Growing dimensions of Chinese presence within Africa


The evolving dynamics within the post- Brexit EU and the new US Biden Administration will need to take into account the growing influence of China within the African continent. The paradigm is changing and both Europe and the United States, in all likelihood will try to even the scales within the matrix.

This will be required because Africa is slowly developing its own narrative on the global stage. It is clear that it wants the world to treat it as an equal partner. It needs to be understood that Africa is a continent with diverse facets and is slowly but surely going through fundamental economic, political and security changes. This led The Economist to dedicate a Special Report to the continent in March 2020, with the headline, “Africa is changing so rapidly, it is becoming hard to ignore”.

This also connotes that the EU and the US, contrary to the past are no longer the only players in town. New actors now also recognize the latent African potential and are seeking to use it to their advantage.

China’s presence in particular has slowly expanded into diverse areas and this has been broadly welcomed by African nations. This has been the new reality, particularly after the disengagement measures undertaken by the United States during the Trump Administration.

 China is now already involved within the African security landscape and they are using their soft power tools also within the platforms of education and media. Humanitarian and development aid has now become an important tool in this regard. This inter-active engagement is no longer characterized by a traditional donor-recipient relationship. China has moved forward by deepening their ties beyond traditional government interaction.

Africa is now recognized as the new land of opportunity. Its GDP grew by an average of 4.6% annually between 2000 and 2018, making it the second fastest-growing region in the world after Asia (7.4%). In addition to sustained economic growth, Africa has also achieved impressive results in many other political and social indicators. With a growing middle class, Africa has been able to almost halve their infant mortality rates. They have also increased their literacy and life expectancy rates and advanced regional integration.

However, despite these positive developments, many significant challenges still remain. They include the uneven distribution of wealth, weak health systems, poor governance aggravated by state dysfunctionalities and corruption, security problems, social conflicts and high unemployment. We have noticed what is currently happening in Sudan and Eritrea. Furthermore, severe disparities remain between North and sub-Saharan 

Africa (SSA).

The economic, political and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have also exacerbated these challenges. All of the continent’s economies have suffered a significant GDP contraction, and a serious recession may still be on the way. The drop in global oil prices, the unprecedented blow to the tourism sector, economic shutdown measures, and the decline in remittances from abroad all pose a severe threat to Africa’s sustainable growth, regional stability, food security and social progress. Nevertheless, whatever the impact of COVID-19 on Africa, the face of the continent will continue to change rapidly.

Nevertheless, African voices in international affairs have significantly augmented, and this, if skillfully managed, will bring new opportunities to Africa and its peoples.

Currently, a new geopolitical chess game is being played out on the continent. Many actors,- China, Russia and Turkey- are seeking to strengthen their economic and political engagements with Africa.

Among them, China’s role and profile in Africa have been rapidly expanding: Beijing is Africa’s most important trading partner, with Sino–African trade currently in excess of US Dollar 200 billion per year. China is also beefing up its security presence and military cooperation on the continent, and its arms exports to this region have surged over the last few years.

China–Africa relations began around the 1950s, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 and as the African continent slowly emerged from colonialism. Both sides found common ground as members of the developing world supporting principles of equality, common prosperity and ‘Third World’ development, as exemplified by the Bandung Conference in 1955. The African continent offered China ideological support against both the US and the Soviet Union and also in the removal of the Republic of China from its UN seat, which the People’s Republic of China eventually attained in October 1971.

Both China and Africa have discovered common ground as members of the developing world supporting principles of equality, common prosperity and Third World development. The China–Africa relationship is multifaceted. One needs to also recall here the visits of the then Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen who toured 14 African nations between 1989 and 1992. This helped to boost Chinese development assistance towards developing countries and laid the foundation for today’s China–Africa relations.

Today, China and Africa both recognize the need for a more institutionalized and regular form of interaction that will help manage and consolidate their relations as well as create mutual understanding. Their political leaderships have also underlined that, today, there is a growing common interest which reiterates the recognition for a more equitable, international political and economic order. The Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a tri-annual collective dialog platform, launched in 2000 is taking this process forward. It may be noted that the FOCAC – alternately hosted in China and an African country – is where both sides address ongoing concerns and celebrate achievements, and China makes public pledges to the continent. For example it pledged $60 billion worth of varied support in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Strategists have pointed out that the FOCAC has evolved over the last two decades from a purely intergovernmental exercise to now also include actors from think tanks, scholarships and other forms of social exchanges and even security cooperation.

This process has resulted in China currently sharing comprehensive strategic partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The guiding principles and objectives of China’s relations with these African countries  emphasizes the following key elements: boosting African industrialization; modernizing African agriculture; participating in African infrastructure development; strengthening financial cooperation; facilitating further trade and investment; bolstering resource and energy cooperation; and lastly, expanding marine economy cooperation.

Analysts have on the other hand pointed out that in the context of trade and investment, ideological emphasis has made way for practical interests, including access to resources and markets. China has remained Africa’s largest individual trading partner since 2009. China–Africa trade reached US Dollar 185 billion in 2018, an increase from US Dollar 155 billion in 2017 and a huge leap from just about US Dollar10 billion in 2000. In 2018, exports to China were led by Angola and followed by South Africa and the Republic of the Congo. There has however been an expected 14% drop in China–Africa trade for the first quarter of 2020, due to the negative economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

Careful monitoring has indicated that African countries tend to import manufactured goods from China and export primary goods to it. The continent is also a potential market for Chinese firms (e.g. the giant telecoms firm, Huawei, provides affordable devices to consumers and assists the construction of digital infrastructure). Overall, Chinese foreign direct investment flows to Africa stood at $5.4 billion in 2018. On the other hand the US involvement in Africa has been steadily declining and was surpassed in 2014.

A quarter of Chinese investments since 2018 have targeted Nigeria and Angola, followed by Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. From a global perspective, Africa comes after Asia and Europe in terms of receiving investments from China. Nevertheless, some European socio-economists have drawn attention to the fact that China still needs to catch up to some European countries’ levels of investments in Africa. It may be mentioned here that according to a 2019 UN Conference on Trade and Development report, France was the largest investor in Africa in 2017 at about US Dollar 64 billion, while China stood at US Dollar 43 billion.

Africa, due to vast distances between cities has at present become closely linked to China’s vision for trans-regional connectivity and cooperation- the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). This is so because African financial institutions consider that the BRI’s priorities reflect those set out by the continent- as in the African Union’s (AU) Agenda 2063 which sets forth a long-term plan to optimize the continent’s resources, industrialization and, more recently, the drive for an African Continental Free Trade Area.

As expected, with its substantial industrial production capacity, China is now being considered by Africa as a suitable partner for assisting and supporting the building (and financing) of transport infrastructure – air travel, roads, ports and railways – that forms the very backbone of their initiatives. Within this parameter, China has already assisted in building the US Dollar 200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, which was inaugurated in 2012. Chinese construction companies and project financing are also largely involved in African power generation; ICT network infrastructure; mining; real estate; and transport, shipping and ports. All of these measures are directed towards boosting industrialization in Africa. In the meantime Chinese representatives have assured that Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and the Republic of the Congo will be the main demonstration countries for industrial cooperation. Additionally, South Africa is being projected as a locomotive for the continent’s industrialization efforts, while Angola, Egypt and Mozambique are considered partners in production capacity cooperation. In its own way this is slowly ending Taiwan’s diplomatic presence in Africa.

All the above elements are creating new dimensions and these are bound to influence geo-politics in Africa both in medium and long terms.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance