Africa’s Chinese Challenge – Towards a More Sustainable Partnership

by Caroline Bartel

On December 4–5, 2015, Chinese and African leaders and ministers will gather in Johannesburg to open the sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). For China, it will be an opportunity to set its African policy for the following three years. For African countries, the summit challenges them to insist on their own agenda. Being confronted with numerous media articles predicting China’s questionable objectives on the continent, the FOCAC meeting presents an opportunity to take a deeper look into Sino-African relations and their respective intentions.

Since 2000, bilateral trade and investment figures between the People’s Republic of China and African countries have risen continuously. This tremendous increase was heavily influenced by China’s need for raw materials to boost the country’s growth and therefore to ensure stability within the country. Equally important was the opening of the African market to Chinese consumer goods. While China’s trade and investment data in Africa is impressive, however, it is important to keep in mind Western countries’ figures as well. China’s investment in Africa only accounts for 4.4% of the total Foreign Direct Investment the continent receives, with Western countries being by far the biggest investors.

Looking back at China’s financial commitment of USD 20 billion in 2012, it is very likely that China will once again boost its budget for Africa, which has been the trend of the FOCAC meetings since 2006. As at previous summits, this year’s meeting will focus considerably on the achievements of the past three years. Against this backdrop, the triennial ministerial FOCAC summit, launched in 2000, has taken place under the umbrella of discussing issues of common concern to both regions.

Taking into account the fact that China is still far from being the most important actor in the region, it may seem surprising that its engagement draws so much attention. Apart from its increasingly strong presence in the economic field, China has also enhanced its soft power in the region. In June 2015, the International Business Times reported that Chinese language classes as well as Sino-African exchange programs have become increasingly popular among African nations such as Nigeria. This development is significant, and as confirmed earlier in August by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think-tank, it has contributed to Western agitations over China’s intentions in the region.


Instead of providing financial aid, the Chinese development model for Africa consists of increasing trade with African states. This approach has been highly criticized by Western actors for several reasons. First, China’s policy of non-intervention raises concerns over its focus on countries with poor governance. Furthermore, China’s infrastructure investment in these countries is mainly directed towards linking up mines instead of facilitating trade between African countries. Nor has the establishment of numerous business opportunities for Chinese firms resulted in significant job creation for the local population. Far from it: Chinese labor is imported to Africa in order to work on various infrastructure-related projects. According to a South-African-based survey analyzed last year by the Wall Street Journal, this in turn has sparked dissatisfaction amongst the local population, who not only face Chinese competition in the labor market, but also have to deal with a deteriorating environment and cheap imports from China. A large number of small and medium-sized African businesses have been forced to close down, as a result, creating further discontent.

All these issues have augmented Western fears of a rising Chinese presence in Africa. If China manages to present itself as a more reliable partner in the region, tensions could possibly be resolved, leading to a profitable outcome for all actors concerned. For example, China could take another step back from its principle of non-intervention and enhance its presence in conflict-resolution. Indeed, it has already proved itself capable of doing so in the case of its United Nations peacekeeping forces in South Sudan. Additionally, in order to stimulate the local labor market, Chinese companies could agree to fill a percentage of their workforce with locally hired laborers. This in turn would improve relations between Chinese and African populations. If China manages to tackle these issues, it is conceivable that Western actors might be willing to further their inclusion of China in multilateral bodies, thereby creating a more amicable environment for cooperation. On top of that, Western actors themselves could make a greater effort to play a more significant role alongside China. Measures such as these would lead to increased competition and pressure China to offer a more sustainable partnership under better conditions to their African partners.

Instead of focusing on external actors, however, it is important to start rethinking how African countries can maximize their benefits in this relationship. To begin with, actors such as the African Union could further concentrate on domestic gains in Sino-African relations in order to enhance effective coordination among African countries. Consequently, Africa could ensure the best possible outcome of China’s dealings in the region. While China is on the financing side of the partnership and therefore seems to be holding all the cards, African countries ought to bear in mind China’s strategic considerations. Being in dire need of allies, African countries offer valuable political support to China. Finally, by engaging in local manufacturing of certain goods currently being imported from China, African countries could create an export market for products rather than solely raw materials.

The FOCAC summit taking place in the South African metropolis this year presents an important opportunity for African leaders to redefine the balance of power between China and the continent. Observing the outcomes of December’s meeting in light of China’s economic slowdown, also called the “new normal” by China’s president Xi Jinping, will be especially intriguing. In an attempt to ease criticism, China will try to adapt its approach to Africa. As for Africa, its interests could be better served by further pushing their Chinese counterparts to modify their policies towards more diversified economic areas, such as generating employment and technology transfer. It will be interesting to see to what extent African leaders manage to boost their development priorities, and similarly whether Chinese leaders can promote a more mutually beneficial exchange.

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