Bhaso Ndzendze discusses the scarcity of simplistic hypothesis testing and model-building in studying the relations between China and African states and the unsubstantiated generalisation which stems from this.

A theory, when properly employed, describes a discernible pattern of behavior by a particular unit of analysis, such as a state or a coalition of states. Through this analysis, we can deduce patterns and investigate or chastise claims which seem abstract, impractical, ridiculously futuristic, or unobtainable. Therefore, the application of theory is a useful analytical exercise for gauging the past, understanding the present, and prognosticating the future. It allows us to assess that given a specific set of variables, a certain type of actor is likely to behave a certain way.

The application of rigorous theoretical analysis is currently lacking in conversations about China’s relationship with African states. Where it has shown up, it occurs in small and inconsistent doses. Consider the tendency of China to cast itself as non-interfering liberator, while others see China as a debt trapping actor, or as a disburser of rogue aid who is engaged in competition with the West, especially France, the US, and the UK, for “supremacy” on the continent. Yet another generalization is to assume China and Africa are natural allies. 

When properly scrutinized, each of these claims are largely unsubstantiated.

While China asserts it is solely interested in doing business and does not interfere in other country’s political affairs, there is evidence to the contrary. For example, Chad’s leader recently accused the PRC of funding and directly arming rebel militias in his country.

Secondly, the idea that China is a debt trapping actor relies on an over-generalisation. We may refer to this as theory-building on the basis of few facts and unclear methodologies. Proponents of this view overlook a number of factors, the first of which is that the People’s Republic of China is actually a relatively minor, albeit growing, player in terms of loan disbursement to the continent compared to the EU.

Another perspective paints China as a supplier of “rogue aid.” However, analysis of the motivation behind Chinese aid to African states has only recently been initiated. In his recent book, Philani Mthembu complicates this conventional  narrative. While generally the most important variable regarding aid is economic interest, followed by strategic interests, and then humanitarian interest, as is the case in India, China is mainly concerned with strategic and humanitarian interests. Moreover, the precise combination of these variables is crucial. 

Additionally, Haley J. Swedlund’s research responds to the claim that Chinese aid heightens African governments’ bargaining abilities vis-à-vis the West. According to Swedlund, “claims that China is fundamentally reshaping bargaining relations between traditional donors and recipient governments in sub-Saharan Africa are overstated.” The OECD Development Assistance Committee donors still wield great influence across the continent. She further states that “China [is] rarely compet[ing] directly with traditional donors.” 

The final misconception is to cast China and African countries as all-weather friends. This generalization ignores much of Africa’s Cold War diplomatic history. African states have not treated China as a benign ally, even during the Cold War. Indeed, in the battle for diplomatic recognition between Taiwan and Mainland China, some 30 African countries used their diplomatic recognition as an economic bargaining chip. Some countries switched their allegiance as many as five times.

My own research focuses on the Africa-One China policy nexus. I begin with the hypothesis that African countries who switched support from Taipei to Beijing between 2001 and 2016 did so to avert the opportunity cost of losing Chinese aid and to enhance trade access. The results I obtained signify that there was an economic motivation at play in switching support, highlighting an important aspect of African realpolitik: African countries use their agency in their relationship with Beijing to maintain funding streams, rather than Beijing “winning” the continent from what it deems its renegade province. We have reason to believe African countries would leverage their support of Beijing again should the economy of mainland China slow down, or that of Taiwan to recover significantly and be in a position to offer them a better deal.

Perhaps the lack of theoretical coherence in so much of the scholarship about the relationship between these regions stems from the mismatch between units of analysis; Africa is a continent, whereas China is a state. These units are driven by different logics and capabilities. A singular Africa is too broad a concept and perhaps even non-existent as a methodological factor. This has not prevented scholars from looking at a continent of over 50 countries and reaching broad-sweeping conclusions. The same is not to be seen in any other arena. No serious student of international relations speaks of U.S.-Asia relations or China-Middle East relations with the intent of making meaningful contributions. Rather, there is an understanding that external players’ interactions with the countries in these regions are modulated by borders and histories which pose peculiarities. Thus, U.S.-Thailand relations are unique from U.S. relations with Cambodia with whom it shares a border.

Thus, the misunderstanding of the China-Africa relationship stems not only from incorrectly looking at this nexus purely through the interests of Beijing, but also from attempting to understand it solely from an overgeneralized macro perspective. International interaction carries broad implications but is the result of many smaller decisions and relationships. Instead of  theorizing from continental perspectives, scholars should begin by first looking at state-to-state levels of interaction, and from there build typologies with the possibility of unevenness and inconsistently containable within their methodologies.

China has different investment and loan tethers to different countries on the African continent, and these have evolved over time. Lack of recognition of this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in developing coherent typologies to understand these complicated relationships. Indeed, it has been the continued usage of outdated lenses which have prevented an understanding of the present.


Bhaso Ndzendze is Research Co-ordinator at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.