China's Engagement with Africa: Foundations for an Alternative Governance Regime

Updated: Aug 5, 2020

Vasu Sharma & Ridhima Bhardwaj

Research Interns,


Introduction to China-Africa Relations

The central position of Africa within China's wider foreign policy dates back to the early days of the Cold War and was re-emphasized by subsequent Chinese governments.[1] Contrary to what the West claims, Africans do not find themselves victims of cultural oppression by China. The relationship between China and Africa is actually being understood by two viewpoints which are fundamentally opposed.

The first view is the one recognized more in the West, i.e. where there’s resistance towards China’s closeness with the African Continent. Besides the US, other western nations, including the UK and France, still see China's presence in Africa as a reason for alarm. In addition, they see China as a resource and energy-hungry country, an exploiter of weak and inept states, a commercial opportunist, and a major African climate polluter.

The second and contrasting interpretation of the Beijing-Africa relationship is a pro-China one. Mostly in Africa, the view is embraced. Compared to this narrative's advocates, China is a saviour - a respected African friend. They see China, a nation which has no history of colonial ambitions in Africa, as a partner capable of providing much-needed funding without any strings attached. They also have faith in the fact that Beijing comprehends and respects Africa's concerns.[2]

Since the declaration of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) by Chinese premier Xi Jinping in 2013, the international world order has changed completely. In this multipolar era, Asian countries have witnessed a number of benefits, opportunities and to dominate world politics stand at the forefront of the same. The Chinese BRI has been the centre of this multipolar world. Although the multibillion project to connect Asia, Africa and Eurasia through maritime silk route and land silk route, to enhance trade and transport has provided certain apprehension to countries like USA and India, the same project has provided African nations with huge opportunities.

Africa has not only been a focal point of Chinese opportunism since 2013 but too cold war era. Africa is seen by China as a land of huge ‘opportunism’. Through BRI, African countries have officially become a major testing ground for Beijing to export it’s political and economic governance concepts. However, through prioritizing African nations, the Red Dragon has been able to provide these countries with better infrastructure, opportunities to deal with poverty through foreign aid and develop the countries of the continent.

Domestic Interference by China in Africa & an Alternative Governance Regime

Objectives of China

China has made an effort to spread its one-party, authoritarian rule of state-led economic growth for African countries through party-to-party training and exchanges, sales of sophisticated digital surveillance technologies and media control. The main goal of this training was to achieve recognition among the next generation of African political leaders of the democratic principles of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Through these efforts, China has harnessed its increasing influence on the continent to lay the foundations for an alternative, non-liberal regime of global governance.[3]

China's reported priorities comprise scrapping liberal democratic ideals and then replacing them with oppressive ones. Chinese observers see the global governance structure as a direct consequence of the power-sharing among the nations. In the view of the Chinese, influential nations build global bodies, laws and standards to represent and advance their own national interests.[4]

The Principle of Non-Interference

China has been increasingly blatant in its involvement with African domestic affairs and governance, in order to protect its rights on the continent. Beijing's acts conflict sharply with its official pronouncements of non-interference in domestic affairs of other nations.

A significant example of such interference is when China interfered in the electoral process in Zambia. In the run-up to the presidential election in Zambia in 2006, the Chinese ambassador to Zambia threatened to sever relations with the country if he elected the late Michael Sata, who ran on a crucial China platform.

Probably the most striking case of China's interference in the internal relations of African countries is Zimbabwe. Harare has previously been one of Beijing's nearest allies in Africa. Beijing seems to have supported a military-led coup d'état in Zimbabwe in 2017 to protect its interests and to maintain the pro-China system in the region.

China’s concept of non-interference in Africa has generally attracted international scrutiny with few exceptions; those who see it as the safest solution to relations with sovereign states and others who see it as a paradigm that runs contrary to Western impositions and involvement in African states' internal affairs. The West has persistently condemned China for its perceived opportunistic use of non-interference to guarantee an unrestricted supply of vital resources and to continue supplying weapons to authoritarian regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe.[5]

Impact of China-Africa Relations on Global Politics

For its repressive domestic policies and disputed claims for sovereignty, China has used its influence in African countries to secure diplomatic backing on the international forum. A significant example of this support is the overt endorsement or implicit approval of China's authoritarian policies by many African countries, which would have faced heavy international condemnation.

China has used its leverage to win U.N. African votes to support China's main foreign policy goals. Countries receiving foreign aid from China is more likely to vote with respect to the role of China in the UN. China seeks the support of Africa for the domestic political legitimacy of the CCP and the international foreign policy agenda of China, particularly in multilateral fora, known the extent of the African voting bloc.[6] In aiding China to gain leadership positions in major UN bodies, African backing has proved predominantly significant. Four of the 15 specialized organizations of the UN are led by Chinese officials who hold more offices than any other Member State.

As the 54 African countries represent more than a quarter of U.N. Member States, China relied on its support at the United Nations. The problem of Tibet was a problematic and sensitive issue for China in the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2008, prior to the Beijing Olympics, for its political agenda. China was dependent on African countries to stay neutral or to issue declarations in favour of China's Tibet policy with a view to defusing and avoiding provocative discussions or actions. Reform, from global stability to the key national interests of China, China looks at Africa as a part of it.

Another primary political ambition of China in its relationship with Africa is to end Taiwan's diplomatic presence on the mainland. For Beijing, it is a matter of basic validity for the government that Africa follows the One China policy and recognizes Beijing as China's only official leader, rather than Taipei.[7]

Impact of China-Africa Relations on Global Economy

Chinese engagement in Africa does affect international politics and the global economy. Since 2000, Chinese investment in the region. Until 2008, broadly the Chinese trade and American trade with African nations were quite similar to each other in terms of value (Chinese trade- 102 USD and US trade – 100 USD billion). Since the declaration of BRI, Chinese trade with African nations has increased while the US trade with African nations decreased. In 2018, the value of trade between China – Africa was around 185 billion dollars (US Dollars) while the value of trade between the US – Africa decreased to 61 billion dollars (US Dollars). Hence, in terms of trade, the escalating trade between Beijing and the African countries have affected the trade of the continent with the US.[8]

The Red Dragon along with trade brought huge investments and infrastructural projects with itself. There are around twenty-five Chinese firms (which include railway construction co-operations, engineering firms, road and highways construction firms, port construction firms, development banks, etc.) which are investing into Southern African, East African and West African nations. Out of these some important projects are:

  • China Railway Construction invested twelve billion USD to build a 1,402-kilometre railway line linking Lagos with Calabar, Nigeria.

  • Guinea is being provided with a twenty billion USD infrastructure loan, in exchange with China Henan International getting opportunity to develop bauxite projects and China Power Investment getting opportunity to develop alumina projects.

  • A 2.5 billion USD agreement was signed between China Road and Bridge Construction and Liberia, to buy Liberia’s natural resources with providing Liberia with roads and electricity infrastructure.

  • A major part of Nigerian Zungeru Hydroelectric Scheme is being funded by Export-Import Bank of China.

  • In Ghana, a Greenfield port i.e. Atuabo Port is being constructed by China Harbour Engineering, a strategic port which can provide Ghana to open it’s oil and gas sector to offshore markets. [9]

Through this multi-billion investment and infrastructure project, China is also increasing its political, psychological and military sphere within the region. China was able to establish its first military base in a foreign land, in Djibouti, the gateway to Suez Canal and strategic country considering its geopolitical position. Furthermore, certain opacity in infrastructural projects and investments is an essential element of China and it’s. Such transactions do affect the competitiveness and ability of US firms in the region. Often called a ‘debt trap policy’ the Belt and Road Initiative does lay future threats for the nations who align themselves to the Sino led projects. Due to opaque loan terms, China gets strategic leverage over the recipient countries indebtedness, which further is used for political, military and economic motives.[10]

The US-China trade war has led to a decline in the prices of oil. This decline in price would further increase the budget deficit of African oil-producing and exporting nations. Moreover, oil is a major commodity which is supplied by African nations to China. Hence, the US-China trade has affected Africa as well.

The COVID19 Factor and its Impact on Sino-African Relations

The vulnerability of citizens

Outbreak of COVID 19 has drastically intervened the infrastructural projects of BRI. However, other than the impact on BRI, another major issue within China–Africa relations is the vulnerability of African citizens residing in China and the same situation of Chinese citizens residing in Africa. African nationals residing in the city of Guangzhou have been the centre of discrimination and racism led against Africans. Guangzhou is home to most African migrant population in China. A major challenge for Chinese officials was to combat the increasing imported cases, which implies foreign nationals who arrived in China. With an increasing number of cases among the African population, an anti – African sentiment was eminent among the local Chinese. Moreover, African nationals often faced mistreatment and elements of racism. Following the incidents in Guangzhou, members of African Union and several politicians of Kenya and Nigeria were quite vocal on the issue.[11]

Rejecting and refraining from Sino-led deals

Kenya cancelled a two billion dollar, coal-based power plant project to be built by China with a twenty-five-year power purchase. Tanzania cancelled a ten billion dollar investment loan with China, to construct a port on Mbegani creek, for 99 years of the uninterrupted lease. Similarly, Sierra Leone cancelled a 318 million dollar project pf construction of Mamamah Airport agreement with China. Such incidents depict lack of trust for China among these nations. Similarly even Zambia experienced domestic conflicts over ownership of Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation and allegations of the firm being overrun by China.[12] Since the continent owes a large debt to China, Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria are first countries to call for debt relief from China.

Effects on trade

African nations were major exporters of oil, minerals, copper, ore, etc. On the other hand, Africa is a huge consumer market for Chinese goods. China also provides African nations with mechanisms of digital surveillance. Pandemic has affected the demand side as well as the supply side of the African Economy. [13] Due to disruption in global supply chains, the shutdown of ports, etc. trade between African nations and China will be royally affected.

Dampening Effect on Belt and Road Initiative

With China facing fiscal disruption in domestic economy, the Belt and Road Initiative, along with its two strands, the Maritime Silk Route and Terrestrial Silk Route would surely seem to be a secondary priority for Xi Jinping. With China being a sole monetary provider of BRI projects, amidst the COVID crisis, policymakers at Beijing would face an issue, whether to stabilize the domestic economy or continue funding the ambitious BRI project. It can be anticipated that BRI won’t be the same. The foreign policy agenda will surely experience and witness certain jolts. Hence in short-run, BRI will surely see severe constraints.


Beijing sees its relations with Africa as a pillar of its wider attempts to reform frameworks and standards of global governance. Via its political activity on the continent, Beijing gathers support for its national and international goals, supports its economic development paradigm of authoritarianism, and aims to involve African states to help create a modern, non-liberal global governance system.

Unlike the democratization movement, China is deliberately promoting oppressive and non-liberal governments while supplying them with new instruments of coercion, such as technologically empowered surveillance, eroding autonomy, and principles of free and accountable government. Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to participate in African domestic politics to defend preferred leaders and achieve its goals, blatantly breaking the specified policy of non-interference with the internal relations of other nations.

A recent report by US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, titled “China’s Engagement with Africa: Foundations for an Alternative Governance Regime” states five methods used by China to increase its influence in the region:

  1. Exporting Authoritarianism through Party-to-Party Training and Engagements

  2. Violating the Non-interference Principle

  3. Exporting tools of techno–authoritarianism

  4. The shaping of the African Media landscape by China

  5. Securing African support on International Stage

As clearly it seems that, following the US-China trade war, Africa has become a testing ground. With the US losing the trade aspect in the continent, huge investments by China in the region would also affect the principles of US to promote ‘Good governance’ and strengthen ‘democratic institutions’ in fragile countries.

A major difference between expansion policy of China and US which can be observed is, throughout Cold War and later until 2008 – 2010, to secure interests of US in various regions of the globe, Washington did use military interventions. Especially in West Asia, to secure interests of Uncle Sam, there was a huge intervention of US Military forces. Quite similarly, during the Cold War, Africa did end up becoming a battleground for proxies between the US and USSR. On the contrary, instead of using Hard Power, the Sino bloc has used not only used Soft Power in Africa but also in war-torn West Asia. Although, activities of China do depict what non – traditional threats to National Security mean.

China cannot be blamed but could be observed as practicing neo-colonialism in Africa through Belt and Road Initiative. Through this, it challenges US interests in Africa, intensifies the ongoing US-China trade war and keeps enhancing the concerns for US over what could be outcomes of a successful trade and transit corridor from Asia, Africa, Eurasia, West Asia and Europe, thus bypassing the importance of US trade routes.

The outbreak of COVID19 has significantly changed the international order. With verbal accusations in action between the US and China, countries across globe indicating protectionism (prudence if stated clearly), constant criticism of WHO and China by Uncle Sam and China emerging as a major stakeholder in health diplomacy and mask diplomacy, foreign policy agendas of China could change. African nations do owe a large debt to China. But having weakened health care systems, these nations would require the Sino support as, by and large, these countries do rely on China heavily.

However certain incidents have further created an ambivalent situation in China – Africa relations. With Tanzania, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Zambia, vocally refraining from the Chinese hegemony in the region, a serious conflict between the Asian giant and African nations could emerge. Second, the European Union has been indicating support for African nations, amidst the virtual meetings it is conducting with Western Democracies. After China and the US, EU has been a third major stakeholder in aid to Africa.

China does play an important role, for African nations. Being bonhomie of Africa and the largest creditor to the continent, increasing further Chinese step, whether loan forgiveness or more opaque terms of the loan, will directly impact the fate of an already debt-driven continent.

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