Chinese competition in 21st century Africa: New rules for the West

David Robinson, Edith Cowan University

Slavery; colonialism; apartheid; Cold War manipulation; IMF structural adjustment; corruption of governments by Western corporations; and resource wars fought by white mercenaries: if independent African nations of the 21st century choose to seek new relationships with non-Western allies, then we should not be puzzled by this development. Nevertheless, some Western commentators watch with increasing concern as China’s growing political and economic influence makes it an attractive partner for African governments. With global issues now at the top of the agenda in interactions between the United States and China (Johnson 2009), the relationships crystallising between China and Africa have for some time been overlooked by the media and policymakers. Mainstream pundits who have discovered these developments often propagate a moral panic about China’s nefarious intent, and issue warnings of existential threat to Western interests, as ‘access to important raw materials and energy sources … [is] “locked up” by Chinese firms’ (Brookes & Shin 2006). Headlines such as ‘Why China is trying to colonise Africa’ (Blair 2007), ‘How China’s taking over Africa, and why the West should be VERY worried’ (Malone 2008), and Clayton (2009), have appeared in conservative-leaning publications, and frame the debate as a Manichean struggle between the munificent West and an exploitative Chinese bogeyman.

Western hegemony in Africa is being seriously challenged.

Western hegemony in Africa is certainly being seriously challenged, but the assumption that this will have negative consequences for Africa is based on an erroneously idealistic view of Western interaction with the continent. While critics attribute China’s diplomatic success to it being ‘the ally of choice for Africa’s worst rulers’ (Blair 2007), in fact part of China’s attraction is ‘more than 50 years of friendly, respectful, and supportive relations [with] African countries’ (Gill & Reilly 2007). Recent criticism of Chinese activities in Africa is often accurate, and is important in helping constrain destructive behaviours, but China’s conduct is not worse than the West’s historical and ongoing relationship with the continent, and will potentially be much more productive. China’s changing relationship with Africa is also part of a wider structural shift in the international system, which will create new centres of power and wealth over the coming decades, and may increasingly fracture the cohesiveness of ‘Western’ interests. For the United States and its traditional allies to remain globally influential in the coming century, they must comprehend some of the lessons offered by Africa’s changing disposition.


Commentators’ judgments of China often begin with assumptions that the West has unceasingly promoted democratic values and economic development in Africa, even if this has been overwhelmed by local obstacles. However, those familiar with African history are aware of the flaws in this narrative. Africa’s first 35 years of independence were in the context of the Cold War. Even once decolonisation had commenced, America and its European allies opposed independence through NATO assistance for France and Portugal to fight colonial wars—in the latter case until the 1970s (Ohaegbulam 1992, p. 21); and orchestrated the downfall of independence leaders like the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba (De Witte 2002). For Western governments the containment of communism justified channelling billions of dollars in development aid to repressive regimes, and welcoming their brutal treatment of internal left-wing opposition (Harsch 1993, p. 7). The existence of racist white regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia, of despotic African rulers, like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Hastings Banda of Malawi, and Omar Bongo of Gabon, and of fratricidal guerrilla groups like UNITA in Angola and RENAMO in Mozambique show that to see the West as facilitating democracy in Cold War Africa necessitates historical amnesia.

By the 1980s, the imposition of structural adjustment as part of aid and debt rescheduling packages was common, and despite the rhetoric of international financial agencies, it had the widespread and painful impact of depressing people’s incomes, living standards, health conditions and social circumstances overall. Prices for many basic consumer staples rose, unemployment increased, and governments cut spending, usually hitting vital social sectors like education and health the hardest (Harsch 1993, p. 15). Ironically, in cases where this induced political liberalisation, the demands of the pro-democracy movements reflected popular reaction against the impact of structural adjustment (Harsch 1993, p. 12). Although the 1990s created an opportunity to divert resources from the global arms race to tackling Africa’s challenges, it is instead now seen as a period in which the United States disengaged from African affairs, apart from occasional humanitarian disasters that could not be ignored (Kraxberger 2005, p. 48). The World Bank and the IMF were now empowered to alter African societies by linking aid to democratic reform (Goldsmith 2001, p. 413); though key critics like World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz have said that by reducing developing governments’ economic autonomy, policy conditionalities actually undermine democratic processes even further (Goldsmith 2001, p. 417).

Chinese relations with Africa are not just a post-Cold War phenomenon.

The worst African crisis of the 1990s was the Rwandan genocide, during the course of which 800,000 Rwandans were killed, by a government financially and politically supported by France, and aided by a military armed, trained and advised by France, with minimal intervention by France or other Western governments (Kroslak 2008, pp. 1–5). Following the 9/11 attacks there was renewed American interest in Africa, though this primarily involved a new militarisation of their Africa policy as part of the ‘war on terror’, with new strategic co-ordination under the umbrella of AFRICOM. Economic development and poverty alleviation has again been a lower priority, and a small number of US military allies have received a disproportionate share of recent aid (van de Walle 2009, p. 13). Subsequent American intervention in nations like Somalia has been argued to have ‘worsened the conflict’ (van de Walle 2009, p. 16). While the West has provided $2.3 trillion to Africa over the last five decades (for both humanitarian and military projects; to good leaders and bad) (Harman 2007), global structures of subsidies and tariffs have been maintained. These force open African markets to Western goods, while disadvantaging African producers (Dowden 2005). In recent years America established the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of 2000 to assist Africa, however, again governance reforms remained only a secondary objective, with one of the primary aid beneficiaries being authoritarian Angola (van de Walle 2009, p. 13). Clearly then the West’s record in Africa is far from spotless.


Chinese relations with Africa are not just a post-Cold War phenomenon. Fledgling communications began over 2000 years ago (Jinyuan 1984, pp. 241–247), though China has more recently forged relationships with Africa since the 1950s. Throughout the Cold War China sponsored infrastructure and provided technical and financial assistance (Lyman 2005), while Chinese doctors treated 180 million African patients (Brookes & Shin 2006). China’s support had political aims: to counter Taiwanese diplomacy, compete with Soviet influence, and challenge Western power (Lyman 2005). But it was also inseparable from a desire to support Africans, ‘in their struggle to win independence and safeguard their national sovereignty’ (Jinyuan 1984, p. 248). Overall, Chinese intervention Africa was minimal during this period, with Chinese support for Robert Mugabe in the 1970s being a rare political success—and a development welcomed even by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Today, China’s growing influence is obvious in African cities: from the huge Chinese embassy compound and Chinese-funded soccer stadium in downtown Maputo, Mozambique, to Chinese supermarkets in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Thousands of Chinese workers live in Angola, reconstructing the country after its civil war (‘Angolan “mafia targets Chinese”’ 2009), by building roads, de-mining fields, upgrading ports and rehabilitating railways (Clayton 2009). Angola has become China’s largest African economic collaborator (Ash 2007), and with over US$100 billion in annual trade, China is Africa’s second-biggest trading partner behind the United States (Simpson 2009). Council on Foreign Relations Africa specialist Princeton N. Lyman writes that, ‘China returns to Africa in the 21st century with not only a need for economic resources but with the cash to play the game dramatically and competitively’ (2005). But this is not a strategy of nefarious subversion, masked with altruism; China is striking the kind of equitable deals the West should have been making since the late 1800s. Chinese investments are spurring Africa’s highest-ever levels of economic growth. Meanwhile, ‘The roads, bridges, and dams built by Chinese firms are low cost, good quality, and completed in a fraction of the time such projects usually take in Africa. China also contributes peacekeepers to UN missions across Africa’ (Hanson 2008).

Criticisms of China’s economic strategies are valid.

Western critics, like Peter Brookes and Ji Hye Shin of the conservative American Heritage Foundation, have written that America and its allies, ‘are finding that their vision of a prosperous Africa governed by democracies that respect human rights and the rule of law and that embrace free markets is being challenged by the escalating Chinese influence in Africa’ (2006). Often central to criticism of Chinese deals is their support for the dictatorships in Sudan and Zimbabwe (‘Don’t worry about killing people’ 2009; Malone 2008). This is of great concern. Indeed, most recently China extended a multi-billion dollar oil and mineral deal to Captain Moussa Camara’s tyrannical regime in Guinea, in defiance of European Union sanctions (Clayton 2009). While supporters argue that these relations are part of ‘an evolving partnership based on principles of non-interference and neutrality’ (Tu 2008, p. 336), critics are correct that Chinese deals with despots can help defend their legitimacy in international fora and deflect pressure for political reforms (Brookes & Shin 2006).

But critics must also recognise that singling out China in these activities is hypocritical. ‘The United States is highly selective about who we’re moral about … We support Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—huge human-rights violators—because we have other strategic interests’ (Hanson 2008). Critics highlight that China sells arms to African states. Yes, China now accounts for over 15 per cent of arms transfers to the continent (Hanson 2008). But America continues to dominate the industry, contributing 50 per cent of African arms imports, while the United Kingdom and France still account for 10 per cent of sales (Adusei 2009). Overall, and in contrast to Western strategies, ‘military concerns have played a remarkably small part in China’s return to the continent as a major player’ (French 2006, p. 128).

Criticisms of China’s economic strategies are also valid. Economic critics argue that Chinese officials choose which companies aid recipients must buy from, and anti-corruption crusaders complain that Chinese regulation is weak (LaFraniere & Grobler 2009). However, in 2008 United States Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State asserted that these charges are exaggerated, and that, ‘In reality, Chinese firms compete for profitable projects not only with … international firms, but also with each other’ (Hanson 2008). In addition, Africa’s culture of corruption has to a large degree been created through interaction with the West. Far from reducing corruption, some specialists argue that the liberalisation and governance measures imposed by donors only encouraged new forms of corruption (Szeftel 2000, p. 288). Because foreign capital dominated domestic economies, and limitations on bureaucracy restricted legitimate employment through the state, ‘Ruling elites learn[ed] that gate-keeping functions (trade licences, contracts, foreign exchange) bring huge rewards (far greater and with far fewer costs than legitimate business)’ (2000, p. 302). Western corporations in Africa also often undermine democracy and create conflict, rather than bolster Human Rights and transparent governance. Examples include Shell’s operations in Nigeria, which led to pollution, population displacement, and the murder of activists in Ogoniland (‘Shell settle Nigeria deaths case’ 2009); American companies in eastern Congo, which sponsored warring factions to secure access to minerals (Lobe 2003); and the Dutch firm Trafigura, which dumped toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire and recently paid almost US$200 million in compensation (‘Case profile: Trafigura lawsuits (re Côte d’Ivoire)’ 2009). While criticisms of Chinese actions in Africa are certainly valid, the portrayal of China as a bogeyman when compared to the West is far from reality.

China recognises that there is more to Africa than oil and minerals.

China is taking Africa seriously. Chinese representatives meet at least one African leader a month. The 2006 China-Africa summit hosted 48 African nations, during China’s ‘Year of Africa’; and 50 African states were present in 2009. In October, China also cancelled debts owed by 32 African governments (Lee 2009). China is winning the hearts and minds of the African people, through their wallets certainly, but also through a respectful understanding that Africa is a continent with a history, and a future beyond poverty and conflict. At the second meeting of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in 2003, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao:

supported Africa’s position on multilateralism, the elimination of trade barriers and farm subsidies, and increased aid and debt relief by the developed countries. He promised China would gradually increase aid to Africa, provide professional training for 10,000 Africans over three years, including military officers, grant duty-free access to Africa’s least developed countries, increase tourism, and encourage Chinese firms to invest in Africa. These promises are being kept (Council on Foreign Relations 2006).

Rwandan President Kagame, who is currently overseeing a bold national fibre-optic-internet project, recently praised China for its engagement and criticised the West’s obsession with aid (Blendford 2009). President Kagame said that China provides ‘“what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies” … [while] European and American involvement “has not brought Africa forward”… “I would prefer the Western world to invest in Africa rather than handing out development aid”’ (‘China praised for African links’ 2009).

China also recognises that there is more to Africa than oil and minerals. While India is celebrated by analysts as the mass-consumer market of the future, Africa duplicated Indian growth rates over the past decade, and has a comparable GDP per capita. Africa’s population will rival China’s within a few decades, and hundreds of millions of Africans will have buying power similar to the Western middle classes (Lee 2009). This is part of a global structural shift that will occur over coming decades. Emeritus Editor of United Press International, Martin Walker, argues that the Indian Ocean has an emerging trading network of goods and investment that has the potential to create a new global economic hub. Martin calls this region ‘CHIMEA’—for China, India, the Middle East, and Africa—a nexus of energy supplies and financial resources, which have an interest in developing Africa as a centre of agriculture to supply Earth’s estimated future population of nine billion people (2008, pp. 21–22). CHIMEA’s economic activity could finally integrate Africa into the global economy as both producer and consumer (Walker 2008, p. 22). Meanwhile, the West is set to fade towards the periphery, hastened by what Robert Fisk identifies as secret moves by major states, ‘to end dollar dealings for oil, moving instead to a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese yuan, the euro, gold, and a new, unified currency planned for nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council’ (2009, p. 8).


How can the West compete effectively with China in Africa?

How can the West compete effectively with China in Africa? Firstly, African governments can no longer just be dictated to—Western states and corporations must provide attractive deals that rival Chinese offers, and facilitate actual economic development rather than mere subsistence (Lyman 2005). Second, the nature of China’s challenge is not only economic and political, it is also social. From free Chinese language lessons in Liberia (Paye-Layleh 2009), to Chinese medicine and table tennis in the Central African Republic (Simpson 2009), and a slowly growing number of interracial marriages in Africa and China (Richburg 2009), cultural interactions between these regions have great potential for development. Chinese-run Confucius Institutes (cultural centres) are springing up throughout Africa (Malone 2008), while Chinese medical clinics have become so widespread that governments are developing new laws to regulate them (Gill & Reilly 2007, p. 41). China recently hosted a China–Africa Civil Society Dialogue in Beijing to increase ‘mutual understanding’ (April 2009), and 300,000 Chinese tourists visited Africa in 2007 (Tu 2008, p. 342). In addition, many thousands of ordinary Chinese see Africa as a world of opportunity where they can build new lives—with estimates that 750,000 Chinese have already settled in Africa over the past decade (Malone 2008). Usually the only Westerners to think of Africa this way are mining executives, missionaries and mercenaries. China will win the hearts and minds of many Africans who learn about the richness of this non-Western culture, while benefiting from the social infrastructure they have built. While Africans have been saturated with images of Western society, many have long been denied the advantages of it: modern culture; material consumption; and personal freedoms. To compete culturally, the West must provide the benefits it has always promised.

Thirdly, the West must prepare for the Africa of the future. This is the Africa that has profited from infrastructure development, has a high economic growth rate, a population comparable to China’s, and is still a provider of strategic mineral supplies. Western societies must invest in the study of African history, society and language; and begin the widespread shift of perception to acknowledge Africa’s population as qualitatively equal to that of Europe and North America. Another approach Western states can adopt is to increasingly open their markets to African agricultural products, which could benefit African development more immediately than all China and India can currently offer (Lyman 2005). If the West embraces this strategy now, it can help to shape and take advantage of Africa’s transition, rather than respond from a position of reaction and historical culpability. The West really has no choice. China is already engaging with Africa at this level, and will simply outbid the traditional metropoles with economic projects and social engagement. The Heritage Foundation advises the American government to ‘address these developments in Africa by deftly encouraging democratic processes, economic freedom, and respect for human rights’ (Brookes & Shin 2006). This new path is necessary for the West to remain influential in Africa specifically, and to remain prominent in the global community of the 21st century.


Adusei, L.A. 2009, ‘Small arms in Africa: Where does the buck stop?’, The African Executive, no. 204, 18–25 March [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

‘Angolan “mafia targets Chinese”’, BBC News Online, 2009, 14 November [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

April, Y. 2009, ‘Civil society participation and China–Africa cooperation’, Pambazuka News, no. 460, 3 December [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Ash, L. 2007, ‘China in Africa: Developing ties’, BBC News Online, 4 December [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Blair, D. 2007, ‘Why China is trying to colonise Africa’, Telegraph, 31 August [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Blendford, A. 2009, ‘Bold Rwanda takes broadband leap’, BBC News Online, 21 September [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Brookes, P. & Shin, J. H. 2006, ‘China’s influence in Africa: Implications for the United States’, Backgrounder, No 1916, The Heritage Foundation, 22 February [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

‘China praised for African links’, 2009, BBC News Online, 11 October [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

‘Case profile: Trafigura lawsuits (re Côte d’Ivoire)’, 2009, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, 20 September [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Clayton, J. 2009, ‘China tightens grip on Africa with $4.4bn lifeline for Guinea junta’, The Times, 13 October [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Council on Foreign Relations 2006, More Than Humanitarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach Toward Africa, Independent Task Force Report No. 56, Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

De Witte, L. 2002, The Assassination of Lumumba, Verso, London.

‘Don’t worry about killing people: By coddling Guinea’s dictator, China again mocks human rights in Africa’, 2009, The Economist, 15 October [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Dowden, R. 2005, ‘Aid “is not solution” for Africa’, BBC News Online, 24 June 2005 [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Fisk, R. 2009, ‘The demise of the dollar’, Other Voices – A Supplement to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December, p. 8.

French, H. W. 2006, ‘Commentary: China and Africa’, African Affairs, vol. 106, no. 422, pp. 127–132.

Gill, B. & Reilly, J. 2007, ‘The tenuous hold of China inc. in Africa’, The Washington Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 37–52.

Goldsmith, A.A. 2001, ‘Donors, dictators and democrats in Africa’, Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 411–436.

Hanson, S. 2008, ‘China, Africa, and oil’, Council on Foreign Relations, 6 June [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Harsch, E. 1993, ‘Structural adjustment and Africa’s democracy movements’, Africa Today; vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 7–29.

Harman, D. 2007, ‘Is Western aid making a difference in Africa? Two US economists debate the value of antipoverty efforts’, The Christian Science Monitor, 23 August [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Jinyuan, G. 1984, ‘China and Africa: The development of relations over many centuries’, African Affairs, vol. 83, no. 331, pp. 241–250.

Johnson, I. 2009, ‘New friction and vast agenda await Obama on China trip’, The Wall Street Journal, 9 November [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Kraxberger, B.M. 2005, ‘The United States and Africa: Shifting geopolitics in an “age of terror”’, Africa Today; vol. 52, no. 1, pp. 46–68.

Kroslak, D. 2008, The French Betrayal of Rwanda, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

LaFraniere, S. & Grobler, J. 2009, ‘China spreads aid in Africa, with a catch’, New York Times, 21 September [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Lee, J. 2009, ‘China woos Africa – And not just for its resources’, TIME, 16 November [Online], Available:,9171,1934868,00.html [2009, 10 Dec].

Lobe, J. 2003, ‘Global businesses profit from Congo war, groups charge’, Common, 28 October [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Lyman, P.N. 2005, ‘China’s rising role in Africa’, Council on Foreign Relations, 21 July [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Malone, A. 2008, ‘How China’s taking over Africa, and why the West should be VERY worried’, Daily Mail, 18 July [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Ohaegbulam, F.U. 1992, ‘The United States and Africa after the Cold War’, Africa Today; vol. 39, no. 4, pp. 20–34.

Paye-Layleh, J. 2009, ‘Learn Chinese for free … in Liberia’, BBC News Online, 13 October [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Richburg, K.B. 2009, ‘Racial rethinking as Obama visits’, The Washington Post, 15 November [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

 ‘Shell settle Nigeria deaths case’, 2009, BBC News Online, 9 June [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec]

Simpson, C. 2009, ‘China honoured in central Africa’, BBC News Online, 19 October [Online], Available: [2009, 10 Dec].

Szeftel, M. 2000, ‘Between governance & under-development: Accumulation & Africa’s “catastrophic corruption”’, Review of African Political Economy, vol. 27, no. 84, pp. 287–306. 

Tu, J. 2008, ‘Sino-African relations: Historical development and long-term challenges’, China: An International Journal, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 330–343.

van de Walle, N. 2009, ‘US policy towards Africa: The Bush legacy and the Obama administration’, African Affairs, 4 November, pp. 1–21.

Walker, M. 2008, ‘Indian Ocean nexus’, The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 21–28.

Dr David Alexander Robinson is a Lecturer of History at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He completed his doctorate in African History in 2006, and now teaches courses on Global History, Human Rights and Genocide. His research focus is post-colonial Africa and Cold War conflict.