For all the talk of China’s growing presence in Africa, its economic engagement is surprisingly limited. In 2020, Africa accounted for 4 percent of China’s trade with the world (4.4 percent for its exports and 3.6 percent for its imports). In 2019, the continent accounted for just 2.9 percent of Chinese direct investment flows in the world. Since Africa is made up of 54 countries, 53 of which recognize Beijing, economic relations are even less important by country.
On the other hand, China accounted for 16.4 percent of Africa’s trade with the world in 2020 (12.8 percent for its exports and 19.2 percent for its imports), but there is no direct African investment flow to China. China was also the source of $153 billion in cumulative loans to African countries between 2000 and 2019.
China is clearly important to Africa, but Africa’s economic importance to China is very modest. So, what part does Africa play in China’s globalization strategy?
We might look to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as an answer. These overland and maritime “Silk Roads” replicate the traditional trade routes between Asia and Europe. Only the maritime one directly reaches Africa. The modern maritime route was launched in the 19th century and is the legacy of the porcelain route used by Arab and Indian merchants and then, from the 16th century, by Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French merchants. It was extended to the Mediterranean and then beyond to Northern Europe with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
One of the first promoters of the modern route was the ancestor of the French firm CMA-CGM, which initiated the creation of Djibouti (1888) and the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway (1897). These trade routes were therefore not invented in 2013 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but they have been emphasized since then to help China overcome the crisis of its growth model.
The BRI strategy is at heart an initiative to better penetrate European markets (essentially the European Union), which are the primary destination for Chinese products, ahead of Southeast Asian countries and the United States. Africa therefore has very little part to play in the BRI, and the investment China has made under this moniker are heavily concentrated in Egypt and the Horn of Africa, along the route to the Suez Canal.
If economics does not explain China’s interest in Africa, what does?
At the end of July 2021, Zhang Hongming, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reminded us that “Africa is the cornerstone of Chinese diplomacy, […] its unique position and role should not be underestimated […] because the 53 [African] allies not only widen the radius of China’s activities on the international stage, but also enhance the strategic depth of China’s game with the United States, thus strengthening China’s initiative and influence in international affairs.” The quintessence of Sino-African relations is not economic, but geopolitical.
China’s relationship with the African continent is not a recent one; official Chinese historians have been trying hard to trace it back to the dawn of time. But Sino-African relations took on a new dimension following the bloody events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The repression led Western countries to sanction China, a shock as brutal as it was unexpected. China’s reaction was immediate. Beijing aimed at revamping its relations with the developing world, starting with the African countries, none of which had officially disapproved of the repression; some even openly approved of it, including Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Namibia.
African leaders continued to visit China on official tours at a time when Beijing was shunned by the West. This period gave birth to the tradition, in place since 1990, that the Chinese foreign minister make his first trip of each new year to African countries. As an extension of these visits, regular summit meetings of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) were organized from 2000 onward to “meet the challenge of globalization” and help China and Africa “develop together.”
The Chinese response to its post-Tiananmen pariah status also took the form of a political instrumentalization of history and an exhortation to “never forget the national humiliation” suffered in the 19th century. The slogan was designed not only to mobilize the Chinese population against Western countries, but also to rally the formerly colonized countries, which, according to Luo Jianbo, a professor at the Central Party School, are the “fulcrum” of China’s foreign relations and have helped China to restore “the international dignity it deserves.”
An anti-Western narrative was then gradually built up – or rather reconstituted – by, among others, two emblematic Chinese Africanists, Li Anshan, a professor at Peking University, and Liu Hongwu, a professor at Zhejiang Normal University. Their words reinforce those of Wang Huning, the official ideologue of the current Politburo Standing Committee, according to whom the current style of globalization manifests Western hegemony and poses an existential threat for China.
This nationalist response is also deliberately culturalist. It reinvents Confucianism, as manifested in the organizing September 1989 of the first annual international cultural festival in honor of Confucius, which was intended to “strengthen cooperation and friendship between China and foreign countries.” Based on the model of the Pushkin, Cervantes, and Goethe Institutes, China’s Confucius Institutes were created in 2002, of which some 60 are now operating in Africa, with around 50 more branches. In 2005, from this refashioned Confucianism, then-General Secretary Hu Jintao borrowed the concept of “harmonious world,” which he metamorphosed in 2012 into “community of destiny.” Xi Jinping in turn seized on it and proclaimed a “Sino-African community of destiny” during the FOCAC summit held in Beijing in 2018.
Such an anti-Western and pro-Global South narrative has allowed a deepening of ties with the African continent, whose 54 countries each have a vote in the United Nations General Assembly. That helps explain the peculiar rewriting of history marked by the publication in 1999 of a book recounting 50 years of Chinese diplomacy. In that telling, Africa appears as a hero, whose support helped the People’s Republic of China push aside the Republic of China (Taiwan) and join the U.N. Security Council – even if effective African support was actually very tardy.
Today, China continues to reap the benefit of African support on the international stage. Chinese nationals are simultaneously the head of four U.N. agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), and International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It is the only country ever to have held so many directorates at once.
These four agencies are highly symbolic. The FAO and UNIDO directorates highlight China’s involvement in development, industrialization, and aid to poor countries, while the ICAO and ITU directorates point to China as a technically innovative country in sensitive areas. China has also been at the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), where it has been succeeded by Ethiopia, China’s best African “emulator.” Ethiopia should also take over the head of UNIDO in the person of Arkebe Oqubay, a politician and architect of Ethiopia’s economic reform and a friend of Lin Yifu, himself a former chief economist at the World Bank (2008-2012) and a great ambassador for Chinese companies in Africa.
Simply put, by supporting African countries economically and financially, China is building a client base of countries that will enable it to organize the rebirth of a strong and powerful China. Anne Cheng, a professor at the College de France, writes that “For more than two millennia, ‘China’ has had the particularity not only of considering itself as the center of the world […], but of being the world [and] willingly referred to itself as ‘all that is under Heaven’ (tianxia).” So, when Xi Jinping proclaims that “the New Silk Roads are designed to establish harmony among ‘all that is under heaven,’” we understand that the globalization orchestrated by China is first and foremost a political project – whether it passes through Africa or elsewhere.