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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / International Relations and Security

Why China? The Perspective from Inside Africa

Within the same week in August 2018 that the White House welcomed the President of Kenya and pledged to expand U.S. economic cooperation in Africa, the leaders of the two largest economies in Europe (Germany and the United Kingdom) were crisscrossing in Africa with the same overarching mission: a focus on economic cooperation and the promotion of businesses and investment in Africa. As the UK’s Prime Minister vowed to make Africa the largest hub of her nation’s direct investment, the German Chancellor and her business entourage was pressing for further investment in Africa. This was all a lead-up to the European Union later unveiling its proposed plan to counter China’s growing influence in Africa. The plan announced by the European Commission President aimed at forging a new European-African alliance that will “deepen economic relations, boosts investment and jobs.”[1]

Intriguingly, during that same week of meetings almost all African leaders were preparing to assemble in Beijing ahead of the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit. The summit not only presented a unique opportunity for China and Africa to renew their growing bond and ambition, but also upped Western criticism about China’s approach with Africa. The question of why the ‘unison’ Western criticism and why the two most important leaders in Europe were in Africa at the same time is a question for another discussion; the key issue here is why African countries have become so fond of Beijing’s diplomatic approach, so much so that they travelled en bloc to Beijing while the West was in Africa wooing the continent with unparalleled direct investment? Decoding the outcome of the Forum, this article goes beyond the usual media and scholastic analysis of the schism of China’s scramble for Africa’s resources and the economic dimensions to examine why China’s approach has become so attractive to Africa.

The Evolution of Sino-African Relations

China’s current approach in Africa has elicited unabated scholarly and media attention. It is thus imperative to first understand the historical context of Sino-African relations that has evolved from a mixture of solidarity, ideology, politics and trade-oriented with different African countries in the 1950’s, to a more strategic economic and diplomatic partnership over the past two decades. The first notable formal Chinese presence in Africa was in the late 1950’s after an initial encounter at the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference in 1955.[2] Sino-African relations grew stronger after Bandung and exchange of visits between Chinese and African leaders became more frequent. In order to consolidate the bond, Premier Zhou Enlai made an official tour to Africa between 1963–1964. This tour to date is considered a major milestone that achieved a “lasting effect” in the development of friendly relations between China and Africa.

With China’s deepening reforms and opening up in the early 1980’s, its foreign policy began to be less ideologically constrained. Sino-African relations in the same period also began to move from largely political support to a more economic and comprehensive cooperation and development[3]. The relations as of today have unequivocally taken new shape since the first Beijing FOCAC ministerial conference in October 2000. FOCAC has since established a framework for political dialogue and economic cooperation between China and African countries, as it gathers Chinese and African leaders triennially alternately in China and Africa. Like a recast of the 2006 forum, the Beijing 2018 forum was the largest diplomatic forum in contemporary Chinese history with 53 African leaders. The highly-anticipated summit occurred at a time China had successfully won over seven of the eight African countries (not eSwatini) who had diplomatic relations with Taiwan to cut ties in favor of China.

Why China?

“The Chinese are coming…to Africa” was the headline used by the influential Economist magazine to describe the increasing presence of Chinese investment in Africa.[4] But does this caption offer a true picture of Sino-African relations? Is it always the case that China is forcing its way to Africa? The Economist and much scholarship one way or the other have failed to look at the other side of the coin; ‘Africans are going…to China’. Former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, in a 2008 op-ed, offered insight from an African leader’s perspective about  relations with China. While rebuking the Western approach in Africa, he deemed China’s approach to Africa’s economic and development needs as better and more adaptable than the Western approach and asserted that “African leaders have an obligation to opt for swifter solutions” from China.[5] Does this assertion represent the majority of African leaders? If not, what has influenced African countries in their cozy relations with China?

One of the key issues at the forum was infrastructure development under China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The summit aimed at aligning the BRI with Africa’s 2063 Vision and its Partnership for Infrastructure Development Initiative. While African leaders welcome the Chinese approach to infrastructural development, Western critics suggest Africa should beware of Beijing’s approach because the “China model is failing Africa.” The impact these critics predict is enormous, a menacing peril that will condemn Africa to permanent debt and dependency. The criticism is not surprising since the West sees Africa’s embrace of China as a threat to the global status quo and a challenge to Western influence in Africa, where they once had much leverage. Moving away from the usual ‘good’ and ‘bad’ dichotomy, the succeeding sub-sections delve into the motivating factors that shape Africa’s receptiveness to China and why Africa believes in Beijing’s approach despite unyielding criticism and skepticism from the West.

The Primacy of National Development

One common consensus across Africa is the need for shared economic growth and national development. With China’s developing experience in mind, African leaders not only regard China as an alternative source of investment and development finance to build its ailing infrastructure; they also hope to replicate China’s rapid economic development model that has lifted over 700 million Chinese out of poverty since 1978.[6] Again, in a developing country where infrastructural development is seen as key to sustainable development and economic growth, China’s willingness to invest and provide infrastructural finance with little or no strings attached is very appealing to African leaders who are willing to welcome Chinese involvement in their development agenda.

China’s infrastructure footprints in Africa are well documented. Notable projects financed and built by China that are seen as a ‘monument to China-Africa friendship’ include the Tanzania–Zambia and the Nairobi–Mombasa Railway, opened in 1975 and 2017 respectively. Besides railways, China is heavily involved in roads, bridges, dams and port network construction across Africa. From the onset of FOCAC establishment to 2011, China committed over $75 billion in over 1,700 projects in 50 African countries.[7] As of today, China under the BRI is undertaking over 3,000 infrastructure projects across Africa[8]. Africa, therefore, sees the opportunities within FOCAC and BRI that aim to build intercontinental infrastructure networks as a necessity to court for long-term finance and infrastructural development needed to jump-start Africa’s economic growth and national development.

Economic and Trade Opportunities

China’s impressive rise as a key global economic power has attracted special attention from Africa as an inalienable economic power Africa cannot prosper without. African leaders see China’s investment and economic strength as best serving Africa’s economic interest and are thus eager to attract Chinese investment, as well as gain access to the vast Chinese market. African countries have also become attracted to China’s keenness to invest in targeted economic sectors desired by African governments and also China’s willingness to invest in risk-prone African countries and sectors that other investors have neglected.

Currently, China is Africa’s largest economic partner – across the fields of trade, investment, financing and aid.[9] China over the past decade has directly invested over $100 billion in Africa through over 3,100 Chinese companies, effectively becoming a key investor and the top-ranked external job creator in Africa.[10] China at the FOCAC summit further promised to finance and implement eight major tangibles and sustainable development initiatives across Africa in the next three years with a $60 billion package. Moreover, China pledged to encourage Chinese companies to invest no less than $10 billion in Africa in the next three years. And China-Africa trade volume has soared: between 2000 and 2017, trade volume increased by seventeenfold.[11] Against this backdrop, Africa sees China’s development finance, economic investment and trade opportunities as particularly essential to court for its economic growth and integration.

China’s African Policy: Mutual Cooperation, Soft Loans, Debt Relief and Aid Policy

Since Bandung, China’s relations with Africa have been preconditioned on the principles of noninterference and respect for sovereignty, which altogether forms the bedrock of China’s ‘Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.’ The institutionalization of FOCAC establishing a framework for cooperation and dialogue is regarded as a milestone in the Sino-African relations. Through the forum, China released its African policy that explicitly outlines the way it wishes to engage Africa in light of changing global dynamics. The policy reiterates China’s respects for Africa’s independent choice and development path. This policy, which pivots on noninterference and mutual respect, has been welcomed by African governments as a response to the major criticisms of the Western approaches in Africa.

China’s aid and soft loan policy are also appealing to Africa. China in 1964 outlined eight principles of aids to foreign countries by stressing the necessity for mutual economic assistance. In respect of these principles, China is seen as a reliable aid provider over other aid providers. Evidently, between 2000 and 2014, seven of the top ten recipients of Chinese development assistance were from Africa.[12] In terms of soft loans, China has loaned over $130 billion to Africa since 2000.[13]

Another major interesting trait of China’s African policy is the absence of any link between investment and aid on one hand and political strings on the other. As asserted by China’s Foreign Affairs ministry spokesperson, “Chinese companies in Africa operate ‘independently’ and that the Chinese government is ‘committed to equal negotiations,’ and had no interest in ‘lecturing countries’.”[14] Again, China’s inclination to provide debt relief to indebted African countries is well valued. China at the just ended FOCAC summit demonstrated this gesture by announcing an exemption for Africa’s heavily indebted and least developed countries, including landlocked states and islands, from all “outstanding intergovernmental interest-free loan debts from the end of 2018.” Such policy undoubtedly is a key inducing factor that makes Chinese loans and aid an attractive and welcome alternative to Africa strict financial programs in the West.


In the search for national and economic development through investment, development finance, aid and trade, African leaders have turned to China. Thus, China weighs heavily in Africa’s future development by presenting a compelling alternative partnership, which if properly managed has the potential to accelerate the development and economic growth necessary to transform the living standards of Africans. The main challenge for Africa is harnessing the great opportunities veiled in FOCAC, BRI and China’s huge investment interest in Africa. To overcome this, Africa needs to rethink and initiate African-centered investments, trade and infrastructural policies based on Africa’s domestic exigencies. This will not only facilitate Africa’s national development and economic integration process, but will also solve its growing security and unemployment challenges.


[1]. BBC, “Juncker unveils EU’s Africa plan to counter China” by Andrew Harding, September 12, 2018.

[2] The Bandung Conference held between April 18–24, 1955 was the first Afro-Asian government forum. The stated aim was to promote Afro-Asian cooperation and to oppose colonialism in any form or kind. It was attended by 29 Asian and African head of states belonging to the first post-colonial generation. African attendees were from Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Sudan and Ghana.

[3]. Jian, Junbo and Chen, Zhimin. 2008. “Africa Issue and China-US-EU Trilateral Relations after the Cold War” In Yu, Yan (ed.). China–Europe–Africa Cooperation: Chances and Challenges, 151–70, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung/Shanghai IIS.

[4]. The Economist, “The Chinese are coming…to Africa” April 22, 2011.

[5] Financial Times, “Time for the west to practice what it preaches” by Abdoulaye Wade, January 23, 2008.

[6] Xinhua, “Xi pushes poverty alleviation”, January 24, 2017.

[7] CNN, “All aboard! The Chinese-funded railways linking East Africa” by Sophie Morlin-Yron, January 17, 2017.

[8]. CGTN, “FOCAC Summit: China-Africa relations begin a new chapter, by Hisham El-Zimaity, August 24, 2018.

[9] Sun, Irene Yuan; Kartik, Jayaram; and Omid, Kassiri. 2017. Dance of the Lions and Dragons: How are Africa and China Engaging and how will the Partnership Evolve? Washington, DC: McKinsey Global Institute.

[10]. CGTN, “China-Africa in numbers: Direct investment”, September 3, 2018.

[11]. CGTN, “Xi Jinping to chair upcoming FOCAC Beijing summit” August 20, 2018.

[12] Dreher, Axel et al. 2017. Aid, China and Growth: Evidence from a New Global Development Finance Dataset. Williamsburg, VA: AidData Working Paper #46.

[13]. CNN, “China’s President Xi pledges another $60 billion for Africa” by Jenni Marsh, September 4, 2018.

[14]. CNN, “Skyscrapers, trains and roads: How Addis Ababa came to look like a Chinese city” by Jenni Marsh, September 3, 2018.

Photo Credit: Xinhua