In the last two decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has dramatically expanded its outreach to Africa in terms of investments, aid and cultural diplomacy. Today, Beijing is Africa’s largest trading partner and investor as well as one of the main donor to the continent. At the same time, Africa has acquired growing importance for China’s quest to global influence and soft power.
Beijing’s presence in Africa expanded rapidly following China’s entry into the global economic system under the so-called “going-out strategy”, which, since the early 2000s, increased extensively the number of Chinese enterprises investing abroad. While Africa quickly acquired the evermore-pressing role of China’s oil provider, in the first few years of the new century cooperation agreements were signed under the banner of newly established multilateral institutions, such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The first FOCAC summit held in Beijing on 5-6 November 2006 is considered a major event in the history of Sino-African relations. Since then, Beijing’s actions in the continent have rapidly become a global issue, as most recently exemplified by the active participation of UN General Secretary António Guterres at the 2018 FOCAC summit.
China’s rise in Africa has not been without controversy. Western critiques are particularly concerned with the nature of China’s foreign aid — that comes with “no political strings attached” — and with the country’s appetite for Africa’s raw materials. An anxious narrative on China’s presence in Africa has also emerged in Western media that have created an image of China as a new colonial power and Africa as a passive, weak and vulnerable actor. Yet, despite China’s economic interests being crucial, they alone do not explain Beijing’s increased engagement with Africa, which is actually far more complex and multi-dimensional than Western commentators often suggest. In fact, besides security issues, political and ideological considerations remain at the core of China’s strategy for Africa.
African countries are indeed considered important both for the support they can provide to Beijing’s political agenda in multilateral fora as well as for the spreading and popularization of China’s development model – the so-called “China Model”. This model has substantial influence in Africa and is often interpreted as a source of the country’s soft power, supporting both China’s projection as a great global power and the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the domestic level. At the same time, the Chinese government attaches great importance to the “democratization of international relations” and insists on the need of promoting the agency of African states in the international system. As such, Chinese officials often describe China-Africa engagement in positive terms as a feature of ‘win-win’ partnerships and the promotion of ‘peace and development’ based on ‘shared interests’ and ‘non-interference’. At the same time, China is represented as a benign country, as a friend and benefactor that is particularly fit to support Africa thanks to the historical links between the country and the continent, and a common past of poverty and colonial oppression. Hence, the recurrence in the contemporary political discourse of principles and values that had been promoted since the 1950s and 1960s, when the PRC first emerged as a major actor in Africa.
China’s current Africa policy cannot be fully understood without looking at the Mao era, when the Chinese government formulated ideas and principles that remain key for the PRC and the legitimacy of its government, down to the present. Beijing’s first official encounter with Africa occurred at the 1955 Bandung Conference, where the first diplomatic offensive of the PRC took shape. Chinese communist leaders soon identified newly independent nations in the former colonial world as natural allies and as a potential solution to China’s legitimacy problems, at a time when the country remained internationally isolated. Then Premier Zhou Enlai’s tour in Africa between 1963 and 1964 — during which the well-known “Eight Principles of Foreign Economic and Technological Assistance” were issued — represented the culmination of years of China’s diplomatic activism aimed at cultivating Sino-African ties. At the same time, China started to provide large amounts of aid to Africa — the most famous example being the construction of the “Tanzania-Zambia Railway” in the early and mid-1970s — with the aim of competing with both the US and the USSR for Africa’s support and advancing China’s political interests. Yet, in the 1960s and 1970s, the African continent assumed crucial importance in Beijing’s eyes not just for the political support it could provide to an isolated China (mainly, through diplomatic recognition), but also for the Chinese Communist Party’s ambition of projecting China as a model for the developing countries and a leader in the global revolution. While many things have changed since then — China has abandoned Mao’s utopian revolution, and economic interests have become crucial in motivating relations between China and Africa — the ideological interests and the political agenda have remained a constant theme in Beijing’s relations with Africa, especially at a time of rising disagreements between China and the West.