China-Africa relations

What are China’s objectives in Africa, how valid is the concept of ‘debt trap’ diplomacy, and what are China’s military ambitions in the region?

Explainer Published 18 January 2023 7 minute READ

A brief history of China-Africa relations

Africa has been crucial to China’s foreign policy since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1947. China supported several African liberation movements during the Cold War, and for every year since 1950 bar one, the foreign minister of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has first visited an African country.

China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang visited five African countries and the African Union in January 2023. Wang Yi, the former foreign minister, visited 48 African countries and premier Xi Jinping undertook 10 visits to Africa between 2014 and 2020.

China-Africa relations are the bedrock of China’s foreign policy.

Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, speaking in December 2022

In 1971, the votes of African countries were instrumental in winning the PRC control of China’s seat in the UN General Assembly and Security Council – displacing representatives from Chinese nationalist forces, who had been defeated in the civil war and now governed Taiwan.

In the following decades, China’s focus in Africa switched to eliminating all remaining recognition for Taiwan’s government. Burkina Faso, Malawi, Liberia, Senegal and others all switched their recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. Eswatini is the only African nation still to recognize Taiwan’s government in 2023.

In 1999 China created its ‘Going Out’ strategy, which encouraged Chinese companies to invest beyond China.

The strategy was a statement of China’s growing economic might and created a new wave of Chinese engagement in Africa. It was also an important source of employment for Chinese citizens working on new infrastructure projects.

In November 2003 the first tri-annual Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit was held in Beijing. FOCAC was created to improve cooperation between China and African states and signalled China’s growing strategic initiative in Africa.

Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers his speech during the November 2021 China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Dakar, Senegal, pledging to offer one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa. Photo by SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images.

Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers his speech during the November 2021 China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Dakar, Senegal, pledging to offer one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa. Photo by SEYLLOU/AFP via Getty Images.

In 2013, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was launched by Xi Jinping, featuring an ambition to reinvigorate the old silk trading route along the East African coast. This should theoretically have seen Chinese investment concentrated in East Africa, but many other African states also sought opportunities through the BRI, making the initiative quickly expand in scope and ambition.

The BRI saw a huge number of signature infrastructure projects built across Asia and Africa, funded by Chinese loans whose size, nature and origin were often opaque. Some African countries became badly exposed to Chinese lending during this period. 

Chinese investment peaked around 2016. Since then, Chinese loans to African governments declined significantly, falling from $28.4 billion in 2016 to $1.9 billion in 2020 – partly due to changing priorities in domestic Chinese politics, and partly due to the apparent difficulty African countries had repaying loans.

China’s investment in Africa

China has taken a position contrary to Western governments in its African investment. It characterizes its loans as mutually beneficial cooperation between developing countries, promising not to interfere in the internal politics of those it loans to.

In this respect it presents itself in contrast to Western countries, who are accused by China and some African governments of arrogant, democratic posturing – often by former colonial powers that looted African resources during the 18th and 19th centuries.

China has learned by doing, and the reality of large-scale investments taught Chinese investors the limits of their approach. For instance, during the South Sudanese civil war, China had to deal with representatives of various forces opposed to the government to maintain the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline, operated by the China National Petroleum Corporation.

China has not made significant efforts to export communist ideology in Africa since the Cold War ended.

China has not made significant efforts to export communist ideology in Africa since the Cold War ended, claiming that Chinese communism could not be replicated outside of China.

However, ideological links exist between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the rulers of a state like Ethiopia, whose Prosperity Party has origins in ‘revolutionary democracy’ and Marxist-Leninism.

China’s National People’s Congress has formal relations with 35 African parliaments and the CCP International Liaison Department (ILD) has relations with 110 political parties in 51 African countries.

Western politicians have increasingly voiced fears that China’s intentions in Africa are predatory, intended to create a network of African states that are obliged to service their debts by offering China access to resources, trade opportunities and locations for military bases.

Debt trap diplomacy

US commentators often describe Chinese policy in Africa as a ‘debt trap’, part of a deliberate strategy to loan unmanageable sums to African countries, draw them into China’s sphere of influence, and force unfair commitments upon them.

Some African nations do have extensive Chinese loans and are suffering from out-of-control debt, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine, and high interest rates. But their situations cannot be entirely blamed on Chinese loans. States including Kenya and Zambia have poorly managed their debt to all creditors, not only China.

Meanwhile, other African countries have created realistic, manageable debt arrangements with China without the tremendous risk and uncertainties that characterized some major BRI projects.

China also faces significant problems due to its extensive loans made during the BRI boom period, as it will struggle to force repayment while maintaining its image as a friend of developing nations.

BRI projects were largely uncoordinated and unplanned, with credit offered by competing Chinese lenders. This contradicts the idea of a coherent ‘debt trap’ policy by China.

However, the idea that China may use debt strategically, to expand its influence in the African content and secure access to resources, cannot be completely dismissed. China is an emerging superpower in strategic competition with the US. Building stronger economic relationships in Africa would be a logical step in its aspirations to be a global power.

Article part 2

Chinese military bases in Africa

When it comes to its military bases, China places significant strategic focus on countries around the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Aden, including Djibouti, where it opened its first military facility outside China. This choice has received significant comment, as the base will only be six miles from a US military base in the same country.

The Chinese wanted a base on Africa to combat piracy. Also, following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in 2011, China experienced significant difficulties evacuating its citizens, which was a shock domestically.

China has also expanded its network of defence attaches in Africa, while increasing defence sales in the continent, which experienced 55 per cent growth between 2012 and 2017

What isn’t proven is that the Chinese are planning to open other bases on the African continent, despite rumours of plans for new bases in Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde. China could be looking at berthing rights in these countries for its naval vessels, but there is little evidence of plans for a full-fledged base so far.

China-Angola relations

Angola received significant Chinese investment following the end of its 30-year civil war in 2002. The war had devastated the country’s infrastructure and killed more than half a million people. But at the time Western interest was distracted by the ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Angola turned to China for help.

China agreed to provide infrastructure investment in return for oil, instigating a boom period for Chinese investment. This peeked in around 2013 with around 172,000 Chinese living in the country, working on infrastructure projects.

To Angola it made sense to mortgage its oil futures to rebuild –  also sourcing ‘commodity for infrastructure’ deals with Brazil and Israel.

Chinese investment brought good and bad outcomes. Chinese expertise delivered new infrastructure including stadia, hospitals, and urban developments. But it failed to provide a new, skilled African workforce, with most jobs reserved for Chinese workers. And the quality of infrastructure varied widely due to corruption at a local and provincial level.

In 2021, Angola was the most indebted country to China of any African state. In the same year, 72 per cent of all Angola’s oil exports went to China.

Article part 3

Aerial view of ongoing construction at Egypt's New Administrative Capital megaproject, 45 kilometres east of Cairo. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

Aerial view of ongoing construction at Egypt’s New Administrative Capital megaproject, 45 kilometres east of Cairo. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

China-Egypt relations

Egypt’s relationship with China goes back to the 1950s. Egypt was the first Arab and African country to establish direct diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1956. Weeks later, Beijing offered a $4.5 million grant to Egypt during the Suez Crisis – a symbolic act of solidarity.

Under Egyptian President Al-Sisi the relationship has deepened. Sisi visited China in 2014 to sign the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) – signing at least 25 bilateral agreements since then.

China was one of the first foreign countries to back Egypt’s project for a New Administrative Capital, with the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corp. signing a deal in 2015.

China is also Egypt’s first source of imports, while Egyptian exports to China more than doubled between 2010 and 2018. Egypt is estimated to have borrowed $3.4 billion from China between 2000 and 2017.

Kenya’s debt to China

China is Kenya’s biggest bilateral creditor. The majority relates to the $5.3 billion Standard Gauge Railway project, linking Nairobi to Mombasa.

Kenya’s problems servicing its Chinese debt has led to speculation that China could seize Mombasa Port in the event of a Kenyan default. China has received criticism from figures in the Kenyan government and media for its part in creating the problem.

However, Chinese loans are only one part of a rapid increase in Kenya’s public borrowing, which saw the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio surge to 69 per cent by 2020.

A recent deal has shown a more realistic approach to infrastructure cooperation in the country.

A Chinese company has built a new expressway in Nairobi under a $600 million build–operate–transfer model, with ownership reverting to Kenya after 30 years – a format familiar elsewhere in the world and using loans on a more manageable scale.

Zambia’s debt to China

China has a long relationship with Zambia dating back to support for the country’s independence from Britain in 1964. In the 1960s and 70s, Chinese aid built the TAZARA railway line between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia, representing a positive episode of solidarity and cooperation.

Chinese engagement in Zambia was greatly reduced for years, until the ‘Going Out’ strategy of the late 90s and 2000s, when investment surged, particularly in the mining sector where China sought access to resources, including copper, gold and manganese.

BRI projects in the country included a dam, railway, airports and hospitals. However, Zambia’s debt spiralled out of control, reaching almost $34 billion at the end of 2021 – around 133 per cent of GDP, according to the IMF. Of this, $16.8 billion was in foreign holdings.

China is Zambia’s biggest bilateral lender, holding roughly one-third of that debt – an issue of growing importance since the country defaulted on its external debt in 2020.
Chinese loans have become a significant political issue in the country.

In 2018 the Zambian opposition recognized Taiwan, claiming that the CCP was interfering in Zambian affairs. As a result, the Chinese ambassador threatened to withdraw investment.

The future of China Africa relations

In the past, China has aggressively pursued repayment of its debts from African countries, demanding first payment. But this approach creates real problems for China’s international standing as a champion of developing nations.

China’s best hope for protecting its reputation in Africa while reaching a reasonable financial settlement is to work to help countries in debt distress alongside the West, through multilateral organizations like the G20.

This will be difficult for China to agree to, having founded BRI deals based on strictly bilateral and often opaque agreements. It would also be problematic for a country in global strategic competition with the US, aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It is therefore critical that African nations ask China and the West to cooperate on debt distress, ideally speaking with one voice through institutions such as the African Union (AU).

An EU push for the AU to join the G20 could be an important step to creating equitable, cooperative solutions to debt distress between Africa, China and the West.