Sino-African relations can be traced back to the 14th century. Since the end of the Cold War, these relations have intensified as part of China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative. This is very beneficial for China, both for the economy and for increasing political support. This also helps expand its military strength and cultural influence.
Grace Obado is associate professor of international relations and sustainable development at IE University and Schiller International University. Her research interest is centred on African studies with particular focus on sustainable management of both human and natural resources, regional geopolitics and conflict resolution.
Previously, she worked as International Coordinator for ENIASA, European Network for Information and Action for Southern Africa.
In the last decades, there has been much talk about China in Africa, but when did Sino-African relations begin?
Africa’s relationship with China can be traced back to the 14th century with the Ming Dynasty when Admiral Zeng arrived on the coast of East Africa. But it wasn’t until the 20th Century that the relationship started to take shape- when the People’s Republic of China was founded.
The end of the cold war in 1989 marked a new era for China- it moved from a command economy to a market economy. During this time period, China sought energy based natural resources to fuel its manufacturing sector and Africa presented a great opportunity that could guarantee steady supplies.
To strengthen Sino-African relations, China and African countries launched the Forum on China-Africa in Cooperation (FOCAC) to promote peace, economic and cultural relations among the signatories.
Over the past three decades, China’s economy has moved from being largely closed to becoming the second-largest economy in the world in terms of GDP.
So, beyond supplying China with natural resources,in what ways is Africa bolstering China’s global influence.
1.By providing China with Political support: African countries are continuously supporting China’s positions in international organizations as China-Africa economic relations are strengthening. This in a way, helps to raise China’s influence in global affairs. For example, when the United Nations General Assembly voted in 1971 to replace the Republic of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China, many African countries voted against the resolution. Nowadays, most African governments express support for Beijing’s “One China” policy, a prerequisite for attracting Chinese aid and investment. But in 2007, when the UN General Assembly voted on North Korea’s human rights records, an overwhelming majority of African countries voted in support of China’s position- with only 10 countries voting against the resolution. Similar voting pattern has also been observed in the UN WTO.
2.Economic benefits. According to the world bank, currently Africa represents only about 2% of China’s economic activities. That doesn’t seem like a significant amount. So, why does Africa still matter to China.
- A growing region with a huge market potential: In the last 15 years, Africa has been one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. In 2019, 6 out of 10 of the fastest economies were in Africa. In addition, with the ratification of the African Continental Free Trade Area in 2019, Africa created the single largest market in the world in terms of member countries. Together with a growing consumer class in Africa, China sees this as an opportunity for selling products manufactured by Chinese companies in China and in Africa.
- Demographics: The population of Africa right now stands at 1.3 B people and it is projected to rise to 2.4 B by 2050 before it plateaus at 4B by the turn of the century. As the population of China starts to age, China is positioning itself to continue benefiting from the rising population in Africa- especially in terms of sourcing cheaper labour. A good example of this is how China in turning Ethiopia into a huge manufacturing hub.
- Urbanization: Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest urbanizing region in the world. Today, there are 52 cities with populations of over 1 million people and by 2025 that number will increase to 100 cities. This presents unprecedented opportunities in constructing infrastructure and providing goods and services that support urban life.
3.A vast continent where it can increase its Cultural influence
China has been promoting Chinese culture and language through Confucius Institutes in Africa. These institutes have been growing very rapidly if we take into account that since 2005, about 50 of them have been launched across African cities.
In a number of African countries such as Uganda, Zambia or Zimbabwe, there has been increasing demand for African schools to offer Mandarin.
In addition, the number of African students in China has surpassed both those pursuing tertiary education in the US and the UK (each host around 40,000 African students). This means that many African future leaders are receiving their education from China. In countries like Ethiopia, China is not only educating college students but training government officials, from factory workers to train drivers. This, in turn, will increase the scope of China’s influence in Africa.
4. Security Presence
China tends to adhere to its policy of non-intervention in Africa, but through its actions in Sudan and South Sudan the consistency of this policy could be questionable. Furthermore, China has built its first military base outside China in Djibouti. These actions may suggest that China will use Africa to project itself globally as a superpower with considerable military strength.
Even though in the last two-decade China’s main focus in Africa has been on commodities to fuel its manufacturing sector, it has also been strategically diversifying its presence on the continent to cover political and cultural influence, security and economic engagements. As Africa continues to register economic and population growth, China’s big presence in Africa will certainly play an important role in increasing China’s global influence.