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The New China-Africa Relations: 4 Trends to Watch

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The New China-Africa Relations: 4 Trends to Watch

The first China-Africa summit since 2006 provides clues about the future of China’s role on the continent.

The New China-Africa Relations: 4 Trends to Watch
Credit: China-Africa image via

This week, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) convened its first summit since 2006. Chinese President Xi Jinping joined more than 40 leaders of African countries for the massive meeting 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 already previously announced). But it’s also worth acknowledging that China and African countries 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 past few years — four trends to watch that may end up defining the future 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 more), and whatever truth there was to the commodities trade driving China-Africa relations is already 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 value chain – which involves not only upgrading China’s capabilities to make high-tech products, but also building up lower-end industrialization capacities in other countries. Doing so will also help Chinese companies in their attempts to “go global” as they set up factories in other countries. 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 many African countries are aiming for as well. With global demand for commodities shrinking (in part due to China’s economic slowdown), African countries that formally relied on exporting their natural resources are looking to make the transition to industrialized economies. And China has already 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 first 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, as well as 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 first updated policy paper on Africa this weekend, updating the 2006 version. The new policy paper had industrialization listed first under the section on “deepening economic and trade cooperation.” “China will make prioritizing support for Africa’s industrialization a key area and a main focus in its cooperation with Africa in the new era,” the paper pledges. By contract, 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 also 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 first things that come to mind when thinking about China-Africa relations, but China’s approach to the continent increasingly involves the security dimension as well. The need for a more active Chinese approach has been driven home in the past five years by crises that threatened Chinese citizens and assets in Sudan and Libya, and more recently by the terrorist attack in Mali that cost the lives of three Chinese citizens. It’s no coincidence that China’s first 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 already seen in recent years. Beijing has taken a more hands-on approach to mediation in the Sudan-South Sudan conflict than it has anywhere else in the world. China also deployed its first-ever battalion to the UN peacekeeping forces in South Sudan, another 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, another move that will necessarily increase China-Africa security cooperation.

China is also specifically seeking to upgrade counterterrorism cooperation with African countries, given the continent’s struggle with militants including 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 as well as 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 earlier 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, as well as support UN peacekeeping in Africa.”

The policy paper also pledged more military cooperation, including technological cooperation, joint exercises, personnel training, and intelligence sharing. China’s goal is to build up African capabilities so that the countries on the continent – as well as 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 when 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 countries 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 head Cai Mingzhao – have seen rapid growth 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 now extends across all major platforms, including 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 also 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 first CI in 2005; today, the continent hosts 46 CIs and another 23 Confucius Classrooms.

China paints these educational initiatives as victories for China-African cooperation and mutual understanding. Others see something more sinister. Sishuwa Sishuwa, writing for New African magazine, worries that the CIs could have a particularly marked effect “for African cultures already 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 more Chinese investment in the media and educational sectors. According to Xinhua, Xi pledged on Friday to build five cultural centers in Africa, as well as providing funding for 200 African scholars and 500 African students to visit China each year. China will also “provide 2,000 education places and 30,000 government scholarship places for the continent.”

China is also pursuing greater 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 also called for more government dialogues on media cooperation as well as cooperation between media outlets (including 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 latest evolution of Beijing’s Africa policy. We saw an early hint of this just before FOCAC, when Xi made wildlife protection a major theme of his trip to Zimbabwe. After 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 unique wildlife,” the group noted.

Beyond wildlife, China also pledged increased cooperation with Africa to fight climate change. Another 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 more 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.”