China’s influence in Africa: forging a mutually beneficial future

China’s influence in Africa: forging a mutually beneficial future

It is important that Chinese investment recognize Africa’s quest for an equitable international partnership that allows the continent to determine its own development while working towards common global goals: sustainable development, mutual prosperity and respect.”

By Sunaina Budathoki

The continent otherwise identified as beset with AIDS, rampant poverty and civil wars has manifested itself as the continent of hope, paving the way for the narrative of an Africa rising. Between 2001 and 2010, six of the world’s fastest growing economies were in Africa. According to the World Bank forecasts, there is an estimated growth of 3.2% for 2018, an increase from 2.4% in 2017.  Furthermore, six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies this year are in Africa: Ghana, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Senegal and Tanzania. Could Africa secure such unprecedented growth without China’s investment? China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. Despite long-held notions of Africa as mired in political and security risks and thus unsuitable for investments, between 2009 and 2012, China’s direct investment in Africa rose from US$ 1.44 billion to US$ 2.52 billion. Additionally, China’s accumulative direct investment in the continent rose from US$ 9.33 billion to US$ 21.23 billion between 2009-2012. However, its growing activities and expanding influence are not without criticism from the West and African civil society: its policy of non-interference has been regarded as failing to promote good governance and human rights. Furthermore, it has been deemed as a strategy towards imposing neo-colonialism in Africa. Will foreign direct investment exploit the continent as has been pronounced by critiques of China’s involvement or will it work in the favour of a prosperous Africa?

It is imperative to note that Chinese actors in Africa range from state agencies, state-owned enterprises (central and provincial government owned) as well as private economic actors, including corporations as well as individuals [1].  The government of China is not able to retain control of all activities deemed ‘Chinese.’ Therefore, the risk of failing to make a clear distinction between the various actors makes it challenging to identify multiple interests, structures and outlooks that form the China-Africa relation. With an increasing engagement with Africa, on parts of both the Chinese government and private enterprises, tensions and difference in priorities amongst multifaceted Chinese actors are on the rise [2].

The year 2006 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of formal Sino-African diplomatic ties which was established in Egypt in1956. Over the years, China’s leadership has continued to emphasize the importance that Africa plays in Beijing’s external relations towards mutually shared goals of establishing South-South cooperation (SSC), harmony of interests, peaceful co-existence and multilateral world order [3]. While political ties between China and Africa are older; the rationale for interaction based on economic motivation is unprecedented. The question to ask is thus, given the unprecedented interactions, both political and economic, between China and Africa, what are the elements that foster cooperation between the two? The rhetoric of South-South cooperation has helped substantiate a relation that differs to that of the West and Africa. In terms of its steep economic development, China serves as model project to developing nations. However, in relation to African states, Chinese officials cautiously emphasis the need for African states to forge their own paths to development and prosperity [4].

At the core of SSC are guiding principles that were first advocated for in the context of Sino-Indian negotiations over Tibet in 1954 and are now embedded in Chinese external relations. ‘Mutual respect, equality and “win-win” situation’ are identified as key to SSC and thus, in Chinese official rhetoric, these principles are identified as synonymous with non-interference and mutual benefits. However, as Chinese investment and external interactions increase, there is growing a need on the part of Beijing to act as a responsible member of the international community. This has thus led to a change in China’s understanding of non-interference and has resulted in softening the orthodox position of not getting involved. Given that China’s visibility and engagement in Africa is unparalleled; along with its increase in size and power, the expectations are growing. Thus, given its role as a rising super-power, China may not be able to retain its policy of non-interference for long.

An important aspect in the China-Africa relationship is a sense of historical similarity but a lack of historical relationship with each other. That China was not a part of the transatlantic slave trade distinguishes it from the Africa-West relation.  Neither does China have a history of colonialism, genocide or occupation in Africa [5]. Furthermore, China has not been identified with structural adjustment policies that led to the impoverishment of Africa over the past 30 years [6]. These factors play a significant role in solidifying Africa’s trust and ensuring cooperation through medium to long term engagement with China.

It is thus imperative that Africa and China both establish a comprehensive policy that regulates Chinese involvement on the continent so as to avoid criticisms pertaining to human rights violations and corruption that will eventually undermine their colossal contribution on the continent. While China’s investment in Africa across trade, infrastructure financing and aid has been unprecedented, in order to establish sustainable development in Africa, it is imperative that China and Chinese investment work alongside other stakeholders of development in Africa. Furthermore, one of the most important aspects of ensuring sustainability in foreign involvement is to ensure the involvement of the locals. The key to sustainability is not just regarding the immediateness of Chinese engagement in Africa but establishing foresight regarding long-term effects to its commitments. Thus, it is important that Chinese involvement in Africa continue with an understanding of the local culture and languages so as to ensure the best results of its investment through integration. Another aspect of involving the local community is to ensure the transfer of skillsets, provide technical assistance and build the capacity of the locals. While the creation of employment opportunities for the locals through Chinese investment is commendable, it is not enough to merely provide for lowest wage jobs. There has to be room for elevation. This would in turn create a more positive outlook amongst the locals towards Chinese investment and thus, ensure sustainability.


One of the key questions to consider regarding China’s involvement in Africa is that with rampant risks not just from market uncertainties but from political and social instability, will China succeed in protecting its growing influence and investment overseas while retaining the core values for its external policy? As a country that has made a commendable leap in a short span of time and serves as a model for developing countries, China bears responsibility towards assisting states establish similar transformation. However, it also bears responsibility towards the international community. And tensions are inevitable if their actions are incongruent. In the case of Africa, decades-long monopoly by the West over its resources have left the continent gasping for an alliance that is based on equality and local ownership. Why must Africa be excluded from pro-actively taking part in its own development? There is an agreement that resonates in Africa: they would much rather be allies than being aided as charitable enterprises of wealthy countries: “Given the choice, people would prefer to work and provide for themselves, rather than receive charity. Africans want self-determination and dignity” (Kagame, 2009). It is thus important that Chinese investment recognize Africa’s quest for an equitable international partnership that allows the continent to determine its own development while working towards common global goals: sustainable development, mutual prosperity and respect.


[1] Grimm, S. (2014). China–Africa Cooperation: promises, practice and prospects. Journal of Contemporary China, 993-1011.

[2] Raine, S. (2009). Chapter Two: Managing China's African Relations. China's African Challenge (pp. 59-94). International Institute for Strategic Studies .

[3] Naidu, S. (2007). The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC): What Does the Future Hold? Sage Publications , 283-296.

[4] Grimm, S. (2014). China–Africa Cooperation: promises, practice and prospects. Journal   of Contemporary China, 993-1011.

[5] Campbell, H. (2008). China in Africa: Challenging US Global Hegemony. Third World Quarterly, 89-105.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kagame, P. (2009, November 02). Why Africa welcomes the Chinese . Retrieved from The Gaurdian :

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