The increased involvement -direct and indirect- of China in Africa is seen as one of the more significant developments on the continent, especially over the recent decade. The relations between China and Africa are also an apparent contradiction to the widely pushed idea that certain African countries as well as China face international marginalization as opposed to the significant economic and political consequences that have been recorded. The strategy has so far been based on the concept of multipolarity, furthermore, the debt relief and infrastructural collaboration between China and African countries have proven to be advantageous to policy makers and state leaders. Additionally, with the absence of preconditions in financial engagements, China has been a preferable alternative to the conditional assistance from European governments and institutions. This has also provided China with valuable diplomatic support that is crucial when defending its international interests.
Conversely, the great-power conflict has inspired the ramp up of geopolitical machinations mostly at the expense of African governments that have yet to consolidate the power and advantage of the position they hold when considering the significant role played, vis-à-vis being the treasure trove of resources that have been foundational to global industrial revolution for centuries.
From the perspective of Euro-American powers, China’s surge in activity and ‘popularity’ in Africa represents a direct challenge to their political and economic dominance in the continent, a status quo that is jealously protected. This is clearly demonstrated in the US government’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy as well as the newly minted ‘Great Power Conflict’ doctrine that states a shift in focus for national security; from fighting and leading the failed war on terror to focusing of the rise of ‘great powers’ i.e., Russia and China. The move is also considered an implicit admission that Asia and the Pacific are quickly becoming the global socioeconomic center of gravity. On the other hand, Europe sees that policy changes of the US government and the surge of China in Africa as a reminder to re-emphasize itself as a prominent element on the continent, it also seeks to ensure that as a lesser ally to the US, it does not come into direct competition while trying to ensure its regional interests.
On the diplomatic front, China and Africa have been making inroads towards strengthening ties on a consistent basis, from diplomatic tours to financial and economic commitments, countries such as Zimbabwe, Djibouti, Burundi, and Eritrea have been host to the Foreign Affairs Minister of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Wang Yi. While such visits or tours can be critiqued as symbolic, it must be noted that African governments act upon the material premise of what China has achieved with its economy such as raising over 600 million people out of poverty and essentially eliminating chronic hunger from the urban areas of the country.
With the so-called great-power conflict as context, China-Africa relations are considered alternative and ultimately opposed to the pre-existing relations that African governments have had with Euro-American powers that profess value for democracy and respect for human rights but in practice amount to imperialist designs that interfere with, and dominate local politics, and economics while undermining progress and stability at large.
Assessing The Geopolitics of China-Africa Relations
It is also vital to note that regardless of Beijing’s intentions, as a geopolitical actor, its actions, aims, and objectives are simultaneously similar and different to other powers that intervene in the affairs of African governments and the continent at large. It is similar in the sense that while there are proposals of mutually beneficial development programs with concerned African countries, Beijing is still involved in destructive resource extraction that is critical to its newly industrialized economy. On the other hand, the difference is expressed in the fact that China is aware of the optics related to being a dominating and/or subjugating force over the economies of the so-called global south, a reality it lived through the period of foreign European colonization that is internally referred to as the ‘century of humiliation’ where major powers carved swathes of China for resource extraction and sociopolitical domination.
The resurgence of China on the world stage is having the effect of altering the geopolitical conditions as related to investment, trade, and production, and this increased scale of activity has built up great demand for capital, raw materials and energy, a fact that has had important implications for the economies of partner countries across the world in general, and in Africa in particular. A major critique to this fact is the basis that China, in a bid to retain a semblance of socialism at home, has practically engaged in state-led free market capitalism abroad resulting in apparent neocolonial relations where African countries are still plundered for resources in structurally uneven bi/multilateral agreements that continue the long-standing uneven development and division of labor between African countries and the rest of the world.
China’s interaction with African countries relies heavily on the concept of non-interference where state and national sovereignty is unconditionally respected, and as expected, there has been lively debate surrounding China’s ability to maintain this principle while balancing its pursuit of economic interests and, energy security.
Sudan is a critical example in this regard, and China’s involvement therein is not without context. With diplomatic relations going as far back as 1959, China had then established investment agreements and a political framework which facilitated the expanding economic ties with Sudan. Khartoum had invited the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to develop the energy industry, and the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company was also a joint operation of which the CNPC owned a 40% stake. Consequently, the boost to Sudan’s oil industry in many ways exacerbated the civil war, in that, the boom provided a means of payment for the various factions to continue their military activities. Furthermore, research suggests that majority of oil income was dedicated to arms manufacture and acquisition and China, around 2005, was the highest supplier of small arms to Khartoum valued on average at $14mn/year, according to research published by the Institute of World Politics.
The geopolitical realities and consequences of Africa-China relations is also expressed in the fact that Djibouti is a party to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of which scholars and researchers have described as a microcosm of China’s growing footprint across the continent, and while the two countries have regarded the cooperation as “a model of mutual cooperation between countries of different sizes”, high level officials of Djibouti have outrightly stated that they want no involvement in the China-U.S. geopolitical quarrel.
There is a clear shift from a unipolar geopolitical arena where the US government and its allies lead world matters. The current situation sees China and Russia as world powers that disrupt the status quo, and this means that Beijing is now in a phase where it must adapt to the uncertainties of multipolarity. African countries also play a crucial role in this regard, and therefore China seems to go above and beyond in offering geopolitical alternatives to the governments that have maintained relations with European counterparts who have held on to dominance that was established through the era of overt colonialism. China has similar experiences but, in many ways, broke through the mold of subjugation to build an economy that raised hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. Economic cooperation and enhanced diplomacy have played a role in strengthening relations with African countries from the tail end of the 20th century to the present day.
While China relies on principles of non-intervention, the economic and geopolitical realities on the ground test these principles when China must defend its investments and interests in various regions across Africa and other parts of the world. Furthermore, the CPC might be a proponent of socialism, but African countries must contend with the reality that Beijing practices state-controlled capitalism which still puts African nations in the position of being points of resource extraction that harkens back to relations that are still experienced with imperialist governments like France, the UK, or Germany.
African countries are in a dilemma whereby, even though they have economic alternatives to what European powers have offered, there is still that risk of losing autonomy due to unequal bilateral or multilateral agreements. For instance, one must consider what kind of balance can be obtained in a negotiation between China that controls trillions of renminbi in GDP and Central African Republic that still suffers poor governance, insecurity, and the ravages of French imperialism. It is imperative that African governments maintain clarity in Chinese engagements as this can result in mutually beneficial developments such as lending credibility to multipolarity, resurgence of the non-align movement in the face of global inequities and injustice as well as rejuvenation of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Finally, Africa-China economic, diplomatic, and security relations have brought the era of unipolar geopolitics to an end, the challenge is now centered on building equality, justice, and socioeconomic success into the upcoming systems of international relations.
Otobong Inieke, a researcher based in Abuja, Nigeria with a professional background in information technology. With deep interest in African focused geopolitics and technology, he hosts an online portfolio at https://devinieke.com.ng and has successfully published writings which can be found on various platforms such as The Black Agenda Report and Monthly Review Online.