Features | Economy | Politics

China and Africa in the Xi Jinping Era

While China’s policy in Africa during the Xi Jinping era will look much like that of the Hu Jintao period, the challenges will be greater.

By Ambassador David H. Shinn for

Recently installed Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit outside the country to Russia and then went directly to Tanzania before he attends the BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa, followed by a state visit to that country.  Xi Jinping will end this international travel with a stop in the Republic of the Congo.  The fact that Xi Jinping is devoting so much time so early in his tenure to Africa underscores a continuing theme in Chinese foreign policy.  China frequently points out that it is the world’s largest developing country (the “developing” assertion is open to debate) and Africa is the location of the world’s largest number of developing countries.  China sees its future as intertwined with the world’s developing countries.

Fifty of Africa’s 54 countries now recognize China while four still recognize Taiwan.  China has an embassy in all 50 except for Somalia. China passed the United States in 2009 as Africa’s largest trading partner.  It is providing an estimated $2.5 billion annually in OECD-equivalent foreign aid to Africa as compared to $8 billion from the United States.  While China’s cumulative investment in Africa lags that from the United States, which started earlier, it has probably been greater in recent years than that originating in the United States.  Washington has more extensive security interests, including a military base in Djibouti with more than 3,000 personnel, in Africa than does Beijing.  On the other hand, China has 1,500 military and police personnel assigned to six of the seven UN peacekeeping missions in Africa compared to less than 30 from the United States. 

China now offers about 5,000 fully paid scholarships annually to African students to study in China and has provided technical training for some 30,000 Africans.  Since 1963, more than 18,000 Chinese medical personnel have served in 46 African countries.  Several years ago, China began sending to Africa small numbers of youth volunteers in a program that is similar to the much larger U.S. Peace Corps.  Its official news agency, Xinhua, has more than 20 bureaus in Africa and China Radio International and China Central Television are rapidly expanding their presence in Africa.  China has 29 Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture, in 22 African countries.

Over the past two decades China has significantly stepped up its efforts in Africa and this will continue under Xi Jinping’s leadership.  While China casts the relationship as part of its “win-win” strategy for helping to develop the continent, the picture is more complicated.  Like all countries, China is operating in its own interests and it has at least four of them in Africa. 

First, it needs access to African raw materials, especially energy and minerals, to fuel its strong industrial economy. The continuing success of this economy helps ensure that the Communist Party of China remains in power.  Second, China relies on the political support of its African friends in international forums such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization.  Third, Beijing seeks eventually to replace Taipei in those four countries that continue to recognize Taiwan.  Fourth, China grasped sooner than the United States that Africa’s more than one billion people and growing middle class offer an attractive market for its exports.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Xi Jinping will continue to pursue these interests in Africa and almost certainly increase efforts to strengthen ties with individual African countries and African regional organizations such as the African Union, Economic Community of West African States, Southern African Development Community, and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.  In 2000, China established the Forum on China Africa Cooperation, which meets at the summit level every three years, to help coordinate this rapidly expanding engagement.  China is committed to Africa for the long-term.

China also faces challenges in Africa and China in the Xi Jinping era will find increasingly that it must address these issues.  China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun recently estimated there are between one and two million Chinese small traders and entrepreneurs living in Africa.  As their numbers grow, they face more opposition from African counterparts who often are not able to compete successfully.  African civil society and even a few governments are beginning to complain publicly and take action to slow Chinese migration to Africa.  In 2009, for example, Tanzania passed a law forbidding foreigners (aimed at Chinese) from owning shops in Dar es Salaam. The Chinese traders and many African traders sell Chinese products often at lower prices than comparable African manufactured products.  This is also causing concern among African manufacturers.

China’s trade with Africa exceeded $200 billion in 2012 and has been generally balanced in recent years.  On the other hand, there are huge disparities in bilateral trade relationships.  Some 15 African energy and mineral exporting countries have large trade surpluses with China while more than 30 resource poor countries have major trade deficits.  The trade balance of the remainder is generally in balance.  China is finding that it must address its large trade surpluses with poorer African countries as these relationships are not sustainable. 

Xi Jinping’s visit to Tanzania, South Africa and Republic of the Congo make the point.  Tanzania has consistently had a major trade deficit with China; in 2011, for example, it exported $428 million in goods to China and imported $1.8 billion in products from China.  South Africa had large trade deficits with China until 2010, when trade was in balance.  In 2011, South Africa had a modest trade deficit with China.  The Republic of the Congo, a major oil exporter to China, has had a huge trade surplus over the past decade.  In 2011, the Congo exported $4.2 billion of oil and timber to China while its imports from China totaled only $541 million. 

Reflecting problems within China, other issues that Xi Jinping’s team will find itself addressing in Africa are environmental concerns, corporate social responsibility, worker safety and complying with local labor regulations.  China has traditionally been weak in all of these areas in China; it is not surprising that it has fallen short in Africa. 

To its credit, China seems prepared to do better in each of these areas. In remarks made prior to Xi Jinping’s trip, Vice Minister Zhai Jun called on Chinese businesses in Africa to compete with integrity and quality, respect local laws, improve treatment of and hire more local labor, and improve environmental protection.  These are areas where the government of China often does not have control over Chinese companies but is interested in minimizing their sometimes embarrassing actions. 

China’s greater engagement with and presence in Africa come with increased risks, which Xi Jinping will be required to confront.  In recent years, several dozen Chinese have been kidnapped and released in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, dozens of construction workers and oil personnel have been kidnapped and even killed in Sudan, and nine energy prospection personnel were killed in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.  In 2011, China had to evacuate 36,000 contractors from Libya during the overthrow of the Qadhafi government.  China now faces essentially the same security threats that nationals from Western countries have long experienced in Africa.  While China’s policy is to rely on the host African government for protection of its nationals, this does not always happen and China will find that it must increasingly step in to protect its interests.

While China’s policy in Africa during the Xi Jinping era will look much like that of the Hu Jintao period, the challenges will be greater.  Hu Jintao had a relatively easy time of it; the Xi Jinping team will have to be more agile and work harder just to maintain China’s current position. 

Ambassador David H. Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.  He blogs at http://davidshinn.blogspot.com.