How has China’s involvement in African affairs changed over time, particularly within the last two decades?
Since the turn of the millennium China’s share of global GDP, trade—flows of all types, have gone up rapidly. If you look at a graph of China—Africa trade from 2000 to 2014, you see what looks like a ski slope. During the global financial crisis there was a slowdown, but this slowdown was temporary. Since 2014 the relationship has plateaued, but during this period there was rapid growth in trade, and a rapid increase in the number of exchanges between the Communist Party of China and African political parties. In the years since the creation of the Forum on China—Africa Cooperation, China has expanded its political engagement in Africa.
Although the trade relationship seems to have plateaued, the political relationship continues to grow. From a security perspective, we’re seeing increased relations, and developments as well. Port calls, military training exercises, and arms sales are increasing. An important question remains, what future areas of growth will there be after two decades of rapid expansion?
What are what are China’s strategic interests in Africa and the developing world more broadly? How do these regions of the world help China achieve its core interests?
The CCP conceives of China as country that got a raw deal in the international system—mistreated by Western powers, but has now risen, to its proper place of primacy in Asia. There’s a lot wrong with that narrative though. China’s leaders wish to support the Communist Party of China’s continued rule over China. It is always the first thing they wish to do. The CCP is a political organization whose objectives are primarily political. The CCP seeks to rule China, but also reduce anyone who might constrain either its ability to control China or its ability to expand influence abroad.
China refers to its interactions with the developing world as “the democratization of international relations”. China conceives of this concept as an expansion of international relations, or the spreading of international power across more smaller nations—a kind of normative power to constrain the United States. China engages developing countries and African countries, in part because it wishes to set new norms in the international system that the United States would then have to violate. Under Donald Trump we question whether norms mattered at all, but under the Biden administration, this strategy might be effective. This approach could result in a larger alliance of smaller countries aligned with China that may refuse to sign on to a “group of the willing”. The use of developing countries to speak out against U.S unilateral action is one thing that China is seeking to achieve.
How does China expect these relationships to foster its core interests? The CCP’s core interests can be understood primarily as territorial. China has laid claim to Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and other territorial regions. This is the number one objective. In getting the support of smaller nations, including African nations, the CCP is normalizing its control over these areas. Within the last decade I have not seen any African countries speak out against any of the issues that China considers its core national interests. So, China has been successful in getting African countries to at least be silent, or more often actually, parrot and support its claims.
How do African nations and developing nations benefit from this relationship?
China offers no strings attached-style arrangements. Now, if you were to invite the Dalai Lama over for dinner, the Chinese would be angry. It’s not that there are no strings attached—there are, it’s just not the strings that you might see with Western countries. There are no concerns about the abuse of human rights, the treatment of minorities, the press, or the subjugation of any group, in the sense that the CCP will still do business with you. If you are a regime that has no other allies, then there’s a benefit to the collaboration with China.
I call it financial flows, not investment, because these are mostly loans. Investments and loans present different dynamics. China has been engaged in both, but primarily loans. The Chinese are using a different approach than the U.S, but one that gets a lot of money to work quickly. African nations have a partner that can deliver timely results on infrastructure projects that they desperately need. These partnerships do come with risks. These countries may face large debts and other problems, but they now have access to resources to use for infrastructure projects that they didn’t have before. There is growing evidence, however, that China’s concessionary loans are growing less common, and that Chinese banks are relying on more commercial loans at higher interest rates.
How do Western and Chinese development models differ? Should Africa be a strategic priority for the West?
Our discourse often focuses on the necessity of security as a means for economic engagement, development investment, human rights, and rule of law—security then development. China takes the opposite approach. China often talks about developing your way into security. First you build the roads, then you build the shops—bottom up. Economic activity and then security. China has never needed a country to be completely secure before it collaborates with it. Their risk tolerance has been higher than a lot of Western investors and lenders. China has taken more risks because of a belief that it can develop countries out of their structural problems.
The government can also instruct its large state-owned enterprises to do as it asks. The United States government has no legal authority to instruct U.S businesses to go into Africa, it can incentivize those businesses through law, tax breaks, or tariff reduction. Individuals who run large Chinese state-run enterprises must obey government orders due to their position within the party state. China doesn’t have the same kind of bottom line or pressure from stockholders either. What if Citibank said “Josh, we are going to take your savings and invest it in African infrastructure”, what would happen to Citi stock? It would likely fall, and that’s a consequence that China’s state-run firms don’t have to deal with. For the U.S, Africa is at the bottom of the priority list. It should be more important, but for a variety of reasons it’s not. I don’t think it will be anytime soon.
What does the future of Chinese—African relations look like from a security or military perspective and how do these aspects of the relationship impact the rest of us?
The CCP will continue to attach importance to its political relations with African and other developing countries for the reasons I mentioned before. The lending flows that we’ve seen are not going to be at the same level they were for a variety of reasons. We’ll likely see more focus on technology and less on hard infrastructure. China will continue facing individual security risks on the ground. The bigger issue is the security cooperation relations that you might see between the PLA and African militaries, none of which are transparent. It represents an important aspect of the relationship. Ultimately, the economic relationship is going to stagnate, whereas the political and security relationship will continue to grow.
China has deep engagements that are driven by the CCP—everything from theater performances and kung fu shows to dumpling making. China’s level of engagement with Africa really is amazing. The West shouldn’t necessarily follow them in that, but we should understand that that they’re putting a lot into these relationships and networks. Every year since the 1980s the Chinese foreign minister’s first visit is to Africa—that says a lot. The U.S secretary of state probably makes that visit once every four years. That kind of high-level attention really is important, and for countries that were colonized it matters to them.
Joshua Eisenman is an Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. Eisenman’s research focuses on the political economy of China’s development and its foreign relations with the United States and the developing world—particularly Africa. His work has been published in top academic journals including World Development, Development and Change, Journal of Contemporary China and Cold War History, and in popular outlets such as Foreign Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy. His views have been cited in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist and The New Republic. Eisenman holds a PhD in political science from UCLA, an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and a BA in East Asian Studies from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.