An Overview of China’s Foreign Policy in Africa: Past, Present and Future

Hussein El–Mobayad

Despite a global economic downturn in the wake of the Covid-19 Pandemic and its variants, The People’s Republic of China seems to remain ahead of the curve, displaying adaptability to this new reality with continued economic growth projected at 8% this year.[1]

Early success in local immunisation and the containment of the virus outbreak, has enabled China to consolidate its position as a global manufacturer and donor of Covid-19 vaccines. By November, 2021, China had dispatched over 1.7 billion vaccine doses to countries around the world, including 50 African countries. With a billion more vaccine doses promised by China’s president Xi Jinping  in his opening address to the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Dakar, Senegal, Last month. It is projected that out of the billion doses, 600 million doses will be delivered as donations, while the remaining 400 million doses to be produced through a joint production by Chinese companies and African Countries.[2]

This adds to China’s status as a powerhouse in global affairs, with soft power rivalling that of the United States and Europe. Similarly, earlier this month and ahead of the U.S Democracy Summit scheduled later this week, China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper titled “China: Democracy that works”; presenting its one-party governing model as an alternative to the Western-led liberal democracy model.[3] This have been regarded by many as China’s latest move in its ‘catch up game’ with the United States, or as part of their wider competition for global dominance. Yet, the move for China to promote democracy with ‘Chinese characteristics’ raises questions regarding its future implications within the wider Chinese foreign policy.


Strategic Interests: Diplomacy

China’s rapid economic growth over the past decades has enabled it to expand its foreign policy scope, to include aid, development assistance, and the deployment of peacekeeping troops around the world.

Indeed, just as the country developed, so did its foreign policy. In its earliest form in the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese aid to African countries was tied to diplomatic gains in terms of generating recognition for China’s statehood under the guise of ‘One-China Policy’, as opposed to the recognition of US-backed Taiwan.[4]

Strategic Interests: The Economy

Nevertheless, steadily over the years, Chinese assistance in the Africa grew in tandem with its direct economic interests; engaging in both bilateral and multilateral agreements with African countries. This is evident in China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) annual flows to Africa, which have spiked from from $75 million in 2003 to $2.7 billion in 2019.[5] Whereas the value of trade between China and African countries collectively has risen 38.2% annually, culminating into a whopping $192 billion in 2019.[6]

Overall, on a multilateral level, cooperations can be discerned through the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) established in 2000; whereas the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013, became a bilateral deal between China and the individual African Countries, despite being multilateral in design and concept. Nevertheless, both initiatives are meant to foster connectivity, prosperity, and cooperation in economic, social and security affairs within the continent.

The FOCAC summit is held every 3 years, often resulting in the announcement of major policy and financing initiatives between China and African member countries. In its 8th iteration this year, pledges were made to boost Chinese imports of African products, to participate in African poverty reduction efforts and capacity building programmes. In addition to, fostering sustainable development and digital innovation.[7] These themes and more were discussed alongside China’s commitment to $40 billion in development assistance and 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses.

Another pillar of the active Chinese foreign policy is the Belt and Road intuitive (BRI). It is often viewed as a global investment and economic growth program aimed at bridging the infrastructure gap between countries. By early 2021, 140 countries worldwide had signed more than 200 BRI cooperation agreements, enabling Chinese companies to build mega infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, ports, power stations and telecommunication networks using low-interest Chinese loans. [8]

With a focus on Africa, China had successfully signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on BRI cooperation with the African Union, formalising the Chinese initiative and subsequent infrastructure investments in 52 out of the 54 African countries.[9]

Overall, The BRI projects in Africa had been attributed to serving China’s strategic interests in both economic and security spheres. In the former, these connectivity projects such as railway, road lines and ports (20% of China’s projects in Africa), link to industrial projects such as minerals processing (10% of all projects) and energy projects, including oil and renewable energies (15% of all projects); Nearly all of which lead to the African coastline.[10] Together, these four sectors make up the majority of China’s mega projects in the 49 countries. Two major projects are the $12 billion Nairobi-Mombasa Costal Railway and the $4.5 billion Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, both projects connect rich mineral deposits and natural resources that are inlands with major maritime ports. Similar infrastructure projects have aided China in maintaining a steady supply of raw materials such as phosphate, copper, cobalt, gold, iron ore, cocoa, bauxite, coal, lithium, steel, granite and marble, which are then utilised in its local industries. Additionally, 20% of the country supply of cotton comes from Africa, as does over third of China’s oil imports.[11]


Strategic Interest: Security

Another strategic aspect of the Chinese foreign policy in Africa is the security dimension, necessary for maintaining stability in the continent. Thus, for over two decades, China took part in a number of multilateral peacekeeping mission in Africa; including the 2003 U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia (UNMIL) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC). The first Chinese combat unit was the U.N. mission in Sudan (UNMISS) in 2013, and to Mali (MINUSMA) in 2013. [12]

Similarly, both FOCAC and BRI had facilitated increased Chinese security cooperation with member countries, in areas of intelligence sharing, joint military and police training, in addition to counterterrorism.

Still, it seems that China-Africa security cooperation research has received less attention than the more quantifiable aspects of the China-Africa partnership in infrastructure development. Yet,  the culmination of Chinese security strategies in Africa can be seen in the establishment of the 2017 Chinese naval base in Djibouti. This base became China’s strategic strongpoint in the Horn of Africa, overseeing much of its logistical and economic interests in the region, in addition to conducting anti-piracy operations.

An Unequal exchange

Questions remain on how much of those investments truly achieve a win-win scenario within the China-Africa cooperation model. After all, China do boasts that infrastructure projects were one key component in its economic growth over the years. Yet, in some cases, scholars asserted that those infrastructure projects were luring the African countries into a debt trap. While most of the projects that China are implementing in Africa under the BRI do help create infrastructure, industry and connectivity across the continent, which untimely can foster economic growth. In reality, the African Development Bank (ADB) has estimated that Africa’s infrastructure deficit amounts to US$ 93 billion annually until 2021. [13]

While some discourse circles dub Chinese infrastructure projects as a continuation of the European colonial legacy of resource extraction. A more realistic narrative is that such infrastructure and security investments are necessary to ensure a steady supply chain of imported raw materials crucial for Chinese industries and subsequent economic prosperity. Perhaps the scales are indeed tipped in China’s favour. It is evident that China’s foreign policy in Africa has enabled it to gain strategic advantage by enhancing its position along networks of capital and infrastructure, creating unbalanced partnerships, that do maximise its influence and control within the continent. [14]

Chinese Democracy and Future Implications

Defining and understanding democracy can be a lengthy and complicated task. Yet, In simple terms, democracy is both an ideal to be pursued and a mode of government to be applied. As an ideal democracy aims to preserve and promote fundamental rights, achieve social justice, strengthen the cohesion of society and enhance national tranquillity. As a form of government, democracy is the best way of achieving these objectives; it is also the only political system that has the capacity for self-correction [15]

Whether the ideal or the practice are held as a common reality between countries or not, there is no doubt that it is a concept forged through centuries of political struggles within nations, leading to unique social and political trajectories within each country. Similarly, in Chinese literature, democracy is portrayed as part of the national structure, a process that has gone through stages of development and self-correction, until today. Nevertheless, China’s modern understanding of democracy is often traced back to the 1978 era of reforms under the leadership of Den Xiaoping. As it turned out, the process of Chinese reform and opening-up is an integral and comprehensive process of social changes, including economic, political, and cultural dimensions in Chinese society. Indeed, the Chinese leadership understood from an early stage that industrialisation and rapid economic growth will create on the longterm social conflicts and political instability caused by increased social mobility, wealth and identity changes.[16] Hence, political reforms, including democratic institutions were recognised as crucial elements in maintaining long-term internal stability.

Today, in a report released titled “China: Democracy that works”, the state council asserts that “There is no fixed model of democracy; it manifests itself in many forms,” [17] It also went further to claim that the democracy exercised in China is more extensive and effective than that of the U.S liberal democracy. It postulates that democracy in China is a whole-process, with direct grass-root participation in political actives at all levels, including democratic elections, political solution, decision-making and oversight. Whereas, Western democracy represents the interests of the few over the many, where politicians can make random promises for the sake of elections, that they seldom fulfil when elected.[18]

On the other hand, Western scholars were quick to dismiss the recent published white paper by China, pointing out that democratic standards dictates the presence of a multi-party system, universal suffrage and checks and balances. Adding, that the Chinese government does not allow any space for political opposition to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, and that citizens cast their vote in local elections to candidates vetted by the authorities.[19]

The objective here is not to assess the validity of each democratic model, rather it is an attempt to understand the reasons behind the recent publication of the aforementioned white paper and review its potential implications within the wider Chinese foreign policy.

In a quick glance over recent events, the reasons behind the paper’s release becomes evident. To begin with, the timing of the release corresponded with the Democracy Summit led by the United States. China was not included in the list of participating countries, while countries like Angola, Iraq and Congo, countries that the freedom house classifies as undemocratic will participate, while a few countries like Turkey, Hungary and Tunisia will not. The summit is also facing criticism not just from China, but around the world, for whom it invited and whom it left out.[20] Another reason that can be drawn out from recent events is the U.S and Australia diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter olympics 2022. While athletes would still attend, diplomats and officials would not; a decision based on human rights abuses in China. [21]

Nevertheless, these recent events are only a fraction within a series of political condemnation and international criticism over the years, often citing China’s bad record of human rights abuses or lack of democratic institutions. Therefore, the release of the white papers may as well be China’s response to a broader critical sentiment within the international community. It is believed to be China’s recent move to garner legitimacy both internally and internationally. [22]

Finally, China’s political future is a widely debated subject, not only among theorists who continue to argue over definitions of democracy, but also on the trajectory of political reform in post-Communist China and developing countries. While some Intellectuals within China envision a political reform along the lines of Scandinavian-style social democracy, others support incremental reform under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. However, it is suggested that China led by the communist part will remain authoritarian, absent democracy as measured by liberal democratic standards. Still, how far can the current mode of governance continue, as the country modernise, amidst rising incomes and educations levels, it is yet to be discerned. Another future implication within China’s foreign policy in Africa, lies within its use of the Chinese democracy model. Will it remain a mode of governance unique to the context of China or will it be adjusted and tailored to fit African countries. Perhaps, Chinese democracy will become part of the economic package to Africa, providing an alternative mode of development to that of Western liberal democracy. A future in which the Beijing model is presented as an alternative to structural adjustment policies of the Washington consensus and Western-led financial institutions that have often put heavy conditionality’s on African borrowing and development ambitions. Perhaps encouraging African countries to assimilate their political systems to Chinese democracy is the final step in unlocking its overall hegemonic ambition. First, multi-billion infrastructure investments that helped secure the transport of raw materials. Second, security cooperation with African countries and a permanent Chinese military presence in the Horn of Africa, that continues to counter piracy and maintains strategic interests in the continent. Third, Chinese democracy becomes the missing piece of the puzzle that aids in creating political stability; the final element in China’s pursuit of a secure supply chain and a steady stream of raw materials for its domestic industries. Yet, whether China paradoxically puts forward its own set of conditions on borrowing and relinquish its long-running policy of non-interference is yet to be seen.


[1] World Bank. “China Economic Update – June 2021.” Retrieved from:

[2]Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Xi Announces Supplying Africa with Additional 1 BLN COVID-19 Vaccine Doses, 2021.Retrieved from:  

[3]Xinhua. China: Democracy That Works, 2021. Retrieved from:

[4] Lum, Thomas, et al. “China’s Foreign Aid Activities in Africa, Latin America, and South East Asia .” Congressional Research Service, 2009.

[5[ China Africa Research Initiative. Data: Chinese Investment in Africa. 2021. Retrieved from: Retrieved from:

[6] China Africa Research Initiative. Data: China-Africa Trade. 2019. Retrieved from:  

[7] Thomas, David. “What Did FOCAC 2021 Deliver for Africa?” African Business, 2021. Retrieved from:

[8] Herbert, Natalie. “Analysis | China’s Belt and Road Initiative Invests in African Infrastructure – and African Military and Police Forces.” The Washington Post, Apr. 2021. Retrieved from:

[9]Lokanathan, Venkateswaran. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications in Africa.” ORF Issue Brief, no. 395, 2020. Retrieved from:

[10]Lokanathan, Venkateswaran. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications in Africa.” ORF Issue Brief, no. 395, 2020. Retrieved from:

[11] Shepard, Wade. What China Is Really up to in Africa. Forbes Magazine, Oct. 2019. Retrieved from:

[12] Herbert, Natalie. “Analysis | China’s Belt and Road Initiative Invests in African Infrastructure – and African Military and Police Forces.” The Washington Post, Apr. 202. Retrieved from:

[13] Lokanathan, Venkateswaran. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications in Africa.” ORF Issue Brief, no. 395, 2020. Retrieved from:

[14] Parepa, Laura-Anca. “The Belt and Road Initiative as Continuity in Chinese Foreign Policy.” Journal of Contemporary East Asia Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2020, pp. 175–201. Retrieved from: .

[15] Inter-Parliamentary Union “Democracy: Its Principles and Achievements”. Geneva : Inter-Parliamentary Union.1998. Retrieved from:

[16] Fang, Ning. China’s Democracy Path. Springer Berlin, 2016.

[17] Xinhua. China: Democracy That Works, 2021. Retrieved from:

[18] Global Times. “Update: China Expounds on Its Democracy with Confidence, Strength.” Global Times, 2021. Retrieved from:

[19] Ni, Vincent. “China Attacks ‘US-Style Democracy’ Prior to Biden Summit.” The Guardian, Dec. 2021. Retrieved from:

[20] Bradsher, Keith, and Steven Lee Myers. “Ahead of Biden’s Democracy Summit, China Says: We’re Also a Democracy.” The New York Times, Dec. 2021. Retrieved from:

[21] “2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Australia Joins US Diplomatic Boycott.” BBC News, Dec. 2021,. Retrieved from:

[22] Lew, Linda. “China Is Touting Its ‘Whole Process Democracy’. so How Does It Work?” South China Morning Post, Dec. 2021. Retrieved from:

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