China and Africa. New development partnership or neo-colonialism?

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2014

21 Pages






I. China-Africa trade: source of economic boom.

II. Sino-African relations: between hegemony and South-South Cooperation.

III. Sino-African trade: a Continent that still doubts itself.

IV. Is China imperialist?




In the wake of its emergence unto the international scene, the Chinese State (development-centered and seemingly strategic) has, in recent times, increasingly resorted to building ties with major countries on the African continent, hence, the increment in its visits to the latter. Politically, but in recent times, economically motivated, the underlying factors behind these visits are in contrast to the nature of the ties once shared. Indeed, in times past, especially from the 80's onwards, China-Africa relations have moved from political interests to now center on commercial and financial ones. But, what really explains the growing interest of China in Africa? This is the core issue this article seeks to tackle. In response, this paper has been divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the main reasons behind China's foray into Africa while the second focuses on the impact of the Chinese presence on the continent's development efforts.

Key words: Partnership, neocolonialism, imperialism, China, Africa, strategic resources, China-Africa, economic growth, development.


Aujourd'hui, suite à son arrivée sur la scène internationale, l'Etat chinois (développementiste et stratège) commence à nouer des liens, de plus en plus, importants avec le continent africain. D'où la multiplication des visites vers ce dernier. A caractère politique et de plus en plus économique, ces visites sont en rupture avec le passé. En effet, à partir des années 80, les relations Chine-Afrique sont devenues commerciales et financières et non seulement politiques. Qu'est-ce qui explique réellement cet intérêt grandissant de la Chine pour le continent africain? Telle est la question principale soulevée dans le cadre de cet article. Pour y répondre, le présent papier est scindé en deux parties. La première partie s’attarde sur les raisons principales de cet engouement chinois pour l’Afrique tandis que la deuxième se focalisera sur l’impact de la présence chinoise en Afrique sur le développement des pays du continent.

Mots clés: Partenariat, néocolonialisme, impérialisme, la Chine, l'Afrique, les ressources stratégiques, Chine-Afrique, la croissance économique, le développement.


The shift of the world’s economic center of gravity, from West to East, is a major trend that has been taking place since the early 90s. However, it is towards the second half of the 2000s, following the American financial crisis as well as that of the euro zone[1]that this economic phenomenon gained momentum with the major highlight being its contribution to the acceleration of China's rise unto the international scene (Attali, 2008). However, one thing is certain; these two crises have brought to light the reality of the new global economy marked by the emergence of new economic powers (Elie Cohen, 2014). Hence, the rise of China unto the international stage is not out of sheer luck but rather one borne out of many years of rigorous economic planning (Rodrik, 2008).

It is in this context that despite its late accession to the WTO in 2001, the Asian country was able to downgrade Germany in 2010, nine (9) years later, to become the largest exporter in the world[2], a trend that confirms Rostow’s 1960 prediction of China’s emergence around the same period. Though he (Rostow) attributed it to the Asian country’s adoption of democracy, China’s current development model is yet to accommodate that system of governance (Rostow, 1963).[3]Probably the turning point for its economy was when some economic freedom (reforms) was given in 1978, paving way for innovation and some level of private ownership (William Easterly, 2012)[4].

All in all, the current economic rise (predominance) of China is hugely reflected by the large size of its market, a phenomenal increase in its exports, the emergence of a large middle class (accounting for 40% of the top global middle class)[5] associated with an ever growing purchasing power, the possession of abundant inputs(a highly skilled and cheap human capital base, an upsurge in financial capital , investment in research and development with much focus on innovation (technology based or driven) not forgetting in recent times, its possession of rare strategic minerals such as antimony, tungsten, germanium or gallium etc. , ...) helped record, especially during the last ten years, strong growth rates (on an average 10 %). All these favorable indicators as well as the relocation of companies from developed countries to China are factors that have not only helped fuel the Chinese economy, but further lead to it becoming in dire need of strategic resources ( mining and energy ). Hence, it has become more than imperative for this Asian country to find new partners.

The African continent remains the resource rich partner (strategic) needed by China (the Chinese government), a reason which partly explains the latter’s growing interest on the continent. Consequently, the next paragraph of this paper will examine the growing economic ties between China and Africa.

I. China-Africa trade: source of economic boom.

In the wake of the very many China-Africa Cooperation forums (which have unequivocally allowed this new emerging force (China) to compete with the old ones (the West) that once saw Africa as their private preserve[6])as well as tremendous change in trade pattern between the aforementioned (trade volume between China and Africa as of 2011[7] hovered around $ 166.3 billion, it later on surpassed the $200 billion mark (threshold) in 2013 with future targets seeking to double the latter to reach a record $ 400 billion by 2020[8]), the Chinese influence in Africa is becoming more and more prevalent (CACID, 2012). For many analysts, these intensifying economic ties are paving way for the emergence of a new form of South-South Cooperation. In other words, a positive alternative to the region’s development needs (Yue, 2011). The chart below shows this emerging trend.

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Graph n° 1: Evolution of trade between China and Africa (2000-2013).

Source: Author’s creation based on statistical data provided by the China Statistical Yearbook 2000-2013.

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Table n°1: Statistical data on Sino-Africa trade (2000-2013).

Source: China Statistical Yearbook 2000-2013.

This graph shows the increase in trade between Africa and China for the 2000-2014 period. The latter (the Sino-Africa trade) saw a dramatic increase from a mere $11 billion recorded in 2000 to more than $ 210 billion in 2013. However, we must note that Chinese exports to Africa, from a very humble beginning of about $ 5 billion in 2000, increased substantially to reach in 2013, an interesting figure of about $ 93 billion. The general trend over the 2000-2013 period was that, Chinese imports from Africa (from the statistics provided) remained higher than Chinese exports to the continent. However, in 2007 and 2009, Chinese exports to the continent steadily surpassed its imports from the African continent. Remember that this period coincides with the one characterized by the economic boom that was witnessed in most rich and naturally endowed (commodities: strategic resources such as mineral deposits, energy and natural wealth) African economies. Hence, one can conveniently say that, the high demand for Chinese imports during the period is as a result of the high demand for machinery needed in the mining sector.

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Graph n° 2: The increasing contribution of China to the growth of Africa’s Exports.

Source: FMI; Estimates according to Wang Jian-Ye & Bio-TchaneAbdoulaye[9].

At the turn of the century, as shown by the above graph (Wang &Tchane), one can copiously see the place occupied by China in terms of its contribution to African exports. Surprisingly, between 2000-2006, a significant change was noticed, a clear contrast to performances chalked in the past (African exports). Hence, the trend observed as far back as 2006 was that, China’s contribution to Africa’s trade growth was equal to that of all the other Asian countries put together. But what’s the composition of trade between China and Africa?

According to an article published by The Economist[10] in 2013, 80 % of China's imports from Africa are predominantly from the mining sector. China has become the largest net importer of oil in the world, one more reason for the latter as a potential development partner to strengthen its economic ties with oil-producing countries in Africa. Thus, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan (mainly oil-producing countries) and South Africa as well as Zambia (although South Africa has a wide range of natural resources alongside Zambia (who is well known for its copper), they can both be considered as primarily producers of strategic mineral and natural resources and not energy resources producing Countries) remain African countries richly endowed with these mineral and energy resources and which are of great interest to China hence the strengthening of their economic ties. But in recent times, other countries such as Congo or Ethiopia (two countries where strategic natural resources are difficult to use or simply remain scarce) are beginning to attract the attention of this Asian economic power.

As for Chinese exports to the African continent, it is not surprising that they are of great diversity (Chinese exports to the continent cover similar or identical ones exchanged between Africa and its traditional trading partners ie. the West) especially that the former (China) remains the world's biggest trading power. More so, one can add that the dragon’s (China) influence is seemingly greatly felt in all sectors of the global economy. However, given the state of infrastructural development (a major lack) in most African countries, it makes sense to observe that in 2010 alone, 29% of Chinese exports to the continent were mainly composed of machinery. Let’s recall once more that this period (2010) coincides with the surging demand for African mining, energy and natural resources, hence, the economic boom experienced by most of the continent’s economies (economic growth driven mainly by the enthusiasm for strategic natural resources in Africa).

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Graph n° 3: Composition of Chinese exports to Africa.

Sources: Africa Research Institute; IMF.

In this regard, it is still interesting and quite correct to question the importance of Chinese investment in Africa. While figures on trade between China and Africa are often disputed, it has become increasingly difficult to quantify, Chinese investment (FDI) in Africa[11].

In 2012, however, Chen Deming, the Chinese minister for Commerce estimated Chinese FDI to Africa to be around $ 14.7 billion. In the same year, the former Chinese President Hu Jintao during the fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation promised allocating loans (the duration of which was not specified) to infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing and development of SMEs. With an estimated 2000 Chinese companies [12](approximately) located in Africa, Chinese investment according to Prime Minister Li Keqiang (following his rise to power in 2013), should reach $ 100 billion by 2020. He further reiterated that the Chinese State was also pledging an additional $ 12 billion dollars (as credit and investment) so as to contribute a lot more to the development of the continent. However, if the trade boom between China and Africa reflects new opportunities for the former (China), the question one must then ask is: What really explains the growing interest of China in the African continent? The next chapter will attempt to find answers to this question.

II. Sino-African relations: between hegemony and South-South Cooperation.

With an estimated population of just over one billion inhabitants and a GDP of nearly two thousand billion dollars, Africa is increasingly opening up to new business partners (especially those of the BRICS block) of which China is now seen as a symbol and has made much foray into the continent. Although trade between Africa and China dates back to so many centuries ago, it is only in recent times that they have resorted to strengthening their economic relations. For this reason, China has in recent times been perceived in Africa as a financier, investor, manufacturer and a major market. In other words, China is seen in Africa as a potential development partner.

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Graph n° 4: Trade between Africa and the rest of the world.

Source: OECD Development Centre.

China’s recent image is in sharp contrast with the one known in times past, where its ties with Africa were dominated by diplomatic and economic concerns. It must be emphasized that the strengthening of trade and financial relations between China and Africa is part of an overall strategy whereby China first, rolled out reforms as well as incentives in view of increasing its presence in Africa.[13].

At the turn of the millennium, precisely in December 1999, a national incentive policy aimed at encouraging Chinese companies (mostly State owned or State inclined) to go in search of opportunities in Africa was announced through the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). Hence, one can conveniently say that, the Chinese government’s African policy is part of an overall strategy aimed at “Conquering the World Economy". One of the highlights of this strategy, especially from the 2000s, was the recording of a strong correlation between economic growth in Africa and that of China whereas some sectors are currently intertwined (CACID, 2012)[14].

For many experts, China’s quest to inch closer to Africa is due to several reasons: historical, political, economic, geopolitical, and especially geostrategic. For example, in response to a similar question asked by the magazine, les Afriques, Philippe du Fresnay, economist and a specialist of issues pertaining to China, had these few words to share: “ Economically, the need to secure new sources of raw materials and the search for new economic opportunities in the wake of a slowdown in Europe. Politically, the desire to assume the role of a global power capable of curbing what it sees as the "American hegemony".”

While this response reveals the various facets of Chinese interest (economic, political ...), it is obvious that with the chalking (achievement) of an average growth rate of approximately 10 %, during the last decade[15], then one can conveniently conclude that the economic boom this country has known naturally justifies its rush for the continent's resources. This is obviously a situation of demand and supply. Beyond the said reasons given by experts and internationally renowned authors, this paper argues that China’s interest in Africa is fueled not only by its natural resources, its potential market (a little over a billion people) but most importantly its possible role in global governance (China can use Africa as a leverage to influence economic and political decisions on the world stage) (Abou El Farah, Echkoundi et al, 2013).[16]For example, at the WTO during the Doha Round (the Round dedicated to the tackling of the South’s development challenges and associated concerns), China has repeatedly and increasingly been seen as the leader championing the concerns of the South.

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Graph n°5: Mineral deposits and energy reserves in Africa.

Sources: BP, FAO, FMI, USGS.

Thus, with the strengthening of economic relations between China and African countries, the Asian dragon seeks to capitalize not only on the abundance of strategic resources but also rally African support for its renewed economic power ambitions. In addition to economic reasons also arise “fraternal " arguments. Knowing that the first country in the world to recognize China as an independent country was Egypt, it may to some extent explain why the Asian country wishes to inch closer to this continent, hence further confirming, the important role history plays in international relations. Moreover, as recalled by former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2006, «Sino- African friendship is rooted in the depth of the ages and continues to deepen over the years».[17]It is on the backdrop of this historical legitimacy that China is trying to lay the groundwork for its African policy, besides the latter (the African policy) is pretty much based on the respective roles played by Africa and China within the Non -aligned Movement during the struggles of cold war as well as the use of third-world discourse based primarily on the importance of South-South cooperation of which the aim is to recall a tumultuous past marked by the struggle against imperialism.[18] These latest information go a long way to confirm the viewpoint of experts who argue that the Chinese modus operandi is that they lay much emphasis on the fact that, just like in the case of Africa[19], China had to also undergo the realities of colonialism (Forum MEDays, 2012). However, although we finger strategic mineral and energy resources as the main reason[20] behind China’s interest and foray into Africa, of which many agree the underlining factor is to achieve its industrialization and modernization status[21], many economists especially a native of Zambia, Dambisa Moyo, reveal that China is increasingly getting attracted by a new resource which remains often overlooked: "fertile arable land (agricultural)."[22]Taking into account its substantial demographic explosion, in comparison to its declining available land (20% of agricultural land in China is polluted) and its willingness to deal with the seemingly looming food security (a little over 1.3 billion people to feed), this Asian country has strategically and systematically resorted to the acquisition of arable land in Africa especially as the continent possesses 60% of unexploited arable land in the world (CEA, 2012).


Excerpt out of 21 pages


China and Africa. New development partnership or neo-colonialism?
Mohammed V University at Agdal  (Institut des Etudes Africaines (IEA) - Rabat)
Governance & Development
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ISBN (Book)
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imperialism, China, Africa, strategic resources, China-Africa, economic growth, neocolonialism, partnership, development
Quote paper
Frank Edem Kofigah (Author), 2014, China and Africa. New development partnership or neo-colonialism?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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