The PRC Expands its Global Presence: The African Case


2013-03-08 By Richard Weitz

In the past decade, Sino-African relations have increased in importance.

Recent trends point to Chinese involvement in three areas of interest: economic policy, diplomacy, and military cooperation. Beijing’s policies with reference to sub-Saharan Africa reflect clear goals:

1)    expanding export markets (to Africa’s growing middle class)

2)    gaining access to the continent’s mineral riches (oil, gas, rare earth minerals), and

3)    increasing China’s international influence.

China overtook France as sub-Saharan Africa’s number two trading partner in 2006 and three years later overtook the United States to become sub-Saharan Africa’s main trading partner.

As of 2011, trade between China and Africa had increased to$120 billion; estimates are that it should exceed $300 billion by around 2016.

In the past few years, China’s Export-Import Bank, the Chinese Development Bank, and other Chinese financial institutions has provided more loans to Africa countries than the World Bank. 

The PRC’s military presence in Africa has grown in the past decade, marked by an increase in Chinese involvement in UN peacekeeping operations and military-to-military relations.

In November 2011, China had sixteen attaché offices in Africa, as well as 1,600 personnel assigned to six UN peacekeeping operations.

The PLA’s role in Africa likely will increase if current trends continue. As China’s economic presence in the region grows, maintaining a capable security presence is crucial in protecting Chinese nationals in Africa and in promoting regional stability.

Beijing has demonstrated a growing willingness to pursue its economic and diplomatic goals in Africa through peacekeeping and military-to-military relations. Africa functions as a place where the PLA can test its capabilities during UN peacekeeping missions and other multilateral security operations. PRC involvement in Africa, often portrayed as a “mad scramble” for natural resources, has been viewed as a threat to U.S. interests as well as to stability and democratization on the continent.

Others suggest that cooperation between Africa, China, and the West is possible since Africa is large enough to accommodate trade between all parties. Another debate concentrates on the reality of a coherent Chinese strategy in Africa. Beijing faces many policy challenges in Africa due to China’s noninterference policy, its controversial arms sales, recent Chinese immigration to Africa, and private-sector business practices.

Sino-African relations date back to the early fifteenth century, when Fleet Admiral Zheng He sailed to East Africa. PRC officials cite the history of China’s peaceful involvement in Africa as evidence of mutual trade and friendly relations.

Since colonialism ended in Africa, China has maintained a subtle presence on the continent by offering aid and support to protect its interests, but the Chinese claim to have never intervened in the internal affairs of African states.

Despite not having military bases in Africa, China has increased its military presence in the region over the past decade—primarily through peacekeeping missions, security assistance, arms sales, and military exchanges. Credit Image: Bigstock

The PRC’s early involvement in Africa had a strong ideological nature. During the 1960s and 1970s, PRC foreign policy aimed to “export revolution.” The PRC’s military presence in Africa after the Cold War is best characterized by support for status quo regimes and regional stability through military-military relations, peacekeeping missions, and arms sales.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, competing with Moscow for leadership within the world communist movement became more important. In the 1980s, Chinese policy shifted toward an economic focus, with the idea of “common development” through PRC investment projects that benefited China as well as Africa. PRC policy makers also tried to secure political recognition of the Beijing government from Taiwan and provide official development assistance to countries that displayed socialist tendencies.  Military support for revolutionary insurgencies decreased while that for established governments grew.

The year 2000 marked a significant milestone in Sino-African relations: the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The “going out” (zou chuqu) strategy that was then incorporated in the 2001-2006 five-year plan, which established favorable policies, regulations, and support for investment overseas, represented a significant policy shift and an important evolution in Chinese strategic thought.

The PRC demonstrated further commitment in 2006 in publishing “China’s Africa Policy,” a white paper that outlined Beijing’s position on politics, economics, security, education, science, culture, and health.

PRC officials use the regular FOCAC meetings not only to demonstrate commitment to Africa but also to announce future initiatives. The 2006 Forum launched a $5 billion China-Africa Development Fund, while in 2009, Beijing pledged an additional $10 billion in concessional loans to show its commitment to mutual economic growth.

Under the FOCAS’s auspices, China has launched initiatives in education, work training, health, agriculture, clean energy, drinking water, medical care, disease prevention, and food production as features of the “eight-point plans” that extend beyond traditional economic and trade cooperation.  The PRC also supports the African Union (AU), both financially and publicly. A recent example of China’s support was the unveiling of the new Chinese-funded $200 million AU headquarters in Addis Ababa in January 2012.

China has funded a variety of infrastructure projects across Africa, including dams, sports stadiums, and even mosques.  In accordance with its noninterference policy, China defers to the AU on all human rights cases claiming that, “[The African Union is most] qualified to make judgments on the domestic affairs of African countries.”

Despite not having military bases in Africa, China has increased its military presence in the region over the past decade—primarily through peacekeeping missions, security assistance, arms sales, and military exchanges.

“Exporting revolution” is no longer the motivation for maintaining a military presence in Africa, while ensuring that valuable resources continue to flow to China has emerged as a major priority, best pursued through maintaining some degree of stability and order in Africa and the international waters around it.

The PLA is beginning to develop capabilities to protect sea lanes as well as Chinese citizens in times of political instability.

China sells weapons to African governments and contributes to regional peacekeeping forces. Furthermore, the PRC increasingly promotes meetings between PRC and African officers, technological exchanges, and joint military cooperation. These efforts are relatively small, but Africa offers a training ground for the PRC’s extended military deployment capabilities.

At present, China mostly deploys forces in Africa under the auspices of multilateral organizations, which lessons concerns about the PLA’s presence in Africa. The PLA Navy counter-piracy contributions in the Gulf of Aden have also increased international acceptance of the PLA’s expanding military reach.