Cooperation or competition? China in Africa

Paola Pasquali,

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France

This presentation explores the theme of collective action in the Souths of the world from a macro level state perspective, by looking at the relationship between China and its relations with the 54 states inhabiting the African continent. China is now the world’s second largest economy and since 2019, the world’s largest official creditor (overtaking the IMF and World Bank). Prompted by the growing financing, trade, and investment flows between China and African countries, Africa-China relations have attracted increasing attention and have been hotly debated. On the one hand, this relationship is officially framed as a mutually beneficial instance of South-South cooperation among equals. This position is often accompanied by a consideration of how Chinese financing enables the realisation of critically needed infrastructure across African countries. On the other, the disproportionate size and economic power of the Chinese state in comparison to individual African countries, has led some to describe this relationship as unequal and even neo-colonial relationship.

This paper begins by emphasising how China and African countries cannot be perceived as one single actor with one agenda: there are many different actors (e.g., government officials, ministries, state-owned enterprises, private companies, etc.) who have different and at times conflicting goals. It will be further noted that the way Africa-China relations are analysed in the literature often problematically downplays and at times completely obfuscates the agency of African actors. The paper will then review the main statistics that characterise such relationship. As these numbers reveal, in spite of current narratives, China’s presence on the continent is not that of an investor but rather that of a finance and service provider. I will argue that such financing – which at times intersects with notions of development aid – has an important “Keynesian multiplier” effect on China’s own economy. It will be further observed that such financial commitments are key in consolidating Sino-African friendships which are fundamental in supporting China’s expanding global footprint, especially at the level of international global governance. While Chinese economic cooperation and capital have strengthened African governments bargaining power with Western donors, I will remark that many problems exist with regards to the issue of tied financial assistance as well as, in a number African countries, the issue of the rentability of projects and debt repayment.

The paper concludes that China’s attempts to reshape international economic governance commensurate to its economic weight principally depend on winning the support of the largest majority of countries of the global South. In this respect, African countries’ support for China within international organisations is critical, especially at a time when international relations appear to be increasingly polarised (countries of the global North vs China). As a result, although taken individually African countries are in an unquestionably weaker position vis à vis China, their diplomatic weight should be highly valued and fully leveraged on. Ideally this could be best achieved by adopting a unitary, pan-African position on African governments’ most pressing issues vis à vis the Chinese presence in Africa.