By Anand Benegal*
China’s engagement with the Africa continent has been analysed to examine a variety of aspects and a substantial portion of those analyses focus on the dept trap and resource curse concerns. However, an analysis of Beijing’s multidimensional relational policy comprising economics and culture and a comparison of China’s presence in Africa with those of the US and the EU shows that China is the continent’s most favoured partner.
China’s Multidimensional Partnership with Africa
For some time now, China has consistently been Africa’s largest single trading partner, having surpassed the US in 2009. In terms of trade volume, only the EU-Africa partnership is far greater, at US$ 314 billion compared to China’s US$ 170 billion in 2017. Similarly, Chinese FDI has shown dramatic growth, from US$ 74.8 million in 2003 to US$ 4.1 billion in 2017. According to McKinsey, thousands of Chinese firms employ and train millions of African workers, across diverse sectors including energy, infrastructure and manufacturing. Chinese commerce holds a diversified portfolio and is in Africa for the long-term, suggesting that profits from demographic dividend-driven growth is Beijing’s primary goal.
More controversially, the speed and secrecy in Chinese One Belt One Road project related investments have escalated China into becoming Africa’s largest creditor. These investments are typically long-term commitments in sectors such as transport, energy, mining, and communications. However, in Africa, China is viewed as a benevolent trustee. This is largely due to how Beijing has forged a thriving cultural partnership. Sino-African cultural relations range from research and education to language and culture. The Communist Party of China also provides diplomatic training to African politicians and entrepreneurs, which contribute to this favourable image among emerging African leaders. Sino-African research partnerships have garnered positive media reception for increasing employment and knowledge opportunities. Local telecommunications and agri-technology are among the most notable successes. A recent article in Nature goes so far as to state that “on the technological front, China is unmatched in Africa.”
Meanwhile, 59 Confucius Institutes (CIs) are involved in teaching Mandarin Chinese along with Chinese culture in over 30 African countries, second only to France’s 115 Alliance Françaises in 35 African countries. CIs supplement diplomacy and promote cultural and educational outreach programmes. The stringency of China’s visa policy also means African countries do not fear brain drain. Despite some harboring fears over the one-sidedness of this cultural relationship, the wider African populace has welcomed these educational opportunities.
China, US and EU in Africa
The conspicuous contrast is in military presence: the US has thousands of troops stationed across Africa, conducting counterterrorism and training operations. Precise force estimates are unclear, but the footprint is substantial—34 military outposts were observed in 2018. Likewise, the EU too holds military programmes. EU countries with sizeable military presence include Germany (in Mali, Somalia and Niger) and France (in Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, and Gabon). These external forces are often resented by the locals as the former tend to entangle themselves in regional conflicts. For instance, France launched airstrikes against political rebels in Chad in February 2019, and their siding with President Idriss Deby’s regime was heavily criticised.
China has only recently shifted from its non-intervention policy. Aside from establishing a military base in Djibouti, China has increased contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, offering to contribute 8000 troops and to train regional peacekeeping forces in 2015. While Western countries have a long history of continental military intervention, China has hitherto benefited from a lack of equivalent history. Beijing is trying to smoothen its growing military ambitions in Africa through diplomacy: the first China-Africa Defense and Security Forum took place in Beijing in June 2018. However, the nature of China’s response if/when embroiled in local/regional conflicts will be a factor that sculpts the trajectory of this relationship. Insofar, not having faced this issue has helped Beijing’s popularity with African leaders, whereas poor handling of a regional conflict could affect Beijing’s popularity.
Popularity surveys by Afrobarometer (2014) and Pew Research Center (2016) show that regional African populations view China warmly. 51 African leaders were present at the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation in Beijing compared to 27 at the UN General Assembly held in October 2018. Although historically, the US has been Africa’s preferred ally, a 2017 Pew survey shows China overtaking the US in terms of popular favourability, in at least three out of six African countries surveyed, with a tie in one (Kenya). Consolidating the decline of the US’ popularity is the ongoing US-China trade war which adversely impacts African economies, bringing the continent closer to China.
China’s multidimensional African policy has been a diplomatic victory compared to the US’s and the EU’s policies, which are heavily focused on regional security. Reacting to China, the EU unveiled a set of economic proposals towards Africa in September 2018, and the US’ National Security Advisor John Bolton announced a US-Africa strategy that December. These new proposals are similar to the multidimensional partnerships which currently underpin Sino-African relations.
The quick and emphatic marriage of economic and cultural diplomacy has been central to China’s rise in Africa. However, efforts to expand its military presence in conflict-ridden regions in the continent could affect this popularity among people and elites alike. How China navigates its security interests whilst evading the fallouts of regional conflicts could determine how its standing—as Africa’s most valued partner—progresses.
*Anand Benegal is a Research Intern at IPCS’ China Research Programme.