Delivered on February 9, 2007
Amid festering concerns about China's burgeoning global power,
Beijing has firmly set its sights on expanding its influence in
Africa. In a throwback to the Maoist revolutionary days of the
1960s and 1970s and the Cold War, Beijing has once again identified
the African continent as an area of strategic interest.
But this time, the People's Republic of China (PRC) is not
interested in exporting international communism. It is
international trade, economics, and political influence that have
got Beijing's rapt attention. The jury is still out about whether
China's strong engagement in Africa is a good or a bad thing. Some
have praised Chinese involvement in Africa, while others have
called it "neo-colonialism." There is no doubt that it is a subject
of intense discussion in Washington, D.C.
Just this week in the U.S. edition of the Financial
Times, in an editorial titled "No Panacea for Africa: China's
Influence Is Not an Alternative to Neo-Liberalism," the newspaper's
editorial staff wrote that "China's footprint in Africa becomes
more pronounced each time the continent receives another high-level
Chinese delegation." It continued:
President Hu Jintao's eight-nation tour of Africa this week has
been no exception. In its wake we can expect more roads, more
bridges, and airports, more oil deals, more credit and also more
Chinese labor on the continent. We can also expect more cheap
This article doesn't cover it all, but it is a pretty good place
to begin a discussion of recent Chinese activity in Africa.
What Does China Want in Africa?
It is clear they want something: In the last year, Chinese
leaders have visited half of Africa's countries. In fact, Beijing
declared 2006 the "Year of Africa" and promised to make their first
major high-level diplomatic trip of every year to Africa.
Indeed, this week, Chinese President Hu Jintao is on a 12-day,
eight-nation visit to Africa. In November of 2006, Beijing hosted a
major summit with African leaders, which nearly 50 African heads of
state attended. China lavished African leaders with diplomatic pomp
and circumstance, as well as promises of generous financial,
commercial, and military assistance. Its theme was "The Three
50s": 50 years of China-Africa relations, the existence of over 50
African nations, and $50 billion in bilateral Sino-African
Beijing has also written off at least $1 billion in African
debt, and more write-offs are expected. The World Bank believes
that the Chinese import-export bank has loans valued at nearly $13
billion in infrastructure projects in Africa alone. As a matter of
fact, the African Development Bank has chosen to hold its annual
summit in Shanghai this spring in recognition of China's
increasingly pivotal role in the region.
But China isn't doing all of this out of the kindness of its
heart. In fact, most might say that China is seeking new markets
for its export-driven economy-now the world's fourth largest. In
addition, China wants unimpeded-even exclusive-access to Africa's
abundant natural resources, especially sources of energy. And don't
forget: As a rising power, China is also keen on gathering
political influence in Africa.
A Few Words About Energy
Arguably, nothing is driving China into Africa more than its
quest to satisfy its insatiable appetite for oil and gas. For the
past decade, the Chinese economy has expanded annually at near
double-digit rates, requiring an enormous influx of natural
resources, especially energy.
China is now the world's second largest energy consumer, leading
Beijing to Africa's door in an effort-like the U.S.-to find new
sources of energy and reduce its reliance on volatile Middle
Eastern sources of oil and natural gas. Today, Africa provides
China with 30 percent of its energy imports, meeting 5 percent of
China's energy needs and rivaling the Middle East as a source of
Beijing is building ties with African energy suppliers through
investment, aid, high-level visits, and a strict policy of
"noninterference in internal affairs" that some African
governments under international scrutiny find comforting. The
People's Republic of China has invested billions in resource
development and infrastructure-and written off billions more in
debt-to help build friendly relationships with oil-rich African
countries. For instance:
- China has $3 billion invested in Nigerian oil, now the world's
eighth largest oil exporter.
- Beijing has at least $3 billion invested in the Sudanese energy
sector, for a total of $10 billion since the 1990s.
- In Angola, another African energy giant, a $2 billion credit
line for much-needed infrastructure projects secured Chinese access
to highly coveted offshore oil fields. Today, Angola is China's
biggest oil supplier, outpacing China's previous largest supplier,
While some are critical of China for seeking exclusive access to
oil and gas supplies in Africa, others applaud Beijing's
willingness to take risks in markets where some Western energy
firms can't-or won't-go for a variety of reasons, arguably adding
to world energy supplies, lowering prices, and benefiting
What About Politics?
Across the planet, China is aggressively seeking new friends and
allies and proving to be a less demanding alternative to the more
scrupulous relationships nations must have with the U.S. and
One of the places Chinais seeking political influence at the
expense of others is Africa. Think about it: With over 50 nations,
the countries of Africa represent more than one-quarter of the
United Nations General Assembly-a significant voting bloc.
Friendly relations with African nations can bring favorable
results for Chinese efforts at the United Nations or U.N. agencies
such as the World Trade Organization. They can even reduce the
number of states that diplomatically recognize Taiwan: There are
five countries in Africa that still recognize Taiwan.For
example, in recent years, African states have been pivotal in
preventing Taiwan from joining the World Health Organization and in
tabling a condemnation of Chinese human rights practices at the
U.N.'s Commission on Human Rights.
New Markets and Commercial
China also sees Africa as a potential market for its goods.
China-Africa trade soared to $56 billion last year, an increase of
40 percent over 2005, bringing critical revenue to some of the
world's poorest nations. The Chinese economy is still
export-driven, and Beijing must continue to find and develop new
markets to ensure that its economy continues to grow and draw
foreign direct investment.
Today, there are over 800 Chinese companies operating in nearly
all African nations. Anecdotally, I've heard stories that in some
cases, market penetration and influence are more important than
profits for Chinese companies operating in Africa.
Unfortunately, China's activities in Africa are not without
controversy. Some applaud Chinese engagement in Africa, saying it
brings in billions in aid, loans, and credits-all reportedly
without political conditions. Others, disillusioned with Western
leaders, think China might better understand the unique problems of
African underdevelopment. Some say that diplomatically, the Chinese
treat them as equals.
Some Africans and Chinese find common ground in the view that
the West's historical experiences in achieving development are
distant from the African experience. They add that the Western
model offers too few transferable lessons for Africa and has
generated too few dramatic success stories in Africa to be worthy
of further consideration.
Beijing supports this notion by promoting the idea that
engagement with the West is overly moralizing, conditional, and
overly bureaucratic. Moreover, paraphrasing from the Council on
Foreign Relations 2005 report on Africa, China is also investing
and providing assistance in areas that Western aid agencies have
long neglected-physical infrastructure, industry, and
The CFR report also says that China offers African nations a
financing alternative to Western donors, the International Monetary
Fund, and the World Bank, providing choices these countries might
not otherwise have. As a Nigerian government commerce official
said, "The U.S. will talk to you about governance, efficiency,
about security, about the environment. The Chinese just ask: How do
we procure this license." Many African governments also like the
Chinese policy of "non-interference" in their internal affairs.
But Beijing's involvement in Africa also has its critics,
including the Africans.
PRC firms underbid local African companies, and Chinese
contractors often use cheap, imported Chinese labor. Some contracts
require 70 percent Chinese labor, adding little to local employment
or skill development.
Moreover, cheap Chinese goods flood African markets, especially
textiles, stifling markets that Africans are trying to develop,
causing unemployment, and shuttering factories across the
continent. And concessionary PRC soft loans have put the
International Monetary Fund and other bank projects on hold due to
concerns about economic mismanagement and corruption.
More specifically, South African President Thabo Mbeki recently
cautioned that China risks replicating in Africa a "colonial
relationship" of the kind that existed under white rule. Those are
pretty strong words, especially coming in advance of the visit of
the Chinese president.
Even though South Africa is China's largest trading partner,
local labor officials have blamed unemployment problems on cheap
Chinese clothing imports. In Zambia, where China has significant
copper mining interests, there has been a political backlash
against the Chinese over labor practices. In fact, a Zambian
presidential contender last year ran on a political platform wholly
criticizing Chinese presence in the country.
According to The Wall Street Journal, anti-Chinese
sentiment bordering on racism is also bubbling over in Namibia,
Zimbabwe, Angola, and Lesotho.
A Kenyan professor warned of Chinese hegemony in Africa and
asserted that Beijing is pursuing its own narrow self-interests on
the continent-interests that benefit only Africa's elites. Some
African critics see China as assisting African governments to
oppress their own people and complain about the Chinese failure to
engage in efforts to build African civil society and civil society
institutions, ignoring public opinion and needs.
There is also concern about China's promotion of its economic
model and lending practices. Beijing actively promotes its
development model in Africa, based on a limited market economy
controlled by an authoritarian government. In some cases, it has
become fashionable for African leaders to argue that China's
embrace of the continent offers them a new economic development
model that rejects the practices of the Western free market.
Many African regimes, desperate to invigorate their struggling
economies while maintaining a strong grip on political power, find
China's modernization model preferable to difficult free-market and
democratic reforms advocated by the U.S. and the European Union.
Many think this is a mistake. The same Financial Times
editorial that I mentioned earlier warned that while the Chinese
may attempt to reassure their new African partners that economic
development is compatible with authoritarianism, Africans should
not turn away from free markets.
There is also mounting concern that Chinese lending practices
are undermining international debt-relief strategies that have
dramatically reduced the debt burden in Africa. The fear is that
Chinese lending practices may result in the rapid reestablishment
of an unsustainable level of debt in Africa once again. Last
October, the World Bank president expressed the worry that many of
Africa's poorest countries may be incurring excessive new debt as a
result of unconditional loans made by Chinese banks. The U.S.
Treasury Department put a finer point on it, calling China a "rogue
creditor" practicing "opportunistic lending."
China in Sudan and Zimbabwe
China's involvement with Sudan and Zimbabwe is a glaringly
troubling issue for the international community. Sudan, perhaps,
represents the most troubling example of China's new Africa policy,
where Beijing combines its drive for exclusive access to African
natural resources with an aggressive political campaign
to ingratiate itself with controversial regimes.
While the U.S., the European Union, Japan, and others sought to
impose U.N. sanctions on the Sudanese regime over Khartoum's
support for what many are now calling a genocide in Darfur-in which
450,000 have died and 2.5 million are homeless-China strenuously
opposes Security Council sanctions. Why, you might ask? Some
believe that China was hoping to prevent international economic
sanctions from interfering with Beijing's $3 billion investment in
Sudan's oil and gas industry.
Tragically, Khartoum has doubled its defense budget in recent
years, spending 60 percent to 80 percent of its estimated $500
million in annual oil revenue-half from China-on weapons. Some of
these weapons find their way to the conflict in Darfur. Moreover,
with Chinese assistance, the Sudanese government recently built
three weapons factories, complicating international arms embargos
The comment of the former Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister
reflects Beijing's Africa policy: "Business is business. We try to
separate politics from business. Secondly, I think the internal
situation in the Sudan is an internal affair, and we are not in a
position to impose upon them."
In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe's repeated political and
human rights abuses led the U.S. and the European Union to impose
punitive sanctions against the regime. The PRC's response was to
sell Zimbabwe over $200 million worth of fighter aircraft and
military vehicles. Beijing also provided equipment for jamming
anti-government media broadcasts from inside and outside the
country and gave electronic surveillance equipment to Harare's
security services to monitor political opponents.
Zimbabwe, the world's second largest exporter of platinum, also
gets China's support internationally. In 2005, Britain and the U.S.
backed yet another U.N. Security Council resolution condemning
Mugabe's policies. Meanwhile, Mugabe flew to Beijing, seeking a
handout for his beggared economy and Chinese support at the U.N.,
which Beijing gave, killing the resolution.
China's support for African leaders like Mugabe and Sudan's
Bashir lends these leaders legitimacy both at home and abroad,
blunting pressure on human rights, economic openness, and political
On the evidence, it seems clear that China is rapidly expanding
its influence in Africa to secure access to natural resources, to
expand Beijing's political influence, and even to increase its
international commercial markets through generous but
self-serving diplomatic, financial, and military assistance.
Chinese policies are also troubling, especially when they support
authoritarian African regimes, hinder local economic development,
and exacerbate conflicts and human rights abuses in countries such
as Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Unfortunately, China's broad energy, trade, political,
diplomatic, and-yes-military interests and activities in Africa
threaten to undermine long-standing international efforts to
promote regional peace, prosperity, and democracy in Africa.
Africa's traditional European colonial and American partners
now find their vision of a continent governed by free-market
democracies and the rule of law challenged by Beijing's scramble
for influence and resources.
While China has the potential for doing good in Africa, the
question becomes: "Is China's approach the answer to Africa's
problems or is it just a replay of Africa's colonial,
mercantilistic relationship with Europe?" Or is it something
completely different? Perhaps it is too early to tell.
As a scholar from a prominent South African think tank recently
put it, "China is both a tantalizing opportunity and a terrifying
is something both the Africans and the international community will
be struggling to understand and deal with as China deepens its
involvement in Africa in the years to come.
Peter Brookes is Chung
Ju-Yung Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs in the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered in Las
Palmas, Spain, on February 9, 2007.
Walt, "China's Appetite for African Oil Grows," Fortune,
February 15, 2006, at .
Trofimov, "New Management: In Africa, China's Expansion Begins to
Stir Resentment; Investment Boom Fuels 'Colonialism' Charges; A
Tragedy in Zambia," The Wall Street Journal, February 2,
2007, p. A1.
for Africa," Financial Times, February 6, 2007, p. 12.
Callick, "Wolfowitz Holds Beijing to Account over Africa," The
Australian, October 25, 2006, at ;
see also World Bank, "Paul Wolfowitz-Interview with Les Echos,"
October 19, 2006, at
Phillips, "G-7 to Warn China over Costly Loans to Poor Countries,"
The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2006, p. A2.
French, "China in Africa: All Trade and No Political Baggage,"
The New York Times, August 8, 2004.