Small Wars Journal

China in Africa: Implications for U.S. Policy

The alarm bell has been ringing for some time on China's involvement on the Dark Continent. The "People's" Republic of China's interest in Africa is not new... (Peter Brookes and Ji Hye Shin in a 2006 Heritage Foundation Backgrounder):

In the 1960s and 1970s, Beijing's interest centered on building ideological sol¬idarity with other underdeveloped nations to advance Chinese-style communism and on repelling Western "imperialism." Following the Cold War, Chinese interests evolved into more pragmatic pursuits such as trade, investment, and energy.

In recent years, Beijing has identified the African continent as an area of significant economic and strategic interest. America and its allies and friends are finding that their vision of a prosperous Africa governed by democracies that respect human rights and the rule of law and that embrace free markets is being challenged by the escalating Chinese influence in Africa.

... but should concern us now more than ever. The "why" was provided yesterday by Thomas Christensen and James Swan in their statement before the Subcommittee on African Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Christensen is Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and Swan is Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs - two who should be in the know about such matters. The transcript of their statement can be found here.

John B. Dwyer, an author and professional military historian as well as a frequent contributor to American Thinker, took the time to "boldly" emphasize an excerpt of the testimony's important take-aways in an e-mail I received earlier today:

The composition of China's involvement in Africa has changed greatly over the past decade. Whereas the foundation for China's early interaction with Africa was the promotion of a shared leftist, anti-colonial ideology, the common ground now is mostly a convergence of economic interests in a global trading system. In many ways, China's successful embrace of market-based economics and openness to most aspects of globalization can be a positive example for African nations. There also have been significant increases in two-way tourism, academic and non-governmental exchanges, and diplomatic initiatives. China has even modeled many of its engagement programs after very successful U.S. exchanges on the continent. For example, historically, the United States has identified young emerging political and economic African leaders for exchange programs in the United States under something known as the "international visitors program." China is now doing the same thing -- identifying members of parliament, local entrepreneurs, and well-placed government officials in such key ministries as Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, and Trade and Commerce for training and exchange programs in Beijing. China also funds trips by local traders and businesspeople to Africa to source Chinese consumer products. It funds sports teams and provides equipment for aspiring African Olympians. Since the year 2000, China's primary public relations vehicle for promoting its African presence is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which is held every three years.

China's increased economic and commercial activity in Africa raises a variety of issues that African, Chinese, and other international experts are examining. Some Africans worry that the influx of low-cost goods from China undercuts local industry. We also hear concerns that Chinese infrastructure projects underutilize indigenous labor, finance, and resources. Chinese projects often employ imported Chinese workers and utilize imported raw materials. Observers have warned that China's assistance efforts in Africa, which emphasize 'no strings' and are not predicated on the same kinds of conditionality as other countries' aid programs, could endanger progress in promoting good governance and market reform in Africa. As Chinese companies' presence on the continent expands, they will increasingly be expected to bolster indigenous capacity and contribute to long-term development. The U.S. government would like to engage the Chinese on how their economic policies in Africa can help produce better results for sustainable economic development if they conform to the international community's broader initiatives for Africa. We remain steadfast in our belief that strong democratic institutions and protection of fundamental human rights are the foundations for sustainable economic growth.

We remain concerned with a general lack of transparency regarding China's foreign assistance practices in Africa, and are encouraging Beijing to more fully engage with other major bilateral and multilateral actors to ensure that aid supports the efforts of responsible African governments to be responsive to their people's needs...

China has pledged up to 300 military engineers, of whom 140 have been dispatched, making China the first non-African Troop Contributing Country to deploy in Darfur. China has also become more involved in responding to the humanitarian crisis, providing some direct assistance and donating U.S. $1.8 million U.S. dollars to the Darfur region and the African Union Special Mission.

We have welcomed this positive change in Chinese policy, but have also told China frankly that it could do a lot more. The Sudanese Government continues to use violence against civilians and rebels in Darfur, and renege on key elements of the UNAMID deployment. China enjoys significant influence with the Government of Sudan due to its investments in the country's energy sector, and we have asked China to exercise its leverage to pressure Khartoum to work toward a negotiated solution in Darfur.

We have also asked the Chinese government to halt its companies' substantial arms trade with Sudan because of the likelihood that some Chinese-origin armaments are being used by the Sudanese government in Darfur, in contravention of UNSCR 1591. The proliferation of lethal conventional weapons in Africa contributes to instability and endangers China's long-term interests on the continent. In the same spirit we have pushed the Chinese government to reconsider the wisdom of retaining close military relations with repressive regimes on the continent. Perceptions of Chinese support of African leaders such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, who rule through guns and intimidation, harms China's image and undermines it ability to play the role of responsible stakeholder in Africa's affairs.

Definitely food for thought as we -muddle through the- standup -of- US AFRICOM and attempt to build a "different type of command".


Erickiss (not verified)

Wed, 07/23/2008 - 9:52pm

There has been a lot of commentary on China in Africa. It does certainly present a Challenge for US power and influence in the region. However, I feel that China, while gaining access to Africa's resources, it will also incur the burdens of its own emerging colonial legacy.

Mbeki has already warned against China becoming the newest colonial master in Africa.

Indigenous groups have already threatened the Chinese in Sudan.

I think that China will run into odds with local people, especially as resentment grows concerning unequal benefits between the Chinese immigrants and Africans.

The price of maintaining security in China will eventually weaken China's position in the region. They will either have to bear the cost themselves or they will have to look to the international community for help to help share the cost.

Major Eric Kiss
US Army CGSC ILE Class 08-003

Kha Nguyen

Fri, 06/06/2008 - 3:51pm

I will second prescotrip note of caution about overblowing the influence of China.

I don't have any links but would also direct people to look at further articles on how feasible China's search for oil in Africa is, as well as the Chinese involvement in Africa by developing telecommunications. Just look up the word "Huawei" and Africa. If anything, the Chinese development of this piece of crucial infrastructure in Africa, I say will have more power in the long run than perhaps strong, but probably ignored, pushes for governments like Sudan to reform its humanitarian policies.


Fri, 06/06/2008 - 2:34pm

Thanks rjp - appreciate the additional reading that provides a broader view of the PRC's Africa activities and the perceptions of Africans.


Fri, 06/06/2008 - 12:31pm

rjp: the concern is definitely merited, but see the following articles -- apparently the Africans are already wakening to the shortcomings of this outreach...

May / June 2008
Foreign Policy "When China Met Africa"

Summer 2007
Washington Quarterly "The Tenuous Hold of China Inc. in Africa"


Thu, 06/05/2008 - 9:17pm

jftiv - part of the territory for the PRC - good additional point in regards to the 'grand scheme of things' - thanks.


Thu, 06/05/2008 - 8:17pm

Don't misunderestimate the pressure China puts on African countries to pull their embassies out of Taiwan in exchange for aid, trade, etc.