The U.S. Should Call China’s “Non-Interference” Policy in Africa What It Is—A Myth

Report Global Politics

The U.S. Should Call China’s “Non-Interference” Policy in Africa What It Is—A Myth

July 6, 2018 9 min read Download Report
Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey
Former Research Fellow, Africa
Joshua studied African geopolitics, counterterrorism, and refugee policy at The Heritage Foundation.


Only one African country now maintains relations with Taiwan after Burkina Faso’s recent decision to sever ties in favor of China. The defection is the latest reminder that Beijing is willing to meddle in its African partners’ affairs despite frequently insisting that it follows a non-interference policy. This interference is likely to continue, and China’s pervasive influence on the continent will increasingly enable it to bend countries to its frequently illiberal goals. To provide a mutually beneficial alternative to African countries, the U.S. should increase its engagement with Africa; reorient the focus of some extant initiatives; advocate for rule of law, the free-market system, and individual freedom; and prioritize the fight against corruption.

Key Takeaways

Beijing’s claims of “non-interference” in other countries’ internal affairs have always been false.

China’s pervasive influence in Africa will increasingly enable it to bend the continent’s countries to its often-illiberal goals.

The U.S. should highlight the attractiveness of the governance and economic model it exemplifies while pointing out the disadvantages of the Chinese model.

A Supposed Policy of Non-Interference

China’s ostensible non-interference principle began in 1954 as one of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence negotiated between China and India during their settlement of differences over Tibet.REF During a tour of ten African nations beginning in 1964, Zhou Enlai—China’s first premier—presented the principles as those that would steer Chinese relations with Africa.REF The non-interference principle remains a key piece of Beijing’s narrative in Africa, frequently contrasted with the U.S.’s approach of urging partner countries to respect human rights and deliver good governance.

Burkina Faso’s recent decision to sever ties with Taiwan is a reminder of how Beijing’s carefully cultivated narrative is misleading. Since a new Algerian government reciprocated Chinese help by publicly supporting China’s claims on Taiwan in 1960,REF Beijing has pressured its African partners to align with its One China policy. In 1963, 13 African countries maintained ties with Taiwan, compared to only five that recognized Beijing. All told, 30 African countries at one time or another have had relations with Taiwan.REF After Burkina Faso’s defection in May 2018, only Swaziland—of Africa’s 54 countries—now recognizes Taiwan.

Beijing’s campaign to pressure Taiwan’s African partners to fall in line with the One China policy has included overt meddling in their affairs. In 2006, the Chinese ambassador to Zambia publicly announced that Chinese companies were withholding investments, and that Beijing might cut ties with Lusaka, if Zambians elected the pro-Taiwanese candidate for the Zambian presidency, Michael Sata.REF In 2003, China sent troops to participate in the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Liberia after that country cut ties with Taiwan. Contrast that response with Beijing’s use of its U.N. Security Council veto to hamper peacekeeping operations to countries that recognized Taiwan.REF

China also interferes on other issues. Beijing threatened both South Africa and Botswana over their plans to allow a visit from the spiritual leader of the Tibetan enclave, the Dalai Lama. The pressure caused South Africa to three times refuse the Dalai Lama a visa.REF Before the Dalai Lama’s scheduled visit to Botswana, Beijing invited a group of Botswanan journalists and intellectuals to China in an apparent attempt to persuade them to oppose the visit. Botswanan President Ian Khama said that Beijing even warned that it would recall its ambassador and work with other African nations to isolate Botswana if the Dalai Lama visited.REF

Beijing has also taken sides in African conflicts. In Ghana during the 1960s, its instructors in guerrilla warfare trained revolutionaries from across Africa, some of whom were trying to overthrow post-colonial African governments.REF At one time or another, China supported all three of the major rebel groups in Angola fighting a civil war, and allegedly supplied weapons to the post-genocide government in Rwanda, as well as the shadow government in exile in eastern Zaire trying to overthrow the new Rwandan government.REF China also aided the Sudanese government’s brutal campaign against its Darfur region by supplying Khartoum with arms in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

Most recently, Chinese diplomats have been trying to negotiate an end to the civil war in South Sudan, including by engaging with rebel leader Riek Machar. Credible reporting indicates that Beijing approved the coup that unseated long-time dictator and Chinese ally Robert Mugabe in November 2017.REF

Expect Further Interference

China’s meddling in its African partners’ domestic affairs will likely continue. In March 2015, China’s foreign minister said that Beijing wished to “play a constructive role in the political settlement of international and regional issues.”REF This followed then-President Hu Jintao’s 2012 assertion at the Forum for China–Africa Cooperation that China wanted to participate in efforts to bring peace and stability to Africa.REF

China’s rhetoric sounds appealing, and it may yet have a constructive role in helping end African conflicts. But Beijing believes that African states should follow its own authoritarian model to achieve stability, challenging the core U.S. interest of encouraging the growth of global democracy. Beijing also wishes to diminish U.S. influence in favor of its own, and frequently seeks to frustrate U.S. interests.REF

Beijing increasingly has the influence to bend African countries to its will. China is the greatest source of imports for 19 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries, up from being the largest import source for only one sub-Saharan African country in 2001.REF In 2015, Chinese loans issued between 2013 and 2015 constituted an estimated one-third of all new debt in sub-Saharan Africa.REF Beijing also cultivates influence in Africa through a range of military cooperation activities and an increasing number of soft-power initiatives.REF

The Way Forward

Many countries try to shape other countries’ internal politics in a favorable direction. Unlike other countries, however, China has made its supposed non-interference policy a central part of its messaging to Africa. The U.S. should highlight the truth of Chinese interference in African countries’ affairs, and simultaneously communicate and demonstrate the benefits for African states of its own model. To do so, the U.S. should:

  • Increase its engagement with Africa and reorient the focus of some extant initiatives. Such measures should include focusing the U.S.’s overseas development assistance on enhancing countries’ free-market systems and encouraging accountable and competent governance; increasing the efficiency of U.S. aid by eliminating “buy American” provisions and subsidies to U.S. shipping companies that deliver aid; boosting trade beyond the African Growth and Opportunity Act; and making the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit a regular event.REF
  • Advocate for foundational American values. The U.S. should take every opportunity to communicate to African publics and leaders how its system promotes the values proven to best facilitate human flourishing: representative government, rule of law, free markets, and individual freedom. The U.S. should also remind African publics and leaders that Chinese claims of non-interference are hollow, and that Beijing’s interference is pushing their countries in an illiberal, repressive direction.
  • Prioritize the fight against African corruption. Steps to win that fight include helping countries strengthen their civil societies, promoting economic freedom, leveraging technology and the power of public opinion, and elevating the fight against graft as part of U.S. development assistance.REF

Debunk the Non-Interference Myth

Chinese interference in African countries’ domestic affairs frequently advances illiberal goals opposed to U.S. interests that are also detrimental to most Africans, and its meddling is likely to continue and be effective. In what must be a long-term, strategic effort, the U.S. needs to marshal all of its resources to meet the challenges Chinese activity in Africa presents. Debunking the myth of Beijing’s “non-interference” policy is a good place to start.

—Joshua Meservey is Senior Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.


Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey

Former Research Fellow, Africa