Asia > Eastern Asia > China > The New China-Africa Relations: 4 Trends to Watch

China: The New China-Africa Relations: 4 Trends to Watch


This week, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) convened its initial summit since 2006. Chinese President Xi Jinping joined additional than 40 leaders of African nations for the massive conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The typical highlights of FOCAC are all about the numbers: how much in aid and loans China pledges to the African continent (this year, Xi announced the jaw-dropping figure of $60 billion, although as usual there’s no timetable and no clarity on whether that includes projects by presently before announced). But it’s as well worth acknowledging that China and African nations have changed greatly in the nine years since the last summit. These new realities, both locally and globally, are changing the way they cooperate. With that in mind, here are four areas that have blossomed in the completed few years — four trends to watch that may end up defining the next of China-Africa relations.


The stereotypical image of China-Africa relations goes something like this: China imports natural and energy resources from the continent, while exporting its cheap manufactured goods. There are definite limits to the accuracy of that perception (see Deborah Brautigam’s myth-busting article in Foreign Policy for additional), and whatever truth there was to the commodities trade driving China-Africa relations is by presently fading.

China’s economic fortunes for the last 30 years have been largely based on exports, but that’s something Beijing wants to move away from as it restructures the country’s economy. Instead, China’s grand plan is to move up the price chain – which involves not only upgrading China’s capabilities to make high-tech products, but as well building up lower-end industrialization capacities in other nations. Doing so will as well help Chinese companies in their attempts to “go world” as they set up factories in other nations. That’s an often overlooked part of China’s “Belt and Road” strategy, which emphasizes industrialization in addition to infrastructure.

Industrialization just happens to be exactly what a lot of African nations are aiming for as well. With world request for commodities shrinking (in part due to China’s economic slowdown), African nations that formally relied on exporting their natural resources are looking to make the transition to industrialized economies. And China has by presently offered its help, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling Beijing “a most desirable and reliable long-term partner for Africa to achieve industrialization.”

On Friday, in his speech at the opening of FOCAC, Xi announced a “China-Africa industrialization program,” the initial of 10 new initiatives designed to boost China-Africa cooperation. According to Xinhua, the program will include “Chinese investment , building and upgrading industrial parks in Africa, inclunding helping further educate 200,000 African specialists and a quota of 40,000 trainees in China.”

To coincide with the FOCAC summit, China released its initial updated policy paper on Africa this weekend, updating the 2006 version. The new policy paper had industrialization listed initial under the section on “deepening economic and trade cooperation.” “China will make prioritizing support for Africa’s industrialization a key area and a major focus in its cooperation with Africa in the new era,” the paper pledges. By arrangement, the term “industrialization” was not mentioned in the 2006 policy paper and “industry” appeared only once.

According to the policy paper, China will support industrialization in Africa by supporting the creation of industrial parks and “economic and trade cooperation zones.” Beijing as well pledged to continue to build up industrial capacity by addressing the “two major bottlenecks impeding development, namely, backward infrastructure and inadequate professional and skilled personnel.”

Security and Military Cooperation

Trade and investment are the initial things that come to mind at the same time as thinking about China-Africa relations, but China’s approach to the continent increasingly involves the security dimension as well. The need for a additional active Chinese approach has been driven home in the completed five years by crises that threatened Chinese citizens and assets in Sudan and Libya, and additional recently by the terrorist attack in Mali that cost the lives of three Chinese citizens. It’s no coincidence that China’s initial overseas military facility will be in Djibouti — China-Africa security cooperation is ready to move to the next stage.

China’s new Africa policy paper confirms that Beijing will play a larger role (“with Chinese characteristics” of course) “in resolving hot-button issues in Africa.” That confirms a trend we’ve by presently seen in recent years. Beijing has taken a additional hands-on approach to mediation in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict than it has anywhere else in the world. China as well deployed its initial-ever battalion to the UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan, an extra sign of how seriously China takes that conflict. China’s pledge to increase support to UN peacekeepers came alongside a promise to provide financial and military assistance to the African Union’s army, an extra move that will necessarily increase China-Africa security cooperation.

China is as well specifically seeking to upgrade counterterrorism cooperation with African nations, given the continent’s struggle with militants inclunding Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in northwestern Africa. China’s security assistance to the AU and national militaries is in part designed to boost their capacity to counter these and other terrorist groups, which threaten Chinese inclunding African lives (as evidenced by the recent deadly attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako).

Xi outlined the “China-Africa peace and security program” on Friday, repeating an before pledge that “China will provide 60 million U.S. dollars in free assistance to the African Union to build and maintain its army, both its regular army and crisis response, inclunding support UN peacekeeping in Africa.”

The policy paper as well pledged additional military cooperation, inclunding technological cooperation, joint exercises, personnel training, and intelligence sharing. China’s goal is to build up African capabilities so that the nations on the continent – inclunding organizations like the African Union – can ensure their own stability.

Media Cooperation and Educational Exchanges

China-Africa declarations on people-to-people exchanges are often sidelined by flashier announcements about billions of dollars’ worth of investments. But China has been increasing cooperation and exchanges with Africa on the cultural front, particularly at the same time as it comes to the media and education spheres. China’s investments in these areas are a sign of the political importance it attaches to Africa – Beijing clearly values its positive image in Africa, and wants to make sure African nations continue to see China in the best possible light.

Chinese media outlets – envisioned as a way of “telling China’s story” and “spreading China’s voice” to the world, according to Xinhua chief Cai Mingzhao – have seen rapid increase in Africa. The China-Africa Project has a run-down on the recent entries to the African market, from China Radio International setting up shop in Nairobi in 2006 to CCTV and China Daily unveiling dedicated Africa editions in 2012. Meanwhile, Chinese companies are gaining market share in telecoms and satellite television as well. “In less than 10 years, the PRC’s media presence on the continent presently extends across all major platforms, inclunding satellite TV, newspapers, magazines, news wire services, radio, online, mobile, and continent-wide pay TV cable/satellite services,” the China-Africa Project notes.

Meanwhile, China is as well sponsoring educational activities to help Africans understand China – which in China is often a euphemism for accepting Beijing’s policies, both at home and on the world stage. The single-most visible sign of this project are China’s Confucius Institutes. The University of Kenya became home to Africa’s initial CI in 2005; today, the continent hosts 46 CIs and an extra 23 Confucius Classrooms.

China paints these educational initiatives as victories for China-African cooperation and mutual considerate. Others see something additional sinister. Sishuwa Sishuwa, writing for New African magazine, worries that the CIs could have a particularly marked result “for African cultures by presently beleaguered by centuries of Western domination and operating within the imperial supremacist economic and social structures which make Africa fertile ground for neo-colonialism.”

But African governments still seem to welcome the idea of additional Chinese investment in the media and educational sectors. According to Xinhua, Xi pledged on Friday to build five cultural centers in Africa, inclunding providing funding for 200 African scholars and 500 African students to visit China each year. China will as well “provide 2,000 education places and 30,000 government scholarship places for the continent.”

China is as well pursuing better relationships with African think tanks. The policy paper spoke of increased exchanges and joint projects, noting that “priority support will be given to joint researches and result sharing in areas that are conducive to promoting China-Africa friendly cooperation, such as governance, development paths, industrial capacity cooperation, and comparison of cultures and laws.”

On the media front, Xi said that China will provide training for 1,000 African media practitioners per year, and will set up satellite TV programs in 10,000 African villages. The policy paper as well called for additional government dialogues on media cooperation inclunding cooperation between media outlets (inclunding content exchanges, joint reporting, and personnel training).

Environmental Protection

China’s new emphasis on environmental issues, both at home and abroad, is fully reflected in the new evolution of Beijing’s Africa policy. We saw an early hint of this just before FOCAC, at the same time as Xi made wildlife protection a major theme of his trip to Zimbabwe. Next years of being accused of contributing to wildlife decimation in Africa, China is stepping up to combat the issue. Its new policy paper promised that:

China will engage in dialogue and cooperation on the conservation of endangered species of wild fauna and flora, step up intelligence sharing and capacity building in law enforcement, and crack down on transnational organized crimes related to endangered wildlife trafficking.

Alongside a new commitment to ban the ivory trade, that’s a major boon for African wildlife. The China-Africa Wildlife Conservation Council agreed, saying in a statement that it “strongly commends and supports” the steps taken to preserve wildlife at FOCAC. “This year’s FOCAC specifically addresses the need for China to proactively and collaboratively work with African Governments to conserve the continent’s incomparable wildlife,” the group noted.

Beyond wildlife, China as well pledged increased cooperation with Africa to fight climate change. An extra of the 10 new programs announced by Xi was the “China-Africa green development cooperation project,” which Xi said “will see China support Africa in enhancing its green, low-carbon and sustainable development ability, and help implement 100 programs on clean energy, wildlife protection, environmentally friendly agriculture and smart city construction.”

China’s policy paper had additional details, saying it would increase cooperation with Africa “in the development of renewable energy and low-carbon, green energy such as wind power, solar power and hydropower.” China is the world’s leading investor in renewables energies, and wants to establish itself as a leader in the field; exporting those technologies to Africa are a great way to start. Underpinning these promises are a commitment to make sure that Africa’s industrialization process incorporates renewable energy and follow a path of “rational development.”

Or, as Xi put it in his Friday speech, “China-Africa cooperation will not be realized at the cost of Africa’s ecosystem and long-term interests.”

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