ISSN 2330-717X

China In Africa: Developmental Partnership Or Imperial Dominance? – Analysis

By

Like the western powers, China has had no qualms in serving its interest in Africa by supporting autocratic rulers.

By Rajen Harshe

As the major Asian and the second largest world power after the US, China has already emerged as the most significant player in Africa. Its role in Africa is too complex to be comfortably squeezed in any simplistic stereotype such as ‘altruistic’ or ‘neo-imperial’. Apparently, China is forging partnerships in diverse development projects with African states and yet the intrinsic asymmetry of power relationship between such partners has given a clear edge to China. Moreover, the participation of African states in President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can also lead to a ‘debt trap’ where China’s stature as a global player might grow while placing African states at the receiving end. In view of this, a critical overview of the issues involved in Sino-African ties alone can unravel their diverse nuances in contemporary times.

In fact, Mao Zedong’s China (1949-76) was firmly associated with the Bandung project (1955) that opposed all forms of colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism and imperialism. While supporting the frontline African states such as Zambia and Tanzania in their fight against the apartheid system in South Africa, China had completed the famous Uhuru project that linked Tanzania and Zambia through railway in the 1960s. It had also given concrete material and moral support to national liberation struggles in Mozambique and Angola. Furthermore, it supported anti-apartheid struggles in South Africa and Namibia and liberation struggle in the then Southern Rhodesia against the white minority regime.

After the advent of Deng Xiao Ping (1978-1997), China underwent wide ranging reforms which virtually transformed its economy drastically in terms of its manufacturing capacities, improvement in technology and ability to meet challenges of the world market in the realm of trade. The reforms also bolstered China’s military capabilities. In effect, China successfully underwent the Perestroika (structural changes) without Glasnost (openness). That is why, when students demonstrated peacefully to democratise the political system in China in June 1989 at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, they were ruthlessly suppressed. In the process, the western countries that were at ease with the reform process in China began to view the dismal record of human rights in China with suspicion while, in contrast, a number of states in Africa were muted in their criticism of China. China turned to Africa in the 1990s by distinguishing between ‘subsistence rights’ and ‘civil or political rights.’ Therefore, African states reduced China’s isolation in world affairs after the Tiananmen Square protests.

Over the years, the Sino African ties have grown remarkably. This can be exemplified through 79 visits of China’s leaders to Africa from 2007 to 2017. Even Xi Jinping, the paramount leader of China himself paid state visits to South Africa (2013, 2015, and 2018), Tanzania and Congo Brazzaville (2013), Zimbabwe (2015) Senegal, Rwanda and Mauritius (2018) to improve bilateral ties with those countries. As a part of the transcontinental economic grouping such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), Xi Jinping attended the BRICS meetings in 2013 and 2015 in South Africa. China has by now consolidated its ties with more than 50 African countries. These ties could be analysed in diverse spheres including economic, commercial, business, politico-strategic, cultural and educational.

China’s annual average GDP per capita growth for ten years before 2012 was as high as 9.9 percentConsequently, as an energy hungry economy China has forged closer economic ties with oil rich states of Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) apart from befriending countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia and Namibia that have untapped mineral wealth. China has become the largest trading partner of Africa as in 2014 the Sino-African trade was valued at $215 billion, before it declined owing to the fall in commodity prices, to $148 in 2017. Nevertheless China can take advantage of 1.2 billion people’s market of African countries. Till July 2019, African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) was signed by 54 African countries which are likely to be fully operative among all the member states by 2020.

In its role as the vanguard country that promotes infrastructure development, China is in the process of launching its ambitious multibillion transcontinental infrastructure project through the BRI. It has identified 39 African countries from Tunisia to South Africa to be incorporated in the BRI although presently only the Congo Brazzaville, Djibouti and Zambia are the direct BRI beneficiaries. Even though the Sino-American trade rivalry is reflected in political economy of African countries, China seems to have surpassed the USA, in terms of its presence by promoting projects of development cooperation where a large number of African countries are indebted to private sector as well as governmental institutions in China.

Evidently, multiple actors like public and private commercial companies involved in construction and extracting sectors, state owned banks and bureaucracy have cumulatively coordinated the march of China’s state led capitalism in different African countries. The total value of the Chinese investment and construction is approximately $2 trillion since 2005 till October 2019 according American Enterprise Institute. By 2017, Africa had seven fastest growing economies among the 20 fastest growing economies in the world. This has and will provide greater incentive to China to invest further in Africa.

China is the largest donor in Africa but unlike the western countries it has ostensibly shown generosity in cancelling debt obligations of the least developed African countries. Such assistance is valuable for African states as it comes without conditions concerning their record on ‘human rights’ or ‘democratic governance’. Owing to the medium of Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China has been able to promote bilateral as well as multilateral ties with African countries methodically. During the FOCAC summit at Beijing in 2018, President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion aid to Africa with fewer outright loans and grants. Broadly the investments will also involve in health care, education, security, cultural exchanges and increasing non-resource imports from Africa. The assistance is being given more as development finance rather than development assistance.

Politically, the PRC was consistently interested in promoting ‘One China Policy’ in Africa. Thanks to its aggressive policy stance, countries such as Lesotho (1993) South Africa (1999), Liberia (2003) and Senegal (2005) eventually shifted their recognition from Republic of China (ROC) to the PRC. Currently among the 18 countries that recognise ROC only Swaziland is from Africa. In the politico-strategic realm, China has supported peace missions of the African Union (AU) which often coordinate their activities with the United Nations (UN). In fact, by 2017 China had dispatched 2,500 troops, police and military experts to six UN peace keeping missions that included countries like Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, the DRC, Côte d’Ivoire and Western Sahara. China has also been expanding its naval presence in the Western Indian Ocean region. It has already established a military base in the strategically located state of Djibouti in the horn of Africa. Djibouti connects Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf. In East African states such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia China has invested in dual use infrastructure projects like railways and ports. Similarly, it has also large investments worth $62 million in the energy sector in countries like South Sudan, Sudan and Angola.  Unsurprisingly, Ethiopia has already launched its first satellite with the help from Chinese engineers on the 20 December, 2019.

Furthermore, China has announced its symbolic presence through a magnificent building of the African Union (AU) at Addis Ababa. Besides, it has built large stadiums in Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. With its growing soft power, China is promoting its culture, language and civilisation. So far, it has established more than 50 Confucius Institutes 33 African countries. China decided to open up vocational training colleges towards capacity building for over 200000 African students after the China–Africa summit of December 2015. The Chinese diaspora, constituting a sizable number of populations, in countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Madagascar, Angola and Nigeria is also spreading the Chinese culture.

Like the western powers, China has had no qualms in serving its interest in Africa by supporting autocratic rulers such as Robert Mugabe (1980-2017) in Zimbabwe and Omar Al Bashir (1989-2019) in Sudan which are resource rich countries. As one of the major arms exporting countries, apart from several other African and west Asian countries, China sold arms to such dictatorial regimes. On the whole, China’s growing presence in Africa is a mixed bag. Although its role in development of infrastructure, extraction of resources and boosting military capacities appear positive, the conduct of Chinese companies with the African labour, huge presence of Chinse workers and aggressive behaviour of sections of retail traders and farm owners is being resented in Africa. In a word, the expansive forays of China into Africa in diverse domains is characterised by a mélange of unequal partnership as well as latent streaks of the imperial dominance.


For more arguments, see Harshé, Rajen (2019) Africa in World Affairs Politics of Imperialism, the Cold War and Globalisation (Abingdon Oxon, Routledge).

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.