Africa-China partnership: The dragon and lion dances

16 January 2020 1163 Views



The strategic presence of China in Africa has grown incrementally, mainly after the establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017. No doubt, this presence can be seen as a provocation and challenge to Western interests in a region plagued by foreign intervention and with low capacity to assert its sovereignty. Given Africa’s traumatizing experience with colonization, China’s presence is viewed with suspicion by many Africans. Many Western scholars and media outlets frequently describe China as a new colonizer, seeking to win over African countries in order to strike a new balance of power in the region.

The history of China’s presence in Africa

The Sino-African relationship is not new and dates back to the Bandung Conference, a meeting of Asian and African states in Indonesia in 1955, which sought to promote interstate cooperation and escape the grips of the old colonialism. However, until recently, China’s presence remained limited in size and geographical spread compared with some former Soviet Union countries in African countries such as Angola, and the economic and political influence of the former colonial powers in the form of what is known as the new imperialism. Mao Zedon’s was a leading exponent of China’s soft power in Africa and managed to win over some African countries with his ‘Three Worlds Theory’. However, Zedon’s death and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms led to the shrinking of China’s footprint in Africa.

This changed entirely in the aftermath of China’s steady economic boom, which triggered its expansion in Africa. Sino-African trade has flourished during the last two decades, growing by twenty times and reaching $170 billion in 2017.China has become a prime trading partner with more than 40 African countries (both exports and imports). Experts predict that Europe is on the bring of losing its grip on its former colonies, with only the Maghreb region retaining very close ties with its European partners.

As for Chinese investment in Africa, it exceeded $125 billion between 2000 and 2016. To foster and further economic ties with Africa, the Chinese President promised to inject an additional $60 billion during the sixth summit of the Forum on Chinese African Cooperation in 2017.While China is investing in all sectors, it has mainly focused on infrastructure projects and utilities such as transport and telecommunications, as well as education and health. According to Aid Data, 3000 projects were launched after the summit. One of the most important investments is the railway from Djibouti to Addis Ababa and Nairobi Mombasa. China plays a major role in what is known as Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. It aims at linking the entire continent with rapid highways.

Such projects have motivated proponents of the China –Africa partnership to foster bilateral economic ties and trade cooperation, seeing them as beneficial for both sides. China is seen as having engaged with a win-win approach, focusing on long-term sustainable projects that avoid financial speculation and adopt criteria for evaluating risk in investments that are more flexible and suited to the African context. The viability of the telecommunications investments is a good example, which stems from a competitive pricing strategy and familiarity with a poor and low-wage context.

For these reasons, China has sound arguments to proceed with this strategic cooperation. Its remarkable economic renaissance has given it the opportunity to gain valuable experience in the domain of development and poverty alleviation projects: more than 700 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of poverty in the past two decades, which is an inspiring model for many countries. This places China as a trustworthy and reliable partner for African countries in addressing the issue of poverty. China’s economic and developmental renaissance has given hope to many Africans that the developing world is not doomed to under-development, and has made China an inspiring model for many on the continent.

In the context of European failures to boost development in the region, China has succeeded to fill the gap and has proposed another alternative: a new model built on the principle of mutual development. China’s infrastructure investment strategy is considered crucial for promoting development in Africa through direct investment and soft loans in exchange for increasing its share of mining, oil, natural resources and agriculture. 

China’s rapid economic growth has enabled it to develop a soft power policy built on its image as a country with no imperial past, a history of support for liberation movements and resistance to Western hegemony, and a non-interventionist policy in African affairs. This has opened new avenues for cultural cooperation, and China has intensified its diplomatic and marketing strategies to promote its policies and defend its interests through media such as the China Global Television Network (CGTN), an English language news channel based in Nairobi. Confucius Institutes have also played a major role in promoting Chinese language and traditional culture.

Africa: caught between the hope of sustainable development and risks of new imperialism

The geographical proximity and historical relations between Europe and Africa, which are closely intertwined, are beneficial to China.While many Africans view moves by former colonising powers with suspicion, they are less likely to be outraged by the Chinese presence. Some regard it as the appropriate replacement for the former Soviet Union, serving to create a new balance of power in the world and playing a geo-strategic role in the dispute between the two superpowers, the US and Russia.Unlike Russia, the Chinese have built this new balance on economic and developmental issues, putting aside political rhetoric and ideological differences.China’s New Silk Road project is an example of this, and is likely to deepen Sino-African economic ties.

Africans are aware of the significant challenges that stand in the way of their success, which call into questiontheir ability to counter poverty, unemployment,economic and demographic problems, and address their citizens’ expectations and frustrations. As Africa’s youth population is getting larger (more than 50% are below 25 years old), many challenges and demands are rising. Overcoming those problems depends on the extent of the government’s ability to provide training and decent job opportunities, through national and regional economic structures.

In addition, the mismatch between African states’ capabilities and their stated goals has produced an endless need for foreign investment. However, there has been a ‘retreat’ by European powers in recent years. French investments, for instance, have diminished considerably to less than half what they were over the last 15 years. Given the limited alternatives available to African governments, with the rise of European isolationism as a result of the economic crisis and the rise of nationalist parties, and Donald’s Trump ‘America First’ foreign policy approach, Chinese banks and companies could be a viable alternative, and African elites should consider the need to open up their markets to fair and transparent competition.


While each African country is constructing its own position with regards to China’s new role in the region, the major question is the extent to which they are able to capitalize on the new situation to build sustainable and inclusive development in the long term. How can Africa overcome the ‘dependency culture’, which remains a structural handicap across the continent? Although having the Chinese and Europeans vying for power may seem beneficial for Africa, Chinese financial investments and trade may threaten Africa’s sovereignty. What is required is to build up a relationship of equals rather than replacing an old colonizer with a new one.







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