Chinese Assessments of Sino-African Relations
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Chinese Assessments of Sino-African Relations

Drawing on newly translated scholarship, leading experts analyze China’s evolving relationships in Africa, both in terms of economic engagement with individual states and interactions with fellow major powers on the continent.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. A Strategic Vision for China’s Management of Great Power Relations in Africa by Zhang Hongming, deputy director of and a researcher at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
  2. The Innocent Lender: Is China Pursuing “Debt-Trap Diplomacy” in Africa? by Lu Lingyu, professor at the Yunnan University Institute of International Relations and Gu Baomi, master’s student at the School of Political Science and Public Administration, East China University of Political Science.
  3. The New Journey and New Thinking of China-Africa Cooperation in the Era of Great Changes by Zhou Yuyuan, deputy director and researcher at the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies Center for West Asian and African Studies.

Jump to commentary from:

Linda Maokomatanda | Emeka Umejei

Linda Maokomatanda

Doctoral Student, China in Africa Project, Kiel Institute for the World Economy

Participating virtually in the opening day of the 15th BRICS summit on August 22, 2023, as well as listening to the closing ceremony address delivered on behalf of Chinese president Xi Jinping, presented an unexpected opportunity to interweave the insights from three newly translated Chinese articles with the speech’s main points.

Xi’s discourse at the summit synthesized the sentiments conveyed by Zhou Yuyuan in a May 2023 article. The similarity in perspectives suggests alignment between academic discourse and governmental stance in China, particularly concerning China’s geopolitical interests and influence in Africa. Both Zhou and Xi underscore the ascendancy of the Global South amid the decline of the West, China’s position as a target of substantial world power pressure, and the heightened imperative to foster cooperation over competition. Additionally, echoing Zhou’s article, Xi highlighted China’s multifaceted accomplishments, including the successful launch of the Global Security Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and numerous other collaborative endeavors China has undertaken in Africa.

A 2020 article by Gu Baomi and Lu Lingyu argues that debt crises in Africa are not directly correlated with Chinese loans, substantiating these claims with some statistics. While the accuracy of these statistics remains unverifiable due to the absence of source citations, this endeavor is commendable. The authors highlight intrinsic and extrinsic factors contributing to the debt problems, emphasizing how robust institutions are vital for proficient debt management. From an economic standpoint, pursuing improved institutional frameworks for debt management would be a constructive way to address the issue. Gu and Lu further contend that African nations should exercise prudent borrowing practices to ensure they can sustainably service their debts—a recommendation difficult to contest. In the context of institutions, as Gu and Lu subtly suggest, China also stands to gain from refining African countries’ debt management strategies, from controlled financing disbursement to meticulous risk assessment.

The 2018 article by Zhang Hongming contends that China’s strategic advantage is rooted in its capacity to formulate enduring, far-sighted plans unhampered by the constraints of electoral cycles—a long-term strategic blueprint apparently underpinned by principles of game theory and deeply ingrained strategic foresight. However, the article’s tone implies the author believes China’s relations with Europe hold greater importance than those with the United States, possibly outweighing the desire to safeguard Chinese interests in Africa. An air of passive response permeates the article, suggesting that China tends to react only when provoked, albeit reluctantly. This stance contradicts the unfolding geopolitical landscape of the past two decades, which calls its plausibility into question.

A common thread connecting the three articles with President Xi’s address at the BRICS summit is the absence of direct reference to the African populace and the priorities of African leaders. Throughout these narratives, the focus remains predominantly on China’s national interests. In light of this observation, it is unequivocally imperative for African leaders to cultivate African agency proactively. Furthermore, a nuanced conversation about the effect of China’s involvement on the welfare of African citizens is notably absent; there is no evaluation of either positive or adverse outcomes, including labor law violations and environmental degradation, stemming from Chinese investments. This scrutiny should extend to assessing how China’s expansion in Africa affects the welfare of the Chinese populace. African leadership should therefore embark on the proactive formulation of an Africa-centric strategy toward China, whether bilaterally or through multilateral avenues such as the African Union. This would help furnish African nations with options for unambiguous responses to the advancing geopolitical rivalry of foreign powers. Going forward, upholding the agency and sovereignty of African nations will be paramount in preventing Africa from further devolving into a theater for geopolitical contestation.

Emeka Umejei

Former Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow, National Endowment for Democracy currently at the Centre for Analysis for Authoritarian Influence in Africa (CAAIA)

The overarching theme in three newly translated Chinese articles by scholars Zhang Hongming, Zhou Yuyuan, and Lu Lingyu and Gu Baomi is that great power competition is reshaping African realities and recasting China-Africa relations.

Zhang Hongming and Zhou Yuyuan forthrightly acknowledge that geopolitics is transforming China-Africa relations, but their articles articulate different approaches to managing these ties. While Zhang emphasizes that great power relations in Africa will be governed by “cooperation in competition” and “competition in cooperation,” Zhou determines inter-African relations have evolved from “complementarity to competition and division.” However, both articles take a defensive outlook that portrays China as a cooperative partner and the West as the aggressor. For instance, Zhang notes, “Given the comparative strength of the great powers in Africa, it is undoubtedly in China’s interest to maintain Sino-African relations and their healthy interaction with the international system. Whether this subjective wish can be realized, however, does not solely depend on China” but on certain Western powers, whom he claims perceive China’s rapid activities in Africa as a challenge to their vested interests.

Similarly, Zhou claims that the “real purpose of the United States and the West in stigmatizing China-Africa cooperation is to slander the China-Africa cooperation model and weaken the influence of China’s development experience in Africa.” These allegations are not entirely true because China has tacitly refused to address its own long-standing issues confronting its relations with Africa, as Zhou acknowledges. He identifies the main problems in China-Africa cooperation, including a long-standing trade imbalance, limited benefits of such cooperation for African societies and peoples, and African countries’ increasing demand for peace and security cooperation with China.

A third article by Lu Lingyu and Gu Baomi attempts to defend China’s rationale for issuing loans to heavily indebted African countries. First, the authors acknowledge that African countries were heavily indebted to foreign investors even before Chinese loans became available. Therefore, it behooves China to tread cautiously before approving additional loans to African countries when it is evident they cannot repay them. Most importantly, the secrecy that often shrouds Chinese loans generates allegations of “creditor imperialism” in Africa. For instance, China refused to publicize the details of its loans for the construction of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway. When Kenyan president William Ruto, fulfilling of one of his campaign promises, revealed these details, it was evident that the terms were lopsided in favor of China. 

These three articles show that China’s management of great power relations in Africa is subject to its national interest.  Zhang calls this the principle of “me first” in dealing with major powers in Africa—but also warns that China should “avoid a premature head-on collision with them [Western powers] before China has gained a foothold.” He further suggests that China is playing a zero-sum game in attempting to dictate and determine the outcome of great power competition in Africa.

Additionally, Zhou calls for strengthening South-South cooperation and for China and Africa to advocate and uphold the UN-centered international system. This is a futile attempt to frame China and Africa as equal partners, reflecting the exceptionalism of China’s Africa policy—in which relations remain structurally asymmetrical but China perceives its partners as equals in terms of “recognition of economic gains and political standing.” In this “unequal equal” relationship, Africa is merely a pawn in China’s geopolitical gambits.

Overall, the three articles articulate China’s perspective on managing relations with Africa in an era of great power competition—a paradigm that lacks a defined role for African nations. They serve as a reminder that until these countries develop a clear-cut policy that guards and guides their engagement, China-Africa relationships will remain a Chinese tool. 

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