Africa-China relations and their impact on international geopolitics

Africa-China relations and their impact on international geopolitics

By Orçun Göktürk, Beijing / China

2023 was a year of fundamental changes in the balance of power around the world. The international balance of power continued to undergo a decisive shift to the detriment of US imperialism and the reactionary forces around the world and in favor of the peoples of the world and the global anti-imperialist forces.

The rupture in international geopolitics continued with Russia’s pioneering war against NATO expansion in Ukraine, the resurgence of the Palestinian resistance in October 2023, which shattered the myth of the invincibility of Israel’s military might, and the Ansarullah movement in Yemen, which blocked the route to the Red Sea and strangled the lifeline of the imperialist economy. The aircraft carriers that US imperialism relies on to maintain its world hegemony have been hovering helplessly between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. More importantly, the US imperialist navy is losing its ability to ensure the basic security of the shipping lanes of the world’s oceans!

In addition, the momentum of anti-imperialist movements in Africa, which have been growing in recent years, continued in 2023. The progressive regimes of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso formed a tight alliance to expel French imperialism from the mineral-rich interior of West Africa to preserve their statehood and independence.

The Continent Changes the Dark Fortune

At the beginning of World War I in 1914, the total population of the African continent was less than 124 million (Maddison Project Database, 2020). This amounted to 7% of the world’s population at the time. Of course, the last 200 years of imperialist aggression against the continent, the slave trade, one of the most shameful events in human history, and epidemics all contributed to this. The struggle for the independence of states in Africa, which increased throughout the 20th century and in fact continues today, has led to 10 times increase in the continent’s population compared to a hundred years ago, bringing it close to 1.5 billion people. This now corresponds to 25% of the world’s population. According to a United Nations report (World Population Prospects, United Nations, 2015), Africa’s population could exceed 4.2 billion by 2100. This means that in the next century, almost one out of every two people living on the planet will be African.

Since the 18th century, an entire continent whose resources have been exploited by Western imperialists has been the subject of comments in Western media outlets that it “could become one of the biggest game-changers of the next century”. One of the most influential publications of American foreign policy, Foreign Policy, has even published an analysis declaring the coming century as the “African Century” (Tooze, 2022). The biggest factor here is undoubtedly the emergence of the continent’s revolutionary forces on the stage of history. Secondly, there is the influence of other emerging great powers that are countering the US and its allies. In the 20th century, the Soviets were at the forefront of this, while in this century, China should be at the forefront.

Historical Development of Africa-China Relations

Since the middle of the 20th century, Africa, whose development has been blocked by the West, has systematically improved its political relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a country with a similar experience but which has achieved an economic miracle over the last 70 years. On October 1, 1949, when the PRC was founded after the great Chinese revolution under the leadership of Mao Zedong, there were only a few independent countries in Africa. After the mid-20th century, the international order shaped around the US-Soviet conflict engulfed the African continent. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union, which had been the greatest friend of the anti-colonial movements, turned more and more socially imperialist, bringing Africa to a crossroads.

Bandung Conference and Ideological Leadership

It was against this backdrop that the “Asia-Africa Conference” was held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. In that context, China-Africa relations in the modern sense were established in a purely political and anti-imperialist framework. China was represented by then Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and important anti-imperialist leaders such as Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, Indonesian Prime Minister Sukarno and Indian Prime Minister Nehru participated in the summit, which would later become famous as the “Bandung Conference” and which would lead to the “Non-Aligned Movement”. In the opening speech of the Summit, Sukarno, the leader of the host country, said: “Colonialism is not dead. Only by uniting and fighting together can we, the silent peoples of the world, the peoples of the East, Asia and Africa, overcome poverty and humiliation. I hope this will be the proof of the rebirth of Asia and Africa, even the birth of a New Asia and a New Africa!” (Timossi, 2015), which was accompanied by prolonged applause from the 28 leaders of countries from Asia and Africa.

The Bandung Conference marked a fundamental step forward in Sino-African relations. The Soviets, the continent’s biggest supporter both ideologically and in terms of arms supplies, were beginning to give way to China under the leadership of Mao. The Soviet course after the death of Stalin and the negative effects of the Cold War on the oppressed world were also factors. In addition to the political atmosphere created by Mao and the Chinese revolution across the continent, China’s consolidation of its ideological leadership in Africa was also influenced by the fact that the “Five Basic Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, which Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had previously announced to the world after meeting with his Indian counterpart, were also included in the final declaration of the Conference (Han & Meng, 2019). Thus, these 5 principles presented by Zhou Enlai and China have become an important norm that forms the basis of the new international relations adopted by the majority of the peoples of the world, except for a handful of imperialists.

Africa’s Support for China at the UN

As China was potentially the biggest supporter of the liberation struggles in Africa, the states that gained their freedom on the continent began to actively support China in real politics. African countries took the lead in adopting the resolution that the PRC was the sole representative of China against Taiwan, which represented China at the UN until 1971. At the UN session in 1971, 26 African states voted in favor of the PRC. Mao’s famous quote “It is our African brothers who have brought us to the UN” was said after this.

Second Stage in Relations with Africa

Starting from 1978, after Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese leadership made significant changes within the country and, more importantly, in its foreign policy. We will not go into detail about these policy changes here. However, China has become a world manufacturing center with the development of its private sector, using the advantage of cheap labor in accordance with the international capitalist division of labor. Thanks to the abundance of foreign currency accumulated in China’s hands, the second phase of relations with Africa has begun in the 1990s. While there was a record increase in China’s investments in the continent, oil and precious metal imports from Africa were the lifeblood of the developing Chinese economy. Since the 90s, China has risen to the dominant position in credit aid to the African continent. In the late 1990s, the “going out” strategy of Chinese companies focused on Africa. This strategy, a declaration of China’s growing economic power, ushered in a new wave of engagement in Africa. Thus, in the last 30 years, half of China’s foreign investments have been made to Africa (Dreher et al., 2022). On the other hand, China’s share in the exports of African countries has increased day by day. One fifth of the total exports of sub-Saharan countries, one of the least developed regions of the continent, was to China.

In this process, there was also a turbulent period in Africa. From the 1990s to today, there have been 27 military interventions in Africa, and 78% of them occurred in French colonial countries (Mbulle-Nziege & Cheeseman, 202). After lessons learned from the horrific consequences of Western colonialism, particularly the US and France, African countries deepened their economic, military, and political relations with countries such as China, Russia and Türkiye. In fact, it is necessary to say that these three countries have created resistance against Western aggression on the continent.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced in 2013 the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for the first two years, 44 African countries participated. In 2016, China’s investments reached the top spot and Africa was granted 28.4 billion dollars in loans by China. After this point, there was a gradual decline. For example, in 2020, we see Chinese loans falling to 1.9 billion dollars. In this, as much as China’s economic policy makers had an impact, the issue of repayment in Africa was another factor.

The ’Debt Trap Diplomacy’ Debates

With BRI, the term “Debt Trap Diplomacy”, which was first used by Brahma Challenay, of Indian origin, for China’s investments abroad, has been adopted by Western politicians and the media, and this has become an issue of increasing debate in recent years. The term mainly used for the countries of Malaysia and Sri Lanka, is also used for in terms of the Chinese investment to African continent.

China has taken a stand on African investments as opposed to Western governments. It describes the loans as a mutually beneficial cooperation between developing countries and promises not to interfere with the domestic policies of the countries they credit (Vines & Wallace, 2023). Since the beginning or end of the Cold War, China has been seen neither in the attempt to intervene militarily in the continent such as the United States or France, nor in the pursuit of the enforcement of communism such as the Soviets. Of course, comradeship relations are being maintained on ideological basis with the Marxist Parties still existing on the continent.

But it is also seen that China’s commercial investments continue in many African countries led by non-Marxist parties. In fact, rarely seen in world history, China regularly erases the loan debt of African countries or restructures the debt with long and low interest. For example, in order to reduce the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2021, China canceled 23 interest-free loans to 17 African countries and signed an agreement on zero tariffs for 98 percent of the products of 12 African countries exported to China (Aydınlık, 2022).

Some sensible experts in the West will also be aware of this fact, emphasizing that the “debt trap” criticism against China is unfounded and that an anti-China strategy based on this will not work. The Chatham House, the famous British ‘think tank’, published a detailed report titled Debunking the Myth of ‘Debt-trap Diplomacy’ in 2020 (Jones, 2020). Similarly, the Australia-based Lowy Institute, famous for its Asian studies, stated in its detailed report examining China’s foreign investments in accordance with the Belt and Road Initiative in the same year, “We lack the evidence to reach debt trap diplomacy” (Shahar Hameiri, 2020).

To prove that China practices debt trap diplomacy in Africa or elsewhere, as claimed by some politicians or media outlets in the West, we would need to see concrete and systematic self-serving practices such as acquiring land, regime change, establishing major military bases, etc., in countries where China invests. However, as mentioned above, China has not engaged in similar practices like the United States, France, or the post-1960s Soviets. Looking at countries where China has significant investments, such as Kenya and Nigeria, we see that the proportion of their total public debt owed to China remains low. For example, in Kenya, debt to China accounts for only 10% (6.3 billion out of 69 billion USD) of the total debt (Monthly Bulletins, The National Treasury of Kenya, 2023), while in Nigeria, this ratio is 3% (The Cable, 2023). It is important to note that the majority of African countries’ public debts are owed to Western countries or institutions.

The Problem of Repayment of Loans

Nevertheless, there are issues that need to be discussed regarding China’s investments in Africa. Both the requesting African country and Chinese decision-makers need to establish transparent mechanisms for monitoring the repayment status of pre-investment loans and the content of agreements related to the repayment issue of loans that finance Chinese investments. It is observed that Chinese investments in Africa, such as the completion of major projects like dams, railways, hospitals, roads, ports, and infrastructure, contribute significantly to economic growth. On the other hand, there are also some negative aspects. At the top of these, we can mention the issue of creating employment opportunities. Whether led by the state or private sector, Chinese companies mostly employ Chinese workers in their African investments. Of course, Africa faces a shortage of qualified workforce in its human capital. However, due to the conditions where China did not carry out a specific recruitment for this purpose, there is a difficulty in creating African qualified labor. According to data compiled by the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the number of Chinese workers in Africa is 88,371 in 2022, and over 70% of them work on construction projects (CARI, 2022). This is significantly lower than the over 260,000 Chinese workers in 2015, but China’s withdrawal from its investments in Africa is the main factor behind this.

Figure 1. Number of Chinese workers in Africa (2009-2022)

Source: (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2024)

It is crucial to allocate the debt burdens of recipient countries of Chinese loans based on an initial evaluation. Notably, there appear to be significant inadequacies in these procedures preceding the disbursement of loans to certain countries under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). For instance, Zambia has maintained close diplomatic ties with China since attaining independence in 1964. China notably contributed to the construction of the TAZARA railway linking Tanzania and Zambia during the 1960s. Presently, Zambia’s debt has escalated to unsustainable levels, peaking at 133% of GDP in 2021 (although it decreased to 98.5% in the subsequent year), and the economic outlook for the nation remains bleak (IMF Data Mapper, 2023). China stands as Zambia’s primary creditor, with one-third of the country’s debt owed to China. This predicament triggered a political upheaval in Zambia, leading the country’s opposition to recognize Taiwan in 2018, citing Chinese interference in the nation’s internal affairs.

Discussions about workers’ living and working conditions

Another negativity is about the working conditions of African workers in Chinese projects. In part, this is a result of the low capacity of Chinese companies to act and reform in response to workers’ demands. Chinese companies have been accused of banning independent labor unions and often not enforcing legal procedures regarding the right to strike (Qi, H., & Pringle, T., 2019). In addition, it has become normal for workers working on Chinese projects, whether they are Chinese or not (this is similar for China within the country), to work close to double shifts (often without overtime pay). In addition, the following conclusion is emphasized in the report titled “Chinese Investment in Africa: Labor Perspective”, which provides a detailed study on the subject:

“Although the working conditions offered by Chinese companies in Africa vary between countries and sectors, there are some common trends such as tense labor relations, hostile attitudes of Chinese employers towards unions, labor rights violations, poor working conditions and social security problems, and unfair labor practices. Specifically, some of the labor abuses committed by Chinese companies include unpaid forced overtime, lack of toilet facilities in workplaces in Zimbabwe, low wages in Zambia and Namibia, workers having to work long hours without protective gear in Malawi, sickness in South Africa salary deductions during leaves, etc. are implementations”

(Ofosu & Sarpong, 2022).

Military Base Debate

Another debate concerns China’s increasing military presence in Africa. China has not opened a military base in any country except Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa. Recently, there have been rumors in the Western media about China’s plan to establish new military bases in Equatorial Guinea and Cape Verde. China may be seeking docking rights in these countries for its naval ships, but so far there is little evidence of plans for a full-fledged base. Moreover, China can open military bases in countries where it invests and has high-level political relations. The fight against imperialist aggression cannot be fought only at the economic and diplomatic level. For example, Turkey has military bases under the Special Forces Command in regions such as Qatar, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Libya. In addition, the right to take a deterrent military stance against US imperialism’s aggression against Turkey and terrorist incidents in Libya and Sudan is also valid for China. For this reason, it is necessary to see that those who make “expansionist” noise are the spokespersons of Western countries.

The future of Africa-China relations

China-Africa trade volume reached 282 billion dollars in 2023. The continent’s most important investment projects are progressing through Chinese companies. To summarize, China has not exported its governance model or engaged in military occupation in Africa. We can list China as one of the biggest supporters of the independence movements of the continental countries against Western aggression. Above, we tried to examine the Western-centered issues of “neo-colonialism, debt trap, corruption, employment of Chinese workers” regarding China’s presence in Africa. It seems that all of these, except for the employment issue, are mostly unfounded allegations. It also seems that Chinese economic policy makers have recently become more attentive to the debt stock of countries and the repayment of loans than before. China needs to make serious revolutionary changes regarding employment and working conditions of workers.

If we look at it from another perspective, we see that China is one of the countries that most Africans trust most. The proportion of respondents who think positively about China in a survey conducted in 34 African countries in 2021 by Afrobarometer, famous for African research, exceeds 63% (Josephine et al., 2021). China also attaches special importance to Africa, especially in diplomatic and economic relations. From 1990 to 2023, the first overseas visit of every Chinese Foreign Minister was to African countries (Shinn & Eisenman, 2023). In the environment of geopolitical conflict with the USA, China-Africa relations are of great importance not only for both parties but also for their contribution to the international structure of the 21st century and multipolarity.

Africa has been a key driver of competition between the Great Powers due to its abundance of natural resources such as oil, gas, minerals and agricultural products. The relationship established by China has important qualitative differences from those of the USA and other colonial powers. Relations with China have allowed African countries to more quickly implement projects that will overcome existing problems and challenges. African countries will continue to benefit from this great power dynamic to attract investment, technology transfer and faster economic development. Nevertheless, African countries need to engage in more symmetrical relations in the international arena and develop an effective strategy based on their own internal interests.

Despite the ever-increasing outlook for economic growth in recent years, there are ongoing governance and stability problems in African countries. They need to secure these issues to consolidate growth and development in the continent’s politics and economy. China’s driving and supporting role here, unlike Western countries, is historical. However, Africa has a long way to go this century in overcoming its current challenges of poverty, income inequality, unemployment and inadequate infrastructure to sustain its economic development. In addition, there are other issues such as low literacy, infectious diseases, and workforce quality.

In many ways, relations with China have helped reduce Africa’s dependence on Western colonialists. It is in the hands of the African leadership and people to create a common development example for Africa, which contributes 3% to the world economy as a continent that makes up nearly 20% of the world’s population, based on its relations with China, but also increases its own initiative. The dominant condition for this lies in an Africa that has been freed from imperialist exploitation and dependency relations and whose states have gained full independence.


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May 2024