government. With funding from China’s policy banks, particularly the Export-Import Bank and China Development Bank, the Chinese company can quickly get a project started and completed.

China often ties its aid and development assistance to business deals, similar to what Japan and Western countries did at the early stage of China’s reform. When working with the African governments, Chinese officials tend not to concern themselves with their business partners’ domestic affairs, such as human rights, rule of law, and corruption. The most controversial component of China’s investment has to do with its long-term impact on resource-rich African economies, as underscored by the “Angola model,” whereby the attempt to trade the country’s natural resources for Chinese loans failed to deliver growth in the war-torn country. In this way Chinese investment only exacerbates the resource curse in countries such as Angola where the oil industry accounts for half of itsgross national product and over 90 percent of its export and Zambia, where copper constitutes over 70 percent of its export. Plummeting prices in commodities have recently devastated the resource-dependent countries leaving them with mounting debt.

The unexpected slump in global market demand for commodities and natural resources, coupled with China’s economic slowdown, might have turned out to be the silver lining for China-African relations. Under the new circumstances, the earlier resource-focused investment was no longer viable. At the same time, the Xi government launched the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) program in tandem with its domestic plan to transition Chinese economy towards a service oriented and technologically innovative model. OBOR, which entails building the Economic Belt on the Eurasian landmass and the Maritime Silk Road of the Twenty-First Century from China to Europe, requires long term Chinese investment abroad. If OBOR is to achieve its geo-economic objectives of facilitating China’s rise in the age of globalization, Beijing must not fall into the trap of neocolonialism, but should instead offer “localized China standards” (Jiediqide Zhongguo Biaozhun) in its investment to spur growth in the developing world.

The new Chinese paradigm in Africa features “intensive development” to address shortage in infrastructure, human capital, and investment. Initially targeted at Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania, the plan is to learn from the designated major projects in these countries in order to devise a self-sustaining growth model across Africa.  Indeed at the Sixth FOCAC held in Johannesburg, South Africa in December 2015 co-chaired by China and South Africa, President Xi offered a $60 billion development fund for 2016-18 in FOCAC members. With only $5 billion aid and no-interest loans in the package, the emphasis is on market-based investment designed for African “autonomous development.” Reflective of a more comprehensive approach, Xi also identified ten areas ranging from finance to security where China would help to steer African economies towards diversification, industrialization, and sustainable development.

The latest Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway completed in October 2016 offers a glimpse into the paradigm shift in Chinese investment. Costing $4 billion, the 750km railway is the first electrified railway in Africa. According to the Chinese news agency, Xinhua, the project showcased Chinese engineering prowess, and more importantly, Chinese business adaption to local needs and conditions. During the six years of construction, the Chinese trained 15,000 Ethiopian workers and created safe passages for wild animals along the railway. The project followed the Chinese-built 1315 km long Lagos-Abuja Railway in Nigeria and the 1,344 km long Lobito-Luau Railway in Angola. By now China has helped build 5,675 km long railway, 5,063 km highways in addition to thirteen airports across Africa. While celebrating the completion of the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway at the Chinese-built headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, China and the AU signed an agreement to build an Integrated High Speed Railway Network across the continent that would spur intra-Africa trade and promote exports of Ethiopia and other fourteen land-locked countries.

China’s growing investment in Djibouti led to a bilateral agreement with Beijing to establish China’s first naval base in the Horn of Africa . Djibouti and China both announced the plan in 2015. The agreement signed in January 2016 stressed Chinese investment in a trade zone and port development in Djibouti and was coupled with subsequent Chinese offers to build infrastructural projects in the country.  While Beijing prefers to call the base a “logistic support facility,” its military value should not be underestimated. Djibouti has long served as a de facto logistical support base for the Chinese Navy ships that have patrolled the Gulf of Aden since December 2008 for anti-piracy missions. The refurbished military base would give China greater access to the Indian Ocean and control of a strategic choke point along the maritime Silk Road to the Mediterranean.

With Xi in charge, China’s security role is also catching up in Africa as demonstrated by its high-profile participation in the UN peacekeeping missions and Beijing’s unprecedented humanitarian assistance in the Ebola crisis during 2014-15. China remains reluctant to mediate conflict resolution, but it has played a prominent role in brokering a peace deal in South Sudan. Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, China has sent the largest contingent of peacekeeping forces to Africa. Its 2,800 peacekeepers are deployed in seven missions in some of the most dangerous spots. In June and July 2016, three Chinese troops died in Mali and South Sudan.

At the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, President Xi pledged to offer 8,000 troops for the UN standby peacekeeping force. He also offered $100 million in the next five years to support the African Standby Force and the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIR). During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, China donated over $110 million worth of aid to the hardest hit countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. China built medical labs and dispatched a large contingent of medical personnel to combat the epidemic throughout the crisis. China’s active support of relief efforts through the UN and the World Health Organization was also widely noted by African countries and the international community at large.

With such active and well-coordinated engagements in Africa, China has made significant geopolitical gains there. Beijing can now count on Africa’s support for its core interest in Chinese territorial sovereignty. For example, South Africa denied the Dalai Lama’s visit. Zuma’s South Africa was one of the few major countries to publicly support Beijing’s position on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea arbitration ruling on South China Sea. Beijing has wielded its newfound diplomatic influence in Africa to punish Taiwan’s newly elected pro-independent president Tsai Ingwen’s defiance on “one China.” In December 2016, Sao Tome and Principe switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing leaving the continent with only two Taiwanese friends, Swaziland and Burkina Faso. A month later, China announced a plan to invest $40 billion in Nigeria on top of its stock of $45 billion investment in the country. Nigeria immediately evicted Taiwan’s trade office from the capital city of Abuja and moved it to Largos with downgraded representation.

Politically, China is making headway too. Chinese investment has effectively brought its developmental model to the continent increasing the appeal of the Chinese communist party-state system, particularly among the ruling elites. The latest Afrobarometer surveys conducted during 2014-15 in thirty-six African countries show that Chinese influence is growing fast, whilst at the same time, public views on China’s presence and the Chinese development model have also improved to rival the standing of the West’s. Through its membership in BRICS and the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, South Africa is increasingly aligned with China diplomatically while drifting away from the West. Politically, its president, Jacob Zuma and his ruling African National Congress have also drawn uncomfortably close to Beijing for those concerned about the country’s democratic future.

More than ever China has quietly established an all-around presence in Africa. But Beijing’s diplomatic inroad is hardly assured. Uncertainties abound on whether China’s latest push will turn out to be a scheme to export its excess industrial capacities or if it will succeed in promoting self-sustaining growth in Africa. Chinese immigration, coupled with the lack of transparency, anti-corruption measures, labor rights protection, and environmental safeguards associated with China’s economic expansion in the continent will continue to engender pushbacks in countries with robust civil society and political opposition as well as criticisms from the West.

Chinese influence will be contested by established powers like the United States and leading European countries, such as Germany. Notably Japan has stepped up efforts to win over African countries, not least for their support to Japan’s bid for a UN Security Council permanent membership. Prime Minster Shinzo Abe has adapted the long-established Tokyo International Conference on African Development and launched the Japan-African Public and Private Economic Forum to counter the Chinese-led FOCAC.

While China remains centrally concerned with Asia in terms of security, its new diplomatic normal in Africa has steadily increased China’s great-power status. On the economic front, Beijing has tried to reduce resource dependence in favor of comprehensive sustainable engagement. On security, it has moved away from its penchant for free-ride to active involvement, particularly through UN peacekeeping while at the same time Beijing is bringing its development-driven approach to bear for a proactive solution. China’s political influence has also grown with greater exposure and acceptance of the Chinese own party-controlled developmental model on the continent. Diplomatically, Beijing holds dominant sway on issues from denying Japan’s UN Security Council reform to defending its own “one China” principle. While much of the world’s attention is focused on elsewhere, the latest Chinese modus operandi in Africa marks a significant turn for the country to become a complete global power.


Yong Deng is Professor in Political Science at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. His books on Chinese foreign relations include China’s Struggle for Status (Cambridge University Press, 2008). His recent article “China: The Post-Responsible Power” was published in The Washington Quarterly (Winter 2015).

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Tuvshinzaya Gantulga

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