The new Chinese strategy in Africa: objectives, opportunities and threats

By SAKHRI Mohamed

Abstract
China’s engagement with Africa has significantly expanded in the 21st century. While initially focused on securing access to natural resources, China’s presence in Africa has diversified into various sectors such as infrastructure, telecommunications, manufacturing, education, health, and finance. This rapid expansion has led to debates on China’s long-term objectives and implications for Africa’s growth and development. This paper examines China’s evolving economic and foreign policies towards Africa since 2000. It discusses China’s key interests, modalities of engagement, and their alignment with African priorities. The paper also analyzes the opportunities and threats presented by China’s new strategy in Africa. It argues that while providing needed investment and markets for African economies, China’s approach based on “no strings attached” financing and import of labor undermines governance and skills transfer. The paper concludes with policy recommendations for African governments to maximize benefits and mitigate risks from China’s engagement.

Introduction


China’s presence in Africa has expanded rapidly since 2000, making it Africa’s largest trading partner and an influential actor across political, economic and sociocultural domains. Bilateral trade rose from $10 billion in 2000 to over $200 billion in 2013, while Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) stock increased from $500 million in 2003 to $26 billion in 2013 (Chen, Dollar, and Tang, 2015). Chinese state-owned and private companies have invested heavily across infrastructure, mining, manufacturing, telecoms, and finance sectors (Ado and Su, 2016). This intensive engagement has led to debates on China’s long-term objectives in Africa and implications for the continent’s sustainable development.

Critics argue that China is a neocolonial power, exploiting Africa’s resources for its own growth while undermining governance, labor rights and domestic industries (Mohan and Lampert, 2013). Supporters counter that China provides much-needed investment, efficiently executes infrastructure projects, and treats African countries as equals (Alden, 2007). The reality likely lies between these extremes – China’s Africa strategy is shaped by its evolving economic and foreign policy interests, some complementary and others conflicting with Africa’s development priorities (Power and Mohan, 2011). This paper aims to advance this debate by examining China’s objectives, modes of engagement, and their alignment with Africa’s goals across political, economic and sociocultural domains.

The paper is structured as follows. Section 2 analyzes China’s domestic economic transitions and institutional changes that underpin its new Africa strategy since 2000. Section 3 discusses China’s political, economic and social objectives in Africa and tools used to pursue them. Section 4 evaluates alignment between China’s interests and modes of engagement with Africa’s development priorities across three domains – political, economic and sociocultural. Section 5 concludes with policy recommendations for African governments to maximize benefits and mitigate risks from China’s engagement based on the analysis.

China’s Domestic Transitions and Foreign Policy Changes since 2000


A confluence of domestic and international factors have driven China’s new Africa strategy since 2000. On the domestic front, rapid industrialization and urbanization spurred a surge in China’s appetite for energy, minerals and new markets to sustain growth. Meanwhile, China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) accelerated its integration into the global economy. On the foreign policy front, rivalry with Taiwan for diplomatic recognition declined after 2000 as Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian pursued a separate Taiwanese identity (Alden, 2007). This reduced competition freed up Chinese resources to pursue other economic and diplomatic interests in Africa.

These domestic and international developments coincided with institutional changes that enabled China to pursue its interests abroad more assertively. Power transitioned from old communist party officials focused on ideology to younger technocrats prioritizing economic development and foreign investment (Mohan and Lampert, 2013). The Foreign Ministry’s influence expanded relative to the Ministry of Commerce and financial institutions, emphasizing strategic diplomacy over quick profits (Gu, 2009). China’s state-owned banks and enterprises were restructured and given financing for overseas projects aligned with state priorities. These institutional changes laid the foundations for China’s “going out” strategy of accelerated outbound investment and trade promotion unveiled in 2001 (Gu, 2009).

Africa became a priority destination given its rich resources and latent potential. As the world’s fastest growing region since 2000 with a billion consumers, Africa offered lucrative opportunities for Chinese firms saturated in domestic markets (Ado and Su, 2016). Africa also provided diplomatic support for China’s “one-China” policy on Taiwan and other interests as China took a higher global profile. Thus, China’s domestic transitions and foreign policy priorities catalyzed its new strategy of expanded economic, diplomatic and sociocultural engagement with Africa since 2000.

China’s Objectives and Modes of Engagement in Africa


China’s Africa strategy is best characterized as pragmatic economic statecraft – deploying economic tools to pursue its political, economic and sociocultural interests (Mohan and Lampert, 2013). This section analyzes China’s objectives across these domains and modalities used to achieve them.

Political Objectives


China’s political objectives include diplomacy, securing energy supplies, and shaping global governance. Diplomatically, China wants African states to adhere to the “one-China” policy regarding Taiwan. By 2000, Beijing had won over all but a handful of African countries offering Taipei recognition (Alden, 2007). China provides aid, debt relief, infrastructure loans and investment to countries that embrace “one-China”, using both carrots and sticks. For example, China threatened to withdraw investments if Malawi and Senegal recognized Taiwan (Osnos, 2010).

Second, China seeks to secure Africa’s energy resources, particularly oil and gas, to fuel its economic growth (Zafar, 2007). By 2006, 30% of China’s oil came from Africa, primarily Sudan, Angola and Congo (Hanson, 2008). China’s policy banks, mainly China Export-Import Bank and China Development Bank, provide oil-backed infrastructure loans to resource-rich countries (Ado and Su, 2016). This energy focus has led China to downplay governance, human rights and conflict issues in countries like Sudan and Angola (Large, 2008).

Third, China aims to increase its influence in global governance institutions like the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to reflect its rising economic power. China has won African support for its “new security concept” centered on state sovereignty rather than humanitarian intervention, as well as its claims over Taiwan and Tibet (Li, 2007). African voting power has also enabled China to block Western initiatives on human rights, governance and environmental standards that might constrain its investments (Naím, 2007).

Economic Objectives


China’s top economic objectives include securing natural resources, finding new markets and investment destinations, and internationalizing Chinese firms and standards (Alden, 2007). First, China’s resource diplomacy focuses on oil, gas, minerals and agricultural commodities needed to sustain its industrialization. By 2015, oil and mineral fuels accounted for over 60% of China’s imports from Africa (Yoon, 2017). Second, China seeks to export its manufactured goods as domestic wages rise. Africa’s young demographics and growing middle class represent an important frontier market (Ado and Su, 2016).

Third, China promotes Africa as an investment destination for its capital-rich firms facing saturation at home. Chinese investments are diversifying from resource extraction into infrastructure, manufacturing, real estate, finance and other sectors across 47 African countries (Chen, Dollar, and Tang, 2015). Moreover, Africa provides a testing ground for Chinese companies to gain global experience and technology before expanding into developed markets (Gu, 2009).

A fourth motive is internationalizing Chinese standards and currency. China finances most African infrastructure with yuan loans repaid through oil or mineral exports, gradually promoting the yuan as a global currency (Dahir and Huang, 2018). Meanwhile, contracts awarded to Chinese state-owned enterprises promote adoption of Chinese construction, telecom and technology standards over Western ones (Alden, 2007).

Sociocultural Objectives


China also pursues select sociocultural objectives in Africa such as emigration opportunities and promoting Chinese language and culture (King, 2013). Tens of thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs, merchants, and traders have moved to Africa since 2000 attracted by economic opportunities and perceptions of Africa as an “uncrowded land” (Li, Ma, and Liu, 2012). China has established over 50 Confucius Institutes across Africa to teach Mandarin and promote Chinese culture (King, 2013). While not overtly political, these sociocultural initiatives build affinity and soft power that indirectly serve China’s economic and political interests in Africa.

Modalities of Engagement


China employs diverse economic, political and sociocultural modalities to pursue these objectives in Africa:

  • Debt financing for infrastructure: China provides concessional loans from its policy banks to African governments for infrastructure projects, repaid through future resources exports back to China (Foster et al., 2009).
  • Enabling direct investment: Chinese state-owned and private enterprises directly invest in sectors such as mining, construction, manufacturing, real estate, telecoms, and finance across Africa (Pigato and Tang, 2015).
  • Resource-for-infrastructure deals: Loans are directly paid back through future commodity exports stipulated in bilateral agreements between China and resource-rich countries (Hackenesch, 2013).
  • Special Economic Zones (SEZs): China funds industrial parks and SEZs in several countries to facilitate manufacturing investments and exports to China (Brautigam and Tang, 2014).
  • People-to-people exchanges: China provides technical training, seminars, scholarships and cultural exchanges to promote people-to-people ties and build goodwill (King, 2013).
  • High-level visits: Chinese leaders including the President, Premier and Ministers routinely visit Africa to negotiate deals, strengthen alliances and build influence (Sun, 2014).

This multifaceted engagement advancing China’s interests while financing African development differentiates China’s approach from Western powers (Alden, 2007). Next, the alignment between China’s modes of engagement and Africa’s development priorities is assessed across political, economic and sociocultural spheres.

Alignment with Africa’s Development Priorities


China’s strategy presents both opportunities and risks across the political, economic and sociocultural domains. This section evaluates areas of alignment and tensions with Africa’s development priorities in each sphere.

Political Domain


On the political front, China’s non-interference policy appeals to African leaders keen on state sovereignty (Zafar, 2007). Its laissez faire approach favors state-led development unencumbered by Western lecturing on governance (Alden, 2007). China’s financing of public infrastructure like roads, dams, hospitals and schools helps African governments visibly deliver benefits to citizens (King, 2013). However, this hands-off approach risks entrenching unaccountable governments, human rights abuses and corruption (Naím, 2007). An excessive focus on resource extraction over institution building could also stoke conflict and popular resentment in some countries (Zafar, 2007).

China’s reluctance as late entrant to coordinate investments and policies with Western donors limits aid effectiveness and project quality (Kaplinsky and Morris, 2009). Duplicative infrastructure like the $1.2 billion Nairobi-Mombasa railway funded by China after an earlier line by Britain raises African public debt burdens (Sun, 2014). On balance, while aligning with desires for state sovereignty, China’s lack of transparency and loose regulations undermines the governance progress made in many African countries since 2000 (Taylor, 2014).

Economic Domain

The surge of Chinese investments, trade and loans has accelerated African growth and narrowed infrastructure gaps that deterred Western investors (Ado and Su, 2016). China’s demand for resources provides a market for exports that enables African countries to diversify from Western donors and creditors (Carmody and Owusu, 2007). Chinese firms have greater risk appetite, execute projects faster than cautious Western counterparts, and supply affordable goods tailored to African consumers (Gu, 2009).

However, an overwhelming focus on resources and construction provides few skills transfers beyond low-end jobs (Kaplinsky and Morris, 2009). African policymakers have limited scope to direct Chinese funds towards developmental priorities like manufacturing, agriculture or social services (Mohan and Lampert, 2013). Moreover, large state-owned Chinese enterprises crowd out local firms in sectors like construction and telecoms through unfair subsidies and competition (Jenkins and Edwards, 2006). Poor oversight of Chinese merchants and employers has led to tax evasion, safety violations, and negative environmental impacts in countries like Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana (Lee, 2014).

While catalyzing infrastructural development and headline growth, China’s approach has made few African countries more competitive globally through productivity gains or diversification (Dahir and Huang, 2018). Their bargaining positions remain weak given reliance on primary commodities exported to China amidst little value addition (Taylor, 2014). Therefore, while accelerating activity and narrowing infrastructure deficits in the short-term, China’s approach risks entrenching African economies in commodities dependence with limited skills transfer (Carmody and Owusu, 2007).

Sociocultural domain


On the sociocultural front, burgeoning people-to-people ties could foster mutual understanding and human capital development. China provides scholarships for thousands of African students to study in China annually (King, 2013). Mandarin is now taught at dozens of Confucius Institutes and secondary schools across Africa to equip youth to engage China (Liu, 2016). More balanced cultural flows and tourism should evolve from these educational exchanges over time.

However, most sociocultural impacts presently advance Chinese interests. Temporary Chinese laborers on projects financed by China undermines skills transfer and hiring of local African workers (Kaplinsky and Morris, 2009). Traders and entrepreneurs remain relatively isolated with weak integration into African societies where many still view China as exploitative (Mohan and Lampert, 2013). While this perception is fading as Africans experience tangible benefits from Chinese projects, most exchanges reinforce perceptions of China as the developed partner transferring knowledge and resources (King, 2013). The onus remains on African governments and civil society to strategically leverage Chinese linkages to maximize local skills development and job creation.

Conclusion and Policy Recommendations


In conclusion, China’s more assertive economic statecraft in Africa since 2000 is driven by its strategic need for resources and new markets to sustain growth domestically. Its official policy emphasizes partnership and mutual benefit through resource-for-infrastructure deals financed by China’s policy banks. However, China prioritizes its own political and economic interests over alignment with many African development needs. This carries both benefits and risks for Africa’s long-term welfare.

For African countries to maximize opportunities and mitigate risks from China’s engagement, they should:

  • Channel Chinese investments into manufacturing, agriculture and social sectors rather than an excessive focus on resource extraction and construction.
  • Strengthen regulatory oversight of Chinese firms in areas like environmental standards, labor practices and links with domestic firms.
  • Ensure greater transparency in China’s infrastructure financing terms and their alignment with national development strategies.
  • Leverage cultural exchanges like student scholarships and language institutes for broader local skills development.
  • Pursue regional initiatives through the African Union to enhance negotiating leverage and coordinated policies on China.

China’s strategy will continue evolving based on its own internal transitions and global pressures. But African governments can proactively shape engagement to maximize gains for their development priorities. With prudent policies, Africa can benefit from China’s rise to fulfill its potential as the next frontier of sustainable growth and progress.

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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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