The huge growth of Chinese political and business interests in Africa is conceivably the most significant development for the continent’s international relations since the ending of the Cold War. Published trade figures alone bear evidence to the speed by which the Chinese economic presence in Africa has developed over the last ten years or so: China is now Africa’s largest bilateral trading partner. A massive surge in Chinese economic interests in Africa has seen the value of China’s trade with Africa increase from US$4 billion in 1996 to US$155 billion in 2011 (Stevens, 2012). China-Africa trade isestimated to have surpassed $200 billion in 2012 (China Daily, February 18, 2013). Much of this expansion is underpinned by a desire to obtain sources of raw materials and energy for China’s on-going economic growth. New export markets for Chinese producers and traders, obliged to seek new markets by domestic dynamics within China’s economy, also propels the economic connections (see Taylor, 2009a).

Image courtesy of the New York Times © 2013, Heng

Image courtesy of the New York Times © 2013, Heng

Trade between Africa and China began to conspicuously accelerate around 2000 and between 2001 and 2006, Africa’s exports to China increased at an annual rate of over 40 per cent (Wang Jianye, 2007: 5). Since 2003 alone, Sino-African trade has increased by nearly 500 per cent. Notably, back in 1990, no African countries traded amounts with China above 5 per cent of their GDP; by 2008, nearly two dozen had passed this benchmark figure.

With the abandonment of Maoism and the return to the capitalist road (see Fang Kang, 1978), reform-era China has been based on ‘an unwritten social contract between the party and the people, where the people do not compete with the party for political power as long as the party looks after their economic fortunes’ (Breslin, 2005: 749). When projected abroad, ‘foreign policy that sustains an international environment supportive of economic growth and stability in China serves these objectives’ (Sutter, 2008: 2). The developing world has long been a spatial area where Beijing’s foreign policy has been pursued energetically, using the development of “common interests” with the South to raise China’s global stature. Africa specifically has emerged as a relatively significant component in Chinese calculations at diverse levels, whether state, provincial, municipal or individual. Whilst political considerations are important, it is the economics of the relationship which is in the driving seat.

As noted, the legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the political system it manages is today based upon the CPC’s ability to sustain economic growth. Intimately linked to this, Beijing is faced with a long-term decline in domestic oil production (Taylor, 2006b). China’s policymakers are actively encouraging national companies to aggressively pursue oil and other natural resources in Africa. China is currently the world’s second largest oil importer and the second largest consumer of African resources. The abundance of natural resources in Africa has thus led Chinese corporations to seek long-term deals with African governments in order to ensure continued access to all varieties of raw materials and energy in Africa. As China’s national oil companies are largely excluded from the majority of Middle Eastern oil supplies and as Beijing wishes to limit vulnerability on the international oil market, there is a policy to encourage investment in Africa, courting states that the West have overlooked. This resource-based foreign policy has, by its very nature, little room for morality.

The interest in ensuring its resource security and economic growth through involvement in Africa is by no means restricted to oil, and encompasses all natural resources. From investment in copper in Zambia, platinum interests in Zimbabwe to supporting fishing ventures in Gabon and Namibia, Chinese corporations have vigorously courted and pursued the political and business elite in Africa to guarantee continued access, often lubricated with sweetener deals provided by central government. One of the benefits of Chinese interest in African resources is that it has dramatically increased demand and has revitalised industries such as Zambia’s copper industry. However, the influx of capital into weak and authoritarian governments also has long-term consequences for Africa as leaders may be tempted to neglect necessary reforms, bolstered by newly perceived economic security from Chinese (and other emerging economies’) interest (see Taylor, 2010):

           On the one hand, the high prices of some commodities, which are driven by China’s growth and demand, may be detrimental for the exporters of these commodities as they create strong incentives for remaining within the existing pattern of exports, although this pattern is a major factor of vulnerability to external shocks and fluctuations of prices and demand. This entrenching of the specialisation of SSA in commodity exports is driven not only by China but also by other emerging countries (e.g. India, Brazil): the composition of SSA’s exports to other developing countries over the 2000s has shifted towards primary products at the expense of manufactures. On the other hand, these commodities’ high prices harm the African countries that do not export them and need to import them (e.g. oil or food importers), as they cause a deterioration of the trade balance (Sindzingre, 2013: 36).

Obviously, this potential negative outcome is not a problem that can be specifically associated with Chinese engagement with Africa. It is in fact intimately linked to the nature of the state in much of Africa and the colonial inheritance. In short, African politics must be understood as the utilisation of patronage and clientelism and operates within neopatrimonial modes of governance. In this context, the idea that resources should be channelled towards the nebulous concept of “national development” are out of the question in many African states. Productive economic activities and notions of long-term investment are side-lined in favour of immediate consumption, display and resource diffusion (Chabal and Daloz, 1999). In this regard, Chinese policy is vulnerable to the claim that in dealing only with the state and rigorously adhering to its “non-interference” strategy, Beijing exacerbates existing structural faults in the political economies of a number of African states.

 One must note that with the exception of oil exports to China, Sino-African trade is generally lopsided in favour of Chinese exporters who are penetrating African markets with cheap household products. Such imports into Africa have been criticised as doing little to encourage indigenous African manufacturing. Certainly, it is the historic failure of African economies to industrialise and develop that means that they produce very few processed goods. They are thus a natural target for Chinese exporters. Yet, such Chinese engagement reifies Africa’s status as an exporter of raw materials whilst an importer of manufactured goods, something which has consigned the African continent to underdevelopment and a reproduction of Africa’s historical relationships with the external world. This is the greatest challenge facing the continent and which undermines the notion that Chinese engagement in Africa is, as the official line from Beijing puts it, “mutually beneficial” and a “win-win situation”.