China’s Expanding Role in Africa and Implications for the EU

Linda Jakobson & Jacob Wood. Europe and China. Volume 1. Hong Kong University Press, 2012.


For the first time in decades, Africa has been attracting the positive attention of the rest of the world (Cheru, 1998). Afro-pessimism has given way to more upbeat images of Africa and aspirations that a framework for a viable African development agenda can indeed be put in place. Africa is home to 300 million of the globe’s poorest people and the world’s most formidable development challenges. Since 1995 more than 15 sub-Saharan countries have enjoyed real per capita growth rates of over 2% a year, compared with only 5% in 1960-94 (World Bank, 2005: 26). Despite the optimism, sustainable development still poses a momentous challenge for most of Africa. Many African countries are not on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals (, 2008). One of the world’s leading economists argues that the poorest billion of mankind, most of which live in sub-Saharan Africa, were at the turn of the 21st century poorer than they had been in the 1970s (Collier, 2008).

According to a World Bank 2007 report, China’s and India’s increased trade and investment with Africa particularly presents a significant opportunity for growth and integration of the sub-Saharan continent into the global economy. These two emerging Asian giants are at the center of the explosion of African-Asian trade and investment, marking a new trend in South-South economic relations and transforming traditional patterns of economic development (Broadman, 2007: 1).

Between 2000 and 2008, the value of China-African trade rose nearly eleven-fold to roughly US$ 107 billion. While the global financial crisis led to a decline in 2009, bilateral trade recovered in 2010 (CAITEC, 2010). Chinese investments in Africa have grown even more rapidly, increasing nineteen-fold from 2003 to 2009, and totaled US$ 9.33 billion in 2009 (MoFCOM, 2004; 2010a). China’s political and military engagement on the continent has also increased considerably in recent years. As of October 2010, China had 2,011 personnel serving in ten UN peacekeeping missions, among which 1,634 were in Africa (United Nations, 2010). This is in sharp contrast to the US, who had only 27 military personnel assigned to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa as of October 2010 (United Nations, 2010). EU member states on average supply fewer than 2% of the troops who serve in the UN’s African missions (Gowan and Sherman, 2009).

Following the launch in 2000 of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China’s leaders have increasingly paid high profile visits to Africa. This trend accelerated in 2006, when China hosted 49 African heads of state and government at the FOCAC summit in Beijing. Between 2006 and 2010, President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made 23 visits to African countries (China Vitae, 2010). During the G20 summit in April 2009, President Hu reiterated China’s commitment to fulfill the promises made during the 2006 FOCAC summit, which included doubling its 2006 assistance to Africa by 2009, canceling debt, establishing trade, and economic cooperation zones, training 15,000 African professionals and several other cooperation agreements (Brown and Zhang, 2009). At the Fourth Ministerial Conference of FOCAC in Egypt in November 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao spelled out eight new measures the Chinese government will take to strengthen China-Africa cooperation over the next three years (Xinhua, 2009). At the top of the list was a proposal to establish a China-Africa partnership to address climate change, which includes China’s agreement to build 100 clean energy projects for Africa covering solar power, bio-gas and small hydro power.

Though China and India as well as Brazil and South Korea have all become new actors in Africa, it is China’s expanding role in Africa that has caught the world’s attention. The reasons for this scrutiny are manifold. Because of its growing economic, political, and military global might, whatever China does in the international arena evokes the interest of outsiders. Throughout history rising great powers have caused jitters due to uncertainty of their future direction. In addition, China’s need to acquire colossal quantities of oil, gas, copper, zinc, timber, and other raw materials to fuel its economic growth causes anxiety. It inevitably raises questions about how China in the long term will behave if its overseas investments to secure natural resources are genuinely threatened. Or, worse yet, if it concludes that it can no longer secure the energy and raw materials that are imperative for economic development by abiding by present international norms. Moreover, the other new actors in Africa do not have the veto-wielding power of a UN Security Council member as China does and therefore they cannot use the political leverage that accompanies the veto to gain advantages in Africa. Nor are the other new actors perceived by Western governments and international aid and human rights organizations to be challenging the promotion of good governance in Africa to the degree that China is.

China’s Interests in Africa

China wants to cultivate strong relations with Africa for multiple reasons. Oil is the leading commodity that China imports from Africa, but China’s Africa policies encompass several other strategic goals other than merely securing oil. China’s heightened level of activity in Africa is part of China’s broadening global reach and overall strategy to promote an image of a peacefully rising, constructive, and responsible major power. Chinese leaders repeatedly call for the strengthening of the Sino-African partnership “characterized by equality and mutual respect on the political front, a win-win economic cooperation and reciprocal cultural exchanges” (China Embassy in Albania, 2010). When describing Sino-African relations China’s officials refer to 50 years of friendly ties between China and African countries. In articles about China’s ties with Africa by Chinese commentators a predominant theme is the common heritage of struggling to eradicate poverty and colonialism which China and African nations share (Liu, 2007: 25). Official statements emphasize mutual benefit and mutual respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of states as guiding principles of the international system.

In the economic sphere, the African continent is of interest to China primarily because of its oil resources, its other natural resources, its role as an export market for manufactured goods and labor, and Africa’s role in enhancing China’s food security. Besides sub-Saharan Africa having the world’s second largest oil reserves (after the Middle East), Africa is looked upon by Chinese companies as an expanding market for their products. The Chinese government in turn views African energy and other major infrastructure pojects as a vehicle to create jobs for China’s growing labor pool. In recent years, Chinese enterprises have also been encouraged by government officials to invest in the agriculture sector in Africa (Horta, 2009).

Especially since the early 2000s, China’s trade with African countries has grown rapidly, as has the amount of Chinese investments in Africa. China’s largest trading partners in 2008 were Angola, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria, and Egypt, accounting for 62% of all African trade with China in 2008 (Denner, 2009). China’s imports from Africa consist overwhelmingly of mineral products (80%), which is mainly crude oil (71%), while African imports from China include textiles and clothing, machinery, transport equipment, base metals, and footwear (Fundira, 2008).

Increased trade with China and other Asian countries, coupled with Asian investments, have spurred economic growth in African countries, which (excluding Zimbabwe) has been on average around 5% per year since 2000 (Li, 2008: 3). Oil is the critical factor. Four of five African countries China imports the most from (Angola, Sudan, Congo, and Equatorial Guinea) sell nearly exclusively oil to China; these are also the African nations which have shown the most robust economic growth over the past decade (Sandrey, 2006). The top three African countries (Algeria, Congo, Nigeria) which China invested in 2009 were all oil producers (MoFCOM, 2010a). About 16% of China’s imported crude oil came from Angola alone in 2009 (General Administration of Customs, 2009).

Despite the impressive growth rates, it is worth bearing in mind that in absolute terms the value of China-Africa trade for 2009—US$ 91 billion—was modest when compared to the volume of China’s trade in 2009 with the EU (US$ 364 billion), the US (US$ 298 billion), Japan (US$ 232 billion), or even South Korea (US$ 141 billion) (MoFCOM, 2010b). Also in terms of global capital flows, China’s interests on the African continent are marginal, though growing. Direct investment from China into Africa rose from a mere US$ 107 million per annum in the latter half of the 1990s to US$ 1.4 billion in 2009, but this still only accounted for a mere 2% of total foreign direct investment in Africa (MoFCOM, 2010d; UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2010). Chinese companies invest far more in other Asian countries than in Africa. For example, in 2009 China invested roughly the same amount in Singapore (US$ 1.41 billion) as in the entire African continent (US$ 1.44 billion) (MoFCOM, 2010a). Even India and Malaysia invest more in Africa than China does (Donavan and McGovern, 2007). However, in light of the global economic turndown the 81% increase in China’s investment in Africa from 2008 to 2009 was a welcome development for Africans (China Daily, 2009).

Politically, Africa has for decades been important to China because of the support by the majority of African nations for the “One China” principle and deterrence of Taiwanese independence. As of December 2010, only four African countries maintained ties with Taipei and not Beijing. Besides relying on the African voting bloc on all issues related to Taiwan or China’s human rights record at the UN and its sub-organizations, Beijing relies on the African nations’ support in a number of international multilateral settings.

More broadly, China’s increasingly close relationship with African countries reflects China’s evolving foreign policy and hence public diplomacy as it strives to establish itself as a world power. Beijing’s leaders recognize that a global power is expected to address the challenges and crises that afflict the international order. But at the same time the leadership is finding it increasingly difficult to juggle the demands of diverse national interests. In Africa, multiple contradictions coexist because the continent encompasses some of the world’s most resource-rich countries, most fragile states, poorest nations, most severe humanitarian crises, and most harsh regimes.

While China benefits from its relationship with Africa because of the economic opportunities and diplomatic support that Africa offers, China is simultaneously running the risk of losing political capital in the international arena because of its close ties with dictators as well as its disregard for transparency and accountability when providing aid. Television footage of China’s leaders welcoming Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and continuous public statements by Chinese officials that low interest loans and development aid to Africa are granted by China with “no strings attached” reinforce the image of the Beijing government having little regard for human rights among parliamentary democracies around the world as well as among segments of the African population. To quote David Shambaugh, China’s “strikingly opaque” foreign aid is a “glaring contradiction to the broader trend of China’s adherence to international norms” (Lafraniere and Grobler, 2009). The European Commission has targeted the need for transparency in China’s aid policies in Africa ever since the Commission’s “Communication” on China in late 2006 (European Commission, 2006).

A Diverse Group of Chinese Actors

In a mere three decades, the face of China abroad has transformed radically. Those responsible for Chinese foreign policy are trying their best to come to terms with the increasingly dynamic roles of a diverse group of Chinese actors in the international arena (see e.g. Jakobson and Knox, 2010). Ensuring that China’s diplomacy supports China’s national interests is a tremendous challenge.

In the Chinese bureaucracy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is merely one actor in the realm of diplomacy; in addition representatives of the National Development and Reform Commission, People’s Bank of China, China Development Bank, China Export-Import Bank, State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Commerce, several other ministries, and provincial and municipal governments are all involved in activities abroad in the name of the PRC, and are directly or indirectly part of decision-making processes pertaining to China’s diplomatic efforts. Most of these government entities lack the personnel with sufficient expertise on modern Africa. Moreover, rivalry between different bureaucracies hampers coordination.

Both the China Development Bank (CDB) and the provincial governments are noteworthy Chinese state actors in Africa. The focus of the CDB’s international activities is in the area of infrastructure, construction and energy exploration. In 2007 the bank initiated the China-Africa Development Fund with a preliminary injection of US$ 1 billion, intended to be eventually increased to US$ 5 billion. China’s provinces, in turn, have for decades acted as agents of China’s central government in the implementation of its foreign aid policy. The central government usually decides the policy and provides the funds, while the provincial governments are responsible for delivering the aid, such as sending medical teams, building aid projects, sponsoring training programs, etc. According to Chen Zhimin, China’s provinces have also started to provide aid to their African counterparts in their own capacity (Chen et al., 2010: 347).

Since former premier Zhu Rongji first initiated the “go out” policy in his 2000 report to the National People’s Congress, enterprises under all forms of ownership have been encouraged to invest in overseas operations and expand their international market shares. In 1985 the number of Chinese enterprises investing abroad was 143; by the end of 2009, more than 12,000 domestic Chinese investment entities had established nearly 13,000 enterprises in 177 countries or regions with accumulated outward foreign direct investment stock valued at US$ 245 billion (MoFCOM, 2010a). In 2009 the rate of outbound investments in the non-financial sector grew by 14% to $47 billion while the contract value of projects in other countries and regions went up by 20% to US$ 126 billion (MoFCOM, 2010a; 2010c). The outreach of Chinese companies in Africa has been the particular focus of the media worldwide. In 2009 the Chinese Ministry of Commerce reported that there were about 1600 Chinese companies operating in Africa, of which approximately 85% were privately owned. However, the estimates of Chinese enterprises in Africa vary greatly, with one senior Chinese official estimating a number of over 28,000, of which most are private companies (China News Service, 2010; MoFCOM, 2010a).

Estimates of the number of Chinese in Africa vary considerably too, with conservative estimates as low as 100,000 workers and other estimates two to seven times that figure. China’s official news agency, Xinhua, states as many as 750,000 Chinese are working or living “for extended periods” on the continent (Politzer, 2008). This large influx of businessmen and migrant workers to the African continent is not only supported but also encouraged by the Chinese government. In 2007, the head of China’s EXIM Bank Li Guogu urged poor farmers to move to Africa, promising to support migration with investment, project development, and help with the sale of products (Polizer, 2008). This speech by Li triggered speculation that China seeks to use Africa to resettle part of China’s large population and expand its labor force. In what is allegedly dubbed the “Chongqing Experiment” Chinese officials plan to eventually settle 12 million Chinese farmers in Africa (Ayitte, 2009).

Chinese actors in Africa can be roughly divided into five categories. The first group of actors is comprised of government officials, including diplomats but also officials representing the afore-mentioned numerous government entities. Province-level state-owned enterprises (SOEs) make up over four-fifths of all Chinese firms investing abroad. Hence provincial governments are key Chinese actors in Africa.

Second, there are representatives of major state-run and large private enterprises that benefit from the Chinese government’s “go out” strategy that encourages companies to invest abroad by providing preferential tax treatment, low-interest bank loans, and foreign exchange access (Corkin, 2006: 10-16). This second group usually operates with the explicit approval and support of the Ministry of Commerce and provincial or city governments.

The third group comprises of medium-size to small businesses, some of which are officially categorized as rural enterprises but in fact are often simply rural entrepreneurs who have ventured to Africa in search of business opportunities.

Fourth, there are middlemen operating in Africa who represent mainland Chinese or overseas Chinese companies. These middlemen, some of whom are PRC passport holders and some of whom are PRC-born businessmen who carry a green card or passport of another country, are often mentioned as go-betweens in Chinese arms deals to African countries.

And finally, there are thousands of Chinese laborers in Africa. They work for the most part on oil rigs and construction sites; in other words they implement the huge infrastructure contracts secured by Chinese companies, to a large extent with the backing of preferential loans from Chinese banks.

Despite the goodwill between the Chinese and African governments, there are growing tensions between African and Chinese citizens. News of conflict at the grassroots level has become commonplace: In October 2010 two Chinese managers were accused of opening fire at a crowd of Zambian workers who were protesting working conditions at the Chinese-owned Collum coal mine, 200 miles south of Lusaka. Two workers were seriously injured (see e.g. BBC News, 2010; Mundy, 2010). In July 2009 more than 100 angry Africans surrounded a police station in Guangzhou, after a Nigerian clothing trader died during an immigration raid (, 2009). Less than a month later 100 Algerians and Chinese migrant workers engaged in a bloody street fight in Algeria’s capital (Reuters, 2009). Amidst the overwhelmingly positive African media reports about China’s activities in Africa, there are also African commentators who do not shower praise on China’s intentions on the continent. For example, Martin Davies described Beijing’s motives as far from purely altruistic following Premier Wen’s 2009 pledge to provide US$ 10 billion in concessional loans to African countries as well as support for Chinese financial institutions to encourage them to loan to small and medium-sized African businesses. According to Davies, China’s massive commitments in infrastructure and political relationship building in Africa are aimed to create a parallel market away from the established international commodities markets, which would be exclusively for the Chinese (The Telegraph, 2009).

The Chinese authorities do not have the capacity to oversee or control all the activities of the diverse actors though they have in recent years become aware that these actors can disrupt China’s broad diplomatic efforts and taint China’s image abroad. China’s national oil companies (NOC), other large SOEs and banks such as the International and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) increasingly operate as market-driven business enterprises striving toward efficiency and seeking profits—in fact this is precisely what the Beijing government wants them to do. These large Chinese SOEs scouring the globe for natural resources have a symbiotic yet ambiguous relationship with the government. There is conflicting evidence with regard to which party is in the driver’s seat (Jakobson, 2008). On the one hand, the executives of an NOC, for example, are appointed by the Chinese Communist Party Organizational Department. On the other hand, the NOCs are important sources of tax revenue for the central government and they also employ hundreds of thousands of people. The central government is not in a position to simply dictate policies to the NOCs, though the National Development and Reform Commission does its utmost to attempt to coordinate policies of the NOCs (Downs, 2006; Jakobson, 2008; Lieberthal and Herberg, 2006). This lack of authority on the part of the central government is even more acute when assessing the operations of small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa. Since the mid-2000s the government has put into place numerous regulations in an attempt to regulate the activities of Chinese businessmen in Africa, but enforcement of these regulations is highly problematic. When one considers the immense difficulties that the central government encounters in its attempts to oversee the enforcement of many laws within China due to the opposition of enterprise managers as well as the close relationship they cultivate with local officials, one can surmise the weak position of a diplomat sitting in the Chinese Embassy in Khartoum or any other African capital when he tries to force Chinese businessmen to heed Ministry of Commerce regulations in Africa.

Since the mid-2000s China has become more acutely aware of the importance of maintaining a good image in Africa and has in its public diplomacy paid more attention to the concerns of the international community, in particular with regard to the humanitarian crisis in Africa. Officials in Beijing have come to realize—though they do not officially acknowledge it—that the active involvement of Chinese state-owned companies in Sudan presents a challenge to China’s desire to be viewed as a responsible global power. As a result of Chinese oil investments in Sudan and arms sales to Sudan, the Khartoum government has significantly benefited, and continues to benefit, both financially and militarily. When President Hu met Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir in February 2007 he indicated China’s desire to help stabilize Sudan by announcing China’s support for a UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (Chen and Liu, 2007). China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, during a speech in Geneva in August 2009, highlighted Darfur as one of four “hotspot issues” worldwide, saying: “China supports parallel progress in both the political process of the Darfur issue and the deployment of the peacekeeping operations” (The Guardian, 2009).

A 2009 debate in The Economist about China’s growing involvement in Africa between two prominent African scholars, Calestous Juma of Harvard University and George Ayittey of American University, underscores the controversial nature of outsiders’ involvement in Africa. Juma argues that as a result of the decline in demand for Africa’s basic exports at the end of the Cold War (Africa’s share in the EU’s foreign trade shrunk to about 1.3% between 1989 and 2009), China’s rising demand for Africa’s natural resources helped to re-establish Africa as a source of valuable commodities for the global market. More importantly, China’s interest in Africa has focused more attention on the fundamental question of why Africa remains poor despite being rich in natural resources (The Economist, 2010). Juma insists that China’s involvement in Africa is positive because it serves as a “source of inspiration” and provides a “renewed hope” for African countries to escape the cycle of poverty. Ayittey, on the other hand, argues that China’s opaque decision-making and unchecked power over investment and exploitation in Africa have created what irate African commentators denounce as “chopsticks mercantilism.” “With chopsticks dexterity, China can pick off mineral dumplings with relish in Africa all to its advantage,” Ayittey states (The Economist, 2010).

Since 2007 China’s international credibility has also been a recurring theme in internal Chinese discussions involving officials, foreign policy advisors, and scholars. Chinese academics have written about China’s image problem in Chinese journals, calling on the country to “improve its credibility in the international community through enhancing the transparency of its governmental and commercial activities” (Zha, 2005: 11-12). Ministry officials admit in off-the-record research interviews that Chinese oil companies’ operations in Sudan in particular, but also the nonchalant attitudes of some Chinese companies toward working conditions and workers’ safety more generally in Africa, have damaged China’s international standing. Chinese academics have spoken and written about this problem openly: Ge Zhiguo refers to the “poor behavior” of Chinese companies in Africa and “their lack of social responsibility,” which have not only caused obstacles to the “go out” strategies of the enterprises, but “have also hindered the great efforts made by the Chinese government to maintain good China-Africa relations” (Ge, 2007: 3). Zhu Feng is quoted in the Financial Times as saying that Chinese state-owned companies are “hijacking China’s diplomacy” (McGregor, 2008). Top Chinese government officials are also working to address their nation’s image problem. In June 2008, more than 1,000 officials attended a conference to discuss the problems encountered by China’s “go out” strategy. China’s Minister of Commerce Chen Deming called on local governments and enterprises to strengthen monitoring and to adhere more strictly to national policies and regulations for foreign economic cooperation (MoFCOM, 2008).

Businessmen seek profits while the goal of diplomats is to enhance the nation’s national interests. In China’s case its foremost national interests are to ensure continued economic growth and stability—both prerequisites for the continued legitimacy of Chinese Communist Party rule. Other paramount Chinese national interests include deterrence of Taiwanese independence and making sure that the rest of the world continues to adhere to the One China principle; maintaining peaceful relations with its neighbors; avoiding conflict with the United States (or any other major power) while at the same time resisting any attempts by outsiders to impede its development; and finally, ensuring that its rise does not cause fear or alarm to outsiders.

Implications for the EU

The EU has a keen interest in China’s expanding role in Africa for several reasons. First, European and Chinese imported oil and gas comes from primarily two regions, the Middle East and Africa. In 2009, Africa provided 22% of the EU’s and 30% of China’s imported crude oil while the Middle East provided 15% and 47% respectively (General Administration of Customs, 2009; see also European Commission, 2009). Of the world’s top ten countries that import the most oil per day, four are EU member states—Germany, Netherlands, Italy, and France (Workman, 2008). China’s rapidly expanding role in Africa’s energy sector is of particular significance to countries such as France and Germany, where in 2009 oil imports from OPEC’s African member states accounted for 19.4% and 11.5% of all oil imports, respectively (EIA, 2010). Chinese plans to increase oil and gas imports coming from Africa to 40% in the next five to ten years (Roelf, 2008) have led to an increasing uneasiness in European countries about the intensifying competition with China in the energy sector. However, a report in August 2009 by the Royal Institute of International Affairs dismisses Western concerns about Asia’s economic expansion in Africa, stating that “fears expressed in western capitals about an Asian takeover in the Nigerian and Angolan oil sector … were highly exaggerated” (Vines et al., 2009).

Second, as China’s non-interference policy erodes, incrementally one step at a time, and China seeks to influence the domestic affairs of African countries in which Chinese large enterprises have substantial investments, European influence and interests in Africa will undoubtedly be challenged. In addition to creating good will with African governments by its “no strings attached” provisions of loans and aid, China is exerting influence by means of “soft power.” As of May 2010, there were 21 Confucius Institutes and 4 Confucius classrooms scattered in 17 African countries (Counselor’s Office of the State Council, 2010) and more than 70 throughout Europe as of July 2010 (People’s Daily Online, 2010). These Chinese government-sponsored institutes provide Chinese language courses free of charge and serve as centers for the promotion of Chinese culture and China’s role in the world. Chinese have also started to make inroads in the media sector in Africa. When in 2009 a Chinese entrepreneur launched a Chinese newspaper in Botswana any connections with the Beijing government were denied. Nevertheless, at the launch Ambassador Liu Huanxing said that China would use the new publication to help promote mutual understanding between China and Africa (France 24, 2009; Martinse, 2009). Europe meanwhile has also intensified its soft power campaign. The EU’s 2005 adoption of the EU Strategy for Africa explicitly seeks to establish broader ties between the two partners. The competition between Chinese and Europeans to win over the hearts and minds of Africans will inevitably lead to increased tension between Europe and China.

Third, China’s disregard for transparency and accountability as conditions for providing aid to Africa goes against the grain of EU policy and risks further antagonizing the China-EU strategic partnership. The EU has a clear view that aid should be coupled with promoting transparency and good governance. When one bears in mind that corruption is rampant in China, accounts by businessmen and researchers in off-the-record conversations of Chinese companies’ disregard for anti-corruption laws and regulations in Africa are not surprising. It would be far-fetched to presume that the Chinese government would have the capability to control the actions of Chinese businessmen in far-off Africa when the government does not enforce laws forbidding bribes in China.

In contrast to the value-driven policies of the EU toward Africa, China has taken a much more practical approach in its dealings with African countries. The Chinese focus on “hardware” differs from the “software” approach preferred by Western countries that concentrates on capacity building in the recipient country (Brandtzaeg, 2008: 14). Chinese observers state that the Chinese approach leads to tangible results that benefit the African populace. The Chinese leadership stresses the importance of equality in its relationship with African nations by dogmatically avoiding the words “donor” and “assistance” when referring to development aid, using instead the term “economic cooperation.” Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s permanent secretary in the ministry of finance, during an August 2009 talk on the economic partnership agreements in Windhoek, criticized the EU’s policies in Africa: “The EU speaks of negotiations on equal footing, but where are we equal? We are probably the most unequal parties imaginable. How likely would it be for Telekom Namibia to take over Deutsche Telekom? This inequality needs to be acknowledged” (Bosh, 2009). Moreblessings Chidaushe of the African Forum and Network of Debt and Development points out that the Africa policy articulated by China in 2006 projects a “gentle, friendly, caring attitude which appears to many Africans as a welcome contrast with the exploitation and heavy-handed top-down relationship which has typified the West’s approach” (Chidaushe, 2007).

African government officials have been conspicuously vocal in their praise of China’s approach to investment in Africa and its policy of aid with “no strings attached.” Given the fact that the EU has committed to making available more than €50 billion of ODA for Africa for 2011 to 2013 (African Union/ European Union, 2010), it is understandable that European policy-makers are wary of the degree of goodwill among African governments that the vastly more modest investments and aid contributed by the Chinese government and Chinese companies have generated.

Linking respect for human rights to development assistance will remain a priority of the EU as well as of individual EU states. The gulf between the EU’s and African views on this linkage was evident during the second EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in 2007 at which Zimbabwean President Mugabe’s presence led to heated discussions of human rights and governance issues by officials of major European countries. Portuguese Prime Minister José Socrates opened the summit by placing human rights at the center of the EU’s Africa strategy, saying that “human rights are direct expression of human dignity. They are the universal heritage of humanity, which we have to preserve and defend” (Xinhua, 2007). As a result of Mugabe’s attendance, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown boycotted the summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended but targeted the human rights violations in Zimbabwe in her remarks, saying: “The situation in Zimbabwe damages the image of the new Africa” (Xinhua, 2007).

Stark differences in opinion were also voiced at the third EU-Africa Summit, held in November 2010 in Tripoli. Then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi criticized the Europeans for linking development aid to good governance and progress on human rights issues (DW World, 2010). European participants, among them European Council President Herman van Rompuy, once more defended the EU’s Africa policy: “In Europe’s experience, the perspectives for economic growth are closely linked to elements of ‘good governance’. Africa is not an exception” (Van Rompuy, 2010). The third summit too was plagued by controversy. Several European leaders insisted that both Mugabe and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir be charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Ultimately, al-Bashir stayed away from the summit but the decision by the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany to also not attend the Tripoli summit prompted comments by African officials that the three major EU powers lacked a commitment to the EU-Africa partnership (Zimpapers, 2010).

However, there have also been small signs that China could be taking into account Western objections to Beijing’s close ties with despotic regimes. According to Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, President Hu Jintao told him at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that Hu considers Beijing’s relationship with Harare to be one among “business partners” and not “friends” (Chimora, 2010). China has threatened to halt further loans to Zimbabwe until it pays its existing debt (Chimora, 2010).

There are European academics who note that the more important China has become as an economic power the more the issue of human rights abuses within China has taken a back seat in the relations between Western countries and China. For example, Ian Taylor writes: “Critiquing China’s human rights stance when it is played out in Africa, whilst selectively overlooking the abuses that underpin much of the consumer boom in the developed world, driven in part by cheap Chinese imports, lacks coherence, as does ignoring continued Western support for assorted dictators and corrupt regimes across Africa” (Breslin and Taylor, 2008: 68).

Looking Ahead

The competing interests of China and Europe in Africa, coupled with their differing concepts of development cooperation, constitute genuine challenges to cooperation. Five years have passed since the EU Commission’s strategy paper on China for the first time in 2006 highlighted the need to jointly address global challenges, including climate change, development policy, and Africa. Although subsequent documents reflect the increasing realization by European policy-makers that cooperation with China in Africa is necessary and both the EU and China have a strong shared interest in promoting stable and sustainable development in Africa, concrete progress has been limited.

The 2007 European Commission communiqué on EU-Africa relations acknowledges China’s role as Africa’s new partner and outlines the objectives of the new political partnership between the EU and Africa. It calls, among other things, for a willingness to “reinforce, and in some areas reinvent, the current (EU-Africa) relationship—institutionally, politically and culturally” (European Commission, 2007). The European Commission’s Initiative on Trilateral Cooperation between the EU, China, and Africa, made public in October 2008, is testimony that Africa has moved toward center stage in the EU-China strategic partnership. In this initiative, the Commission proposes that Africa, China, and the EU work together in a flexible and pragmatic way to identify and address a specific number of areas that are suitable for trilateral cooperation (European Commission, 2008). As Berger and Wissenbach (2007: 16) point out, a common understanding between Africans, Europeans, and Chinese still needs to be gained as a basis for joint action.

There are numerous official dialogues between the EU and China in which the need for more policy coordination on the practical level and mutually beneficial initiatives with regard to relations with African countries can—and presumably will—be encouraged (Berger and Wissenbach, 2007: 16). However despite these efforts, there is still an urgent need to expand and substantially increase forums and meetings for informal diplomacy and meetings, and concrete joint projects involving Europeans, Africans, and Chinese.

The fundamental dilemma and the source of increasing tension between the EU and China concerning the different approaches of European governments and the Beijing government toward investing in and granting aid to Africa will not disappear. However, more knowledge and a more sophisticated level of understanding within the EU regarding China’s multifaceted activities in Africa could help to somewhat defuse tensions and minimize misunderstandings. In specific areas, such as the environment and climate change, cooperation between China and the EU in Africa could lead to the pursuance of similar goals. China and the EU need to acknowledge that cooperation on development issues in Africa is imperative because many of the problems afflicting Africa cannot be dealt with alone. Security risks in Africa especially pose challenges to the economic interests of both Chinese and Europeans.