Policy Paper

Africa in China’s Foreign Policy

By Yun Sun
in Program

During the past decade, China’s rapidly growing presence in Africa has increasingly become a topic for debate in the international media and among economists and policy analysts. While China’s unique economic approach to Africa meets the African countries’ need for funding and infrastructure projects, the model has been widely criticized. In particular, China’s natural resource-backed loans raise questions about the continent’s future and its capacity for sustainable development.


Studies of China’s Africa strategy (or lack thereof) have been overwhelmingly focused on China’s economic interests in Africa, the role played by Chinese government and companies, and the economic and social impacts of such activities on the ground. With a few exceptions, there is a strong tendency to assert moral judgments in the assessment: China’s activities in Africa are often characterized as “evil” when they are seen as representing China’s selfish quest for natural resources and damaging Africa’s fragile efforts to improve governance and build a sustainable future. However, they are characterized as “virtuous” when they are seen as contributing to a foundation for long-term economic development through infrastructure projects and revenue creation.

While economic issues are important to the strategic positioning of Africa in China’s overall foreign policy, Africa’s broader role in China’s international agenda is yet to be thoroughly explored. As China becomes a global economic and political power, a simplistic perception of Africa as China’s supplier of raw materials inevitably neglects other key aspects of Africa within China’s global strategy. Furthermore, even as China’s goals and policies have become more diversified, little effort has been spent examining China’s internal bureaucratic processes by which political, economic and security decisions are made regarding its Africa policy. This paper seeks to examine these largely unexamined basic, internal elements of China’s Africa policy.

China seeks to satisfy four broad national interests in its relations with the continent. Politically, China seeks Africa’s support for China’s “One China” policy and for its foreign policy agendas in multilateral forums such as the United Nations. Economically, Africa is seen primarily as a source of natural resources and market opportunities to fuel China’s domestic growth. From a security standpoint, the rising presence of Chinese commercial interests in Africa has led to growing security challenges for China, as the safety of Chinese investments and personnel come under threats due to political instability and criminal activities on the ground. Last but not least, China also sees an underlying ideological interest in Africa, as the success of the “China model” in non-democratic African countries offers indirect support for China’s own political ideology and offers evidence that Western democratic ideals are not universal.

The popular focus on China’s vast economic endeavors in Africa (especially in the extractive industries) seems to suggest that Africa is somehow “critical” for China. In reality, Africa accounts for only a tiny percentage of China’s overall foreign economic activities: China’s investment in and trade with Africa represents 3 percent and 5 percent of its global investment and trade, respectively. Politically, the continent is of small importance to China’s foreign policy agenda, with Africa playing a largely supportive role in China’s overall international strategy. Rather than being seen as “key” or a “priority,” Africa is seen to be part of the “foundation” on which China’s broader strategic ambitions are built. Compared with the “struggle” with big powers or China’s strenuous relationship with its neighbors, Sino-African relations have been relatively smooth and free of major disturbances, thanks to a shared sense of historical victimization by Western colonial powers and a common identity/affinity as developing countries. The nature of Sino-African ties is largely transactional and reciprocal.

Given the general low priority of Africa in China’s foreign policy agenda, Africa issues rarely reach the highest level of foreign policy decision making in the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus. In practice, policymaking specific to Africa happens mostly at the working level and is divided among several government agencies, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) taking the lead on political affairs and economic affairs, respectively. On security issues such as U.N. peacekeeping operations, naval escort missions and evacuation missions, the Chinese military plays a significant role in coordination with MFA and MOFCOM. On issues under the mandate of specific government agencies, such as Chinese medical, agricultural or technical assistance to Africa, the policy is coordinated among MFA, MOFCOM and the agency directly involved.

China’s Africa strategy is not free of problems or controversies. The most vocal criticism inside the Chinese policy community is that China fundamentally lacks an Africa strategy and commercial interests have overtaken (and even undercut) other national interests. There is a constant tension between the narrow, mercantilist pursuit of economic interests in Africa and that pursuit’s impact on the overall health of the Sino-African relationship and China’s international image. Bureaucratically, this partly contributes to the abrasive competition between MFA and MOFCOM for the leading role in China’s policy toward Africa. This conflict is most evident on the issue of China’s foreign aid to Africa.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of China’s commercial actors in Africa in recent years has made government supervision and management particularly challenging. Beijing’s inability to cope with the rapidly expanding Chinese presence in Africa is exacerbated by the lack of political risk assessment and the absence of a comprehensive commercial strategy for Africa. The resolution of these issues will determine the nature and content of China’s future policy toward Africa while exerting critical influence over the future development of the continent.

The paper can be accessed here

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