The Silliness of "China in Africa"

The Silliness of "China in Africa"

African states aren't passively surrendering to Chinese dominance.


Since China forayed into African markets in the mid-2000s there has been ongoing speculation surrounding what China is doing in Africa, how it is doing it, and why. In media and policy circles the rhetoric relentlessly stresses ‘China in Africa,’ failing to realize that such lopsided and macro analyses obfuscate more than they illuminate.

China’s political and economic engagement in Africa is deep. Between 2009 and 2012, China’s direct investment in Africa grew at an annual rate of 20.5 percent. While negligible in 2000, trade between the regions hit $195.8 billion in 2012 and is estimated to reach $385 billion by 2015. China’s engagement is also far-reaching. Public and private firms construct roads, hospitals, schools, stadiums and training centers for the exchange of technology and knowledge. State-owned energy companies explore for oil; manufacturing firms operate factories in remote African cities; and Chinese entrepreneurs sell knick-knacks in roadside shops. There is much at stake, and much to be said about, Chinese activity in Africa.


Yet two problems plague the mainstream ‘China in Africa’ narrative. First is the near-constant depiction of African states as pliant third-world clients of either West or (now) East, rather than proactive global actors. Second is the tendency to speak about Africa as a unified aggregate rather than a continent comprised of fifty-four diverse countries, each with its own history, policies, agendas, competitive advantages and ambitions.

So far (and still) African states are seen as exploited by China, a country whose political and economic power supersedes their own. In this way, they are relegated to passive actors in the relationship. Yet African states are not, and never have been, passive. Historically, the continent’s many countries have employed various diplomatic tactics to advance their political and economic agendas. French Africanist Jean-Francois Bayart famously argues that African governments participate in global affairs through ‘extraversion:’ academic parlance for a variety of precolonial strategies—coercion, mediation, appropriation, rejection, flight, trickery—aimed at remaking constraints brought on by unequal power relations into opportunities. Precolonial states managed their foreign relations in ways that enabled them to glean sufficient resources to boost their domestic legitimacy and pursue their political objectives.

With impressive growth rates, abundant natural resources, and increasingly favorable business environments, African states today exercise significant leverage over their foreign affairs. In their relations with China, they deftly maneuver weaker positions into tactical advantages. Angola’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), for example, successfully capitalizes on China’s quest for sustainable energy sources to fuel its economy. China in 2012 imported nearly 40% of Angolan oil, making it China’s biggest energy source second only to Saudi Arabia. This suggests that China today is considerably more dependent on Angola than Angola is on China. Revenue from the oil sales is converted into infrastructure contracts undertaken specifically by Chinese firms and used to repay Chinese loans. The pricing of the oil shipments, local-content considerations, and the MPLA’s local role in the process are all determined by the MPLA.

Ethiopia’s ruling People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) similarly exploits Chinese demand for biofuels to boost exports and buttress its statist agenda. Since 2005, the regime has relied on sesame exports to repay Chinese loans. A portion of the 2006 $1.5 billion credit signed between China’s ZTE and Ethiopia’s Telecommunications Corporation (now Ethio Telecom) provided for repayment in sesame seeds, with the terms of trade set by the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. Foreign currency earned through the sales is appropriated by Ethiopia’s state-owned Commercial Bank and used to fund Chinese projects in what effectively amounts to a revolving credit facility. China today is the world’s largest net importer of Ethiopian sesame.

Because sesame is grown in Ethiopia’s remote regions of Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz, its production for export is also a facilitation mechanism for the EPRDF to centralize state power and exercise authority over minority groups in areas where it previously had limited influence. The Oakland Institute, a progressive California-based think tank, maintains that Ethiopian state control of sesame production is “associated with the likely further marginalization/ disempowerment of the indigenous people.” In this way, Ethiopia’s relations with China play to the regime’s ongoing state-building and centrist domestic political agenda.

Even paradigmatically weak states have serious influence over their China relations. Earlier this year, Chad’s government suspended the operations of state-run China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) after discovering that the firm was dumping excess oil on land south of the capital, N’Djamena, then requiring Chadian workers to remove it with little protection. The move came as a surprise; Chad’s government is hardly a champion of environmental or human rights. Yet the suspension is a warning, and a bargaining chip for the government to use in future negotiations. Gabon’s government exerted a similar tactic when it revoked Sinopec-owned Addax Petroleum’s permit for the Obangue oilfield over allegations of environmental and financial mismanagement.

It is increasingly apparent that China-Africa ties are not as one-sided as is sometimes argued. African states seize various aspects of Chinese engagement and through strategies of extra-version negotiate conditions, maneuver foreign powers, and pursue political agendas. As Bayart notes, “occasionally the puppets pull the strings.” Analyses that focus exclusively on the ‘what, where, why, and how’ of Chinese engagement muddle this reality and limit our understanding. At the heart of China-Africa ties are the dynamics between countries, not only the Chinese agenda.

Discussions about China and “Africa are similarly futile. African states have diverged significantly over the past decade, rendering the notion of a shared identity—let alone shared policies—a misnomer. Writing in the Financial Times earlier this month, Simon Kuper aptly observed that the African continent today consists of a medley of dissimilar states: bourgeoning democracies like Botswana and Namibia; repressive regimes like those in Ethiopia and Guinea-Bissau; oil-rich nations; failed states; and the northern post-Arab Spring countries. With these distinct experiences come differentiated policies, even in the face of shared drivers like China. For example, while in Ethiopia the retail trade sector is closed to Chinese and other foreign investors, small-scale Chinese traders populate the markets in Uganda and Kenya.

It makes as much sense to speak of China and “Africa” today as it does China and “LatinAmerica,” or China and “Europe”—perhaps even less so. While the European Union has sought to formulate a unified China Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, the African Union has yet to articulate a similarly unanimous strategy. Nor should it. Africa’s divergent growth stories and varying institutional and regulatory structures present a strong case for emphasizing bilateral relations rather than pursuing a catch-all approach. This applies to policy deliberations as much as to the ‘China-Africa’ debate itself. Instead of asking, “What is China doing in Africa?” we should be asking “What is the nature of relations between China and South Africa? Or China and Angola?” Better yet, “What are the dynamics between Chinese and Ethiopian manufacturers?” or “How does China’s shifting economic strategy affect Zambia’s mining sector?” Formulated in this way, such nuanced questions ultimately provide a fuller picture of the interplay between China and African countries than the existing ‘China in Africa’ narrative.

In the quest for analytical parsimony and spectacular headlines, geopolitical realities are often oversimplified. Especially when at stake are complex places like China and Africa, analyses come to hinge on weak-minded generalizations and anecdotal evidence. Needed instead are thick descriptions that capture the subtleties of the interstate relations. To achieve this we must first change the conversation, and change the terms of the ‘China in “Africa”’ debate.

Aleksandra W. Gadzala is an independent political-risk consultant based out of Boca Raton, FL and an Africa contributor with Oxford Analytica. She holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Oxford and is authoring an edited volume book on the subject of African agency in the China-Africa relationship.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Fanghong. CC BY-SA 3.0.