Africa is Becoming China’s China


    Key Judgements

    KJ-1. Many African economies will become highly dependent on Chinese aid, such as loans, technological projects, infrastructure investments and weaponry. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will take advantage of the China-Africa Partnership to expand its influence across the continent. 

    KJ-2. China will seek to improve its military cooperation with African states, taking a stronger stance in the conflicts affecting the continent. The political and social instability across Africa will allow China to step in as a moderator and sponsor. Its influence is likely to increase considerably if rifts between states continue.

    KJ-3. China’s investments will stall the African economies because of unfair trade practices. Technological projects will benefit China in the long term, while the African populations will have very limited advantages.


    In the 21st century, People’s Republic of China showed the world that authoritarian states can grow their economy, even if this implies using different means. This fact is particularly relevant for the African continent, where only 9 countries out of 54 have a democratic government.

    China’s security commitment to Africa can be traced to three main policy frameworks: its national defence policy, the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summits held since 2000, and, since 2006, its official Africa Policy. China is still classified by the UN as a developing country. However, the seat it occupies in the UN Security Council gives it considerable leverage in the pursuit of its interests, and Africa plays now a significant role in China’s foreign policy. The consequences of China’s rise on the international stage are still under debate. Some perceive China as a balancing factor in a global order highly dominated by the West, while others see China as the free rider of the international economic system.

    States in Asia, Africa and Latin America continue to appeal to the Chinese Bank for major loans. In countries with high political instability, major investments are meant to offer the impression of an improving economy. Since the 2000s, most African states became more and more interested in aligning themselves with China, leaving the US aside. More recently, Russia has also become willing to exert its power especially in conflict zones, where Kremlin hopes it can obtain some leverage if it helps the governments in need. War zones in Africa also represent an opportunity for China and Russia to test their militaries and hardware. At this moment, China is the only power dominating Africa.

    China Africa

    Economic perspectives

    The advantages of co-operating with China as perceived by the African governments go threefold. In terms of trading, China is interested in both African resources and products. Exports of gold, oil, iron ore and minerals bring considerable revenues to the African states. Secondly, the Chinese government opened many manufacturing companies in Africa, due to cheap labour. For countries where the unemployment rate reaches 30 or even 50% (e.g. DRC, Angola), Chinese-created jobs are invaluable.

    Also, the Chinese Import-Export bank offers low-interest or no-interest loans. For struggling African economies, these loans represent a unique opportunity since no other bank would risk granting a loan that might never get paid back. At a first glance, infrastructure projects sponsored by China, such as the 3.2-billion-dollar railway in Kenya, the 526-million-dollar dam in Guinea or the 475-million-dollar light rail system in Ethiopia, improve the African economies. China’s interest is not receiving the money back but investing in mining and farming projects that can fuel the Chinese economy.

    China’s Soft Power in Africa

    To optimize its soft power, China has adopted the role of a mediator in international conflicts. This new position helps the CCP to maintain the self-crafted image of a responsible global power. Xi Jinping, who stressed his goal of turning China into a great power by 2049, wants his country to be considered a pacifying player on the international stage, to counterbalance policies of the Trump administration. Also, mediation and economic support can give China the long-term opportunity to influence, to some extent, the fate of governments in countries governed by a hybrid or dictatorial regime. In this way, the CCP can maintain the balance between the democratic sphere of influence and the regimes that are closer to China’s ideology.

    Political Aspects

    China’s advertised non-interference in the politics of other states also stands as an alluring characteristic of the partnership. Most African countries are ruled by a hybrid (a mixture of democracy and authoritarianism) or totalitarian regime, which forces the US or the UN to come up with many conditions before granting any aid. Although less visible, Chinese politics are also influencing the economic partnership between the CCP and the African governments. An African country recognizing Taiwan as a state will receive on average 2.7 fewer Chinese infrastructure projects each year, while an African country voting along with China in the UN General Assembly receives 1.8 more infrastructure per year. There are other institutions such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank that offer low-interest loans. However, China is the only one with no requirements on respecting human rights or democratic elections.

    Regional conflicts

    Despite African Union’s efforts to enhance the dialogue between its members, security in Africa remains problematic due to insufficient inter-state cooperation. Increasing tensions between countries are expected in the future, due to ethnical, religious and territorial disputes. China’s participation in the United Nation’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is only the second time in its history that the country has contributed combat troops to a UN peacekeeping mission. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has used its participation in MINUSMA to train its personnel to operate in a hostile environment, gain experience working with other UN contingents, and test new military equipment. China’s military and security relations with Africa have attracted criticism from the international community in recent years. In particular, arms sales to some African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan and Zimbabwe, were pointed out by human rights advocacy groups as well as Western governments.

    In response, China argued that it complies with international regulations and refrains from exporting military equipment to areas where the UN Security Council imposed embargo. However, statistics show that arms transactions were concluded with states such as South Sudan and Cameroon, where inter-ethnic conflicts caused coups and mass killings. For example, during the Civil War in Sudan in 2013, insurgent leaders form South Sudan ordered 1200 Red Arrow-73 anti-tank missiles that the Chinese government delivered in 2014, when the conflict was still in full swing.

    Military cooperation

    The frequency of high-level military exchanges between China and Africa grew towards the late ‘ 90s, then remained constant until 2009 and began to grow again from 2010. Although diplomatic relations exist with all African States, China has stronger military ties with Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

    China provides training for African military personnel, engages in joint military exercises and humanitarian action (including search and rescue missions). Training involves either African military personnel travelling to China, or Chinese instructors offering training in African countries. One example is the politico-military relationship between China and Ethiopia. Restructured after the Eritrea conflict in 2000 and with a staff of 130,000 well-armed soldiers, the Ethiopian army is considered one of the most experienced and operational military bodies in Africa. China now sells artillery, light armored vehicles and troop transport vehicles to the Ethiopian army.

    Every year, an undisclosed number of Ethiopian officers is being trained. Since 2007, Ethiopia has been one of the 14 African countries in which the Chinese Embassy had a military attaché. From 2012 to 2017, Morocco, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Algeria, Cameroon, Tanzania, South Africa and Ethiopia bought large quantities of military equipment such as Red Arrow-73 anti-tank missiles, Karakorum-8 combat planes, drones ASN-206, ground-air missiles (SAM), anti-ship missiles (ASCM) etc.

    Download ‘Africa is Becoming China’s China’ in PDF

    Ana-Maria Baloi
    Ana-Maria Baloi
    Ana Maria Baloi is analyst at Grey Dynamics and a MA candidate at Brunel University London, where she studies Intelligence and Security. Her research is focused on China’s policy and strategy towards Africa. In the last years, Ana has participated at numerous NATO Youth summits and Model United Nations conferences, while working as an intern for the Romanian Senate.

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