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May 01 2013
Sino-Africa Relationship: Moving to New Strategic Partnership
China,   Africa,   New   Strategic   Partnership  
The author will explore the historical developments and the state of art of this relationship in the second and third sections respectively, to review its evolution in the past six decades and more, keeping an idea of looking into its basic logics of development in mind and providing a fresh angle of analysis for this relationship. Then the fourth section explores the future of this relationship, considering the three significant transitions this relationship facing and the measures Chinese government adopted. The conclusion discusses about the strategic thinking needed for promoting Sino-Africa relationship moving to new strategic partnership.


Based on the emotional linkages nurtured during the cold war era, Sino-Africa relationship armed with economic strength and achieved prominent progress since the end of the cold war. In 2006, Chinese government declared that China will "…unswervingly carry forward the tradition of China-Africa friendship, and, proceeding from the fundamental interests of both the Chinese and African peoples, establish and develop a new type of strategic partnership with Africa",[1] which was confirmed by Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Beijing Summit of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in November 2006.[2] However, it’s a long way to go. To be franked, the fast development of this relationship in the early 21st century is a kind of recovery growth because of the internal imbalanced development among political, economic, and societal aspects of this relationship in previous periods. Thus, with more balanced development among all pillars, now it’s the time for this relationship to start the great transition that will lead a new trend in terms of Africa’s international engagement.

The author will explore the historical developments and the state of art of this relationship in the second and third sections respectively, to review its evolution in the past six decades and more, keeping an idea of looking into its basic logics of development in mind and providing a fresh angle of analysis for this relationship. Then the fourth section explores the future of this relationship, considering the three significant transitions this relationship facing and the measures Chinese government adopted. The conclusion discusses about the strategic thinking needed for promoting Sino-Africa relationship moving to new strategic partnership.

II. Historical Development

Although historical connections between China and Africa go back through many centuries of economic interactions and cultural exchanges, contemporary Sino-Africa relationship began with the formal establishment of diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1956. Since then, China and Africa have become all-weather friends, with the two sides understanding, supporting and helping each other. Fifty-one out of the continent’s fifty-four countries have established diplomatic ties with China so far, with South Sudan as the newest one in 2011. China and Africa have shared comprehensive consensus on major international issues, common interests, and a willingness to further enhance and deepen their cooperation. Frequent high-level reciprocal visits (called by some in Africa the `frequent flyer’ form of diplomacy) have promoted mutual understanding and trust, and have effectively boosted the healthy development of bilateral ties. Now, China has a nice tradition that every year, the first visit destination of the Chinese Foreign Minister is always Africa.[3] China-Africa relations contribute to both sides’ struggle for higher international status as well.

Parallel with political relations, the economic aspect of this relationship also has developed rapidly. Sino-African trade volume was a mere US$ 12 million in 1950, growing to US$34.74 million in 1955, and reaching US$ 250 million in 1965, the highest in the 1960s. Since carrying out the Open up and Reform policy in the 1980s, China has attached great importance to friendly cooperation with African countries and Sino-African trade has seen annual growth of 3.6 percent on average. Bilateral total export and import volume kept growing throughout the 1990s, when, for a number of years, it was not unusual to see increases of over 40 percent. In 2000, bilateral trade volume for the first time exceeded US$ 10 billion, and in 2008 it reached a record US106.84 billion. While knocked back in 2009 by the global financial crisis, Sino-Africa trade gained momentum once again in 2010, with 126.9 billion USD in 2010, then 166.3 billion USD in 2011, it’s estimated that the figure will be more than 200 billion USD in 2012 (figure 1). The number of African countries with which China had more than 1 billion U.S. dollars in trade also reached a record 20 in 2008.[4] This shows that China’s engagement with Africa is broad, and extensive, and reaches across the whole continent.

For the last six decades, there has also been vigorous development of China-Africa cultural exchanges, which has played a unique role in promoting cooperation and friendship between the two. Up to the end of 2005, China has entered into 62 inter-governmental agreements on cultural exchanges and cooperation with 45 African countries, under which the two sides have organized over 200 cultural exchange delegations and hosted hundreds of cultural or art exchange events.[5]

To summarize, Sino-Africa relationship has three phases of development during the past six decades. The first phase is from the early 1950s to the adoption of the Reform and Open up policy in the late 1970s. During this period, both China and Africa focused on the political development because of their newly gained independence, thus the core of this bilateral relationship was political mutual support, on which the emotional intimacy built, with anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism as the core.[6] Beyond political and military support, China’s most enduring contribution was the construction of Tazara, the Railway linking Zambia to Tanzania, which at the time served to free Zambia from her dependence on trade routes to the sea via white-minority ruled Rhodesia.

The second phase covers the whole 1980s. After adopting opening up and reform policy in the end of 1970s, China turned its eyes to the industrialized developed west for their abundant capitals and development experience. Only after such a strategy achieved notable results almost ten years later, along with political pressures from the west since the end of cold war, China has shifted its strategic attention back to Africa. However, China still attached great importance to Africa. For example, the Chinese Premier, Zhao Ziyang in December 1982 embarked on series of diplomatic overtures to eleven African countries, promoting the ‘Four Principles’ of Chinese cooperation with Africa: equality and mutual benefit, stress on practical results, diversification in form, and economic development.[7]

Shifting its eyes back to Africa after the end of cold war, along with the new thinking of searching external support for domestic development, China added, or at least strengthened, the economic dimension of this relationship; or use Ian Taylor’s term, China began to re-engage actively with the continent in the 1990s, ‘now on different terms’.[8] As stated above, Sino-Africa trade was gained dynamics since this period. Another example is China’s investment in Africa. It has experienced three phases since China began to invest in Africa in the 1980s. In the early days, Chinese businesses relied heavily on government-sponsored assistance projects to gain a presence in local markets. Due to the limited strength of Chinese enterprises, most of their investment projects were small. Between 1979 and 1990, China invested 51.19 million USD in 102 projects in Africa, equivalent to 500,000 USD per project. In 1990s, China’s investment in Africa witnessed a steady expansion under the background of Africa’s improved investment environment and Chinese businesses’ emerging. Since 2000, China’s investment in Africa entered into a fast track facilitated by both governmental policies as well as market drivers. Add together, over the past 30 years, China has made a sizeable investment in Africa. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, in 2010 China invested $2.1 billion in Africa represents 3.1% growth than 2009 (Figure 2). Africa now has become a major investment destination for Chinese enterprises, where over 2,000 Chinese companies have invested in various sectors ranging from electronics, telecommunications to transport. Chinese investment in Africa represents a small—3 to 4 percent in 2011—but growing piece of total Chinese outward foreign direct investment (OFDI) worldwide. Africa is the third largest recipient of Chinese OFDI after Asia and Europe. By the end of 2011, the cumulative Chinese direct investment net stock in Africa reached $14.7 billion, jumped 60 percent from 2009.

In short, the development of Sino-Africa relationship during the past six decades proved a path from imbalanced to balanced relationship, in regards to the inter-relations between political, economic, and cultural dimensions of this relationship. While political relations developed quite well in all three periods, economic relations gained momentum largely in the third period, and cultural relations eroded with the development of economic ties.

III. State of Art

Entering into 21st century, China gradually upgraded its Africa policy, with the establishment of FOCAC in 2000 as the symbolic. After six years, Sino-Africa relationship reached a new climax in its historical development. In 2006, China for the first time defined its Africa policy with 4 principles as the guidelines, namely:

(1) sincerity, friendship and equality (the political aspect);
(2) mutual benefit, reciprocity and common prosperity (the economic aspect);
(3) mutual support and close coordination (the international aspect); and
(4) learning from each other and seeking common development (the social and cultural aspect).[9]

Based on these principles, Sino-Africa relationship gained new momentum, with the economic ties absorbed attentions from all over the world. According to a 2011 report from African Development Bank,

“China is a valuable trading partner, a source of investment financing, and an important complement to traditional development partners. China is investing massively in infrastructure, which helps alleviate supply bottlenecks and improve competitiveness”.[10]

While most western analysts believe that the main driving force for China’s investment in Africa is for searching African natural resources and thus concentrated in just few resource rich countries,[11] Chinese investments reach 49 African countries and regions, the fraction of coverage is about 83%, second to Asia, and much higher than the average rate (71%); this figure is also much higher than other powers in Africa, including USA, EU, India, Brazil, Turkey, and South Korea, etc. For example, in 2010, the top 10 African recipients are South Africa (31.8%), Nigeria (9.3%), Zambia (7.2%), Algeria (7.2%), DRC (4.8%), Sudan(4.7%), Niger (2.9%), Ethiopia (2.8%), Angola (2.7%), and Egypt (2.6%), sharing 76% of all Chinese investment in Africa.

As to the diversification of investment, China has invested into most of African sectors, including agriculture, mining, manufacturing, service, infrastructure, capability building, human resource training, and so on. According to a report by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, during the period from 1979 to 2000, 46% of Chinese investment in Africa flowed to manufacture (15% textile industry), mining 28%, service 18%, and agriculture 7%. In 2009, only 29% of Chinese investment goes to mining. For American case, in 2010, 56.6% of American investment in Africa goes to mining sector, then service more than 30%, manufacturing and agriculture together less than 10%.

Entering 21st century, China has made great efforts to build platforms for promoting Sino-Africa relationship. The most important one is the FOCAC. Established in 2000, FOCAC, assembling all 51 states that have diplomatic relationships with China, can be regarded as best practice of the bilateral partnership.[12] Since the establishment, FOCAC has been gradually institutionalized and become an important platform for collective dialogue and an effective mechanism for enhancing practical cooperation between China and African countries. Till now, FOCAC has held five Ministerial conferences (the latest in July 2012) and one summit at the level of heads of state and government (in 2006). Now, FOCAC has arguably provided the political umbrella for a boom of bilateral relations.[13]

Meantime, China also engages Africa througn multilateral organizations, for example, the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the G20, and so on. It's important to note that, among the multilateral organizations, the south-south cooperation mechanism is also of great relevance, especially the G77 China, the Non-Alignment Movement, the BRICS, and so on. And the BRICS is expected to have great potential in supporting the Africa development; the invitation of South Africa to the BRICS and recent discussions on the establishment of a BRICS development bank are indicators of the grouping’s potential that is vividly discussed within South Africa; and most significantly, the Fifth BRICS Summit held in Durban this March will focus on the theme of 'BRICS and Africa'.

With the rapid development of Sino-Africa relationship, there is a trend of diversification of actors and interests. Besides the state actors like Foreign Ministry, Ministry of Commerce and other central governmental ministries and agencies, there are still many other actors, both governmental and non-governmental, like state-owned companies, provincial agencies, province-owned companies, private companies, and even individuals. For example, it’s not national companies that dominate China’s investment in Africa. With Africa’s rising and Chinese SMEs growing, more and more Chinese SMEs prefer to invest in Africa. Now, SMEs share 85% and more in the total more than 2000 Chinese companies that operate in Africa.[14]

Many scholars have explored the reason why China is so successful in Africa. The most important one is that China treats Africa equally, embodied as non-interference principle and no-string-attached assistance. While some observers accuse China of instrumentalising its traditional emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference to carve out economic deals,[15] most of the other developing countries imitate China in engaging into Africa.

IV. Future Trends

The most significant progress of Sino-Africa in the past 6 decades is that is has significantly upgraded from a linear and single-dimension relationship to a multi-layer and multi-dimension one, with the support of institutionalization efforts, especially the establishment and development of the FOCAC. It’s important to note that it is such a development itself that facilitates the current transitions that is of great importance to its sustainable development.

Such transitions include the following three aspects. Firstly, Sino-African relations now is on the way from one based emotional/ideological intimacy to one based on economic interest consideration. On the one hand, in the past decade or more, China-Africa economic relations developed quite fast. On the other hand, the historical emotional/ideological intimacy is fading due to various developments, including the passing away of the older generation of leader who share similar experience of national liberation movement with Chinese older leaders, the rising of new generation of leader who were educated in the western universities, the growing people-to-people exchanges that have both positive and negative impacts on mutual understanding between two peoples, etc. With economic interest consideration rising and emotional/ideological intimacy fading, economic indicators gradually become the main criteria for measuring bilateral relations.

The second transition is the natural consequence of the above one, that is, with the growing importance of economic consideration, now Sino-African relations is transfer from economic interest promoting to economic interest protecting. The reasons are diverse, while the Going Global Strategy has had tremendous achievements and needs to think about how to upgrade for sustainable development, there’re also a lot of problems arising that need to be rethought. Meantime, even wars and conflicts are decreasing, the instabilities in African continent are still the main hurdle for international investment and trade, and even humanitarian aid. Since early 2011, the outbreak of ‘Arab Spring’ highlighted the importance of protecting China’s overseas economic interests and national citizens. Based on the principle of 'People First', to protect overseas Chinese and economic interests is and will be one of the top priorities of China’s foreign policy in general and China’s Africa policy in particular.

While the above two transitions are already in the making, the third transition in Sino-African relations is a would-be one that will happen in the next few years or decade. I named this transition as from asymmetrical interdependence to symmetrical interdependence. As all know that the current Sino-African relationship is an asymmetrical interdependent one with China depends more on African natural resources and Africa depends more on opportunities along with China’s rising and Sino-African relations developments. However, there’re several developments that have potential for undermined the current interdependence between these two parties. The first is the slowing down of China’s economic growth that it is a natural development after 3 decades and more rapid growth with the signs have emerged early this year, as the growth rates of the first quarter 2012 was about 7.5%. While China is slowing down, Africa is rising, with 6 African countries on the list of 10 fastest growing in the first decade of 21st century, and 7 African countries on the list of 10 fastest growing from 2011 to 2015. The third development that will change the interdependence between China and Africa is that Africa now is returning to the traditional powers’ strategic consideration and entering into that of the emerging powers, we have witnessed the recovery of EU-Africa Summit and Japan’s TICAD and the creation of India-Africa Summit, South Korea-Africa Summit, India-Africa Summit, and Turkey-Africa Summit.

Aware of these developments and the challenges that they potentially pose for Sino-Africa relations, the Chinese government has adopted some counter-measures to address them including the following three dimensions.

First of all, to enhance Sino-African emotional intimacy, China now is shifting its development assistance for Africa from ‘hard’ infrastructure assistance to ‘soft’ ones. Take the FOCAC as example, the 3rd and 4th FOCAC Ministerial Conference included 8 measures for promoting Sino-Africa relations, much of them provide support for ‘hard’ infrastructure in Africa, like roads, studios, conference centers, etc. However, the 5th FOCAC Ministerial Conference attaches more importance to ‘soft’ ones like education, people to people exchange, joint research, etc., rather than continue the former approach. Taking sub-fora building as example, as table 3 shows, the total number of sub-fora mentioned by the 5th FOCAC Ministerial Conference Action Plan (2013-2015), including those to create, to strengthen, and to institutionalize, is 10, among them at least 5 (Blacked) are of ‘soft’ ones or related to China’s soft power in Africa.

Secondly, to better protect China’s overseas rights and interests, China attaches more importance to security supporting rather than economic focusing. The 5th FOCAC Ministerial Conference declared that China will launch the ‘Initiative on China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security’, deepen cooperation with the AU and African countries in peace and security in Africa, provide financial support for the AU peace-keeping missions in Africa and the development of the African Standby Force, and train more officials in peace and security affairs and peace-keepers for the AU. For example, China is participating 6 of 7 UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, sending more than 1500 peacekeepers to African continent, the biggest contributor in the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Thirdly, to promote a symmetrical interdependent relationship, China focuses more on sustainable development support than natural resource searching. Considering the prospect of symmetrical interdependence, President HU Jintao declared at the 5th FOCAC Ministerial Conference that, China ‘will expand cooperation in investment and financing to support sustainable development in Africa’ and ‘support the African integration process and help Africa enhance capacity for overall development’, which includes supports to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa and the Presidential Infrastructure Championing Initiative, and to extend aid-for-trade to African countries, to scale the China-Africa Development Fund up to US$ 5 billion, to implement the ‘African Talents Program’, and so on.[16] The most recent 18th Party Congress also declared that China will contribute to building of a New Global Development Partnership.

V. Conclusion

The rapid development of Sino-Africa relationship itself brings out the ongoing transitions and facilitates the moving towards a new strategic partnership. While intently maneuver this trend, there’re still urgent needs for longer-term strategic planning for better steering the future sustainable development of Sino-African relations.

First of all, China should build a stronger social basis for Sino-African relations. Lacking of non-governmental capability, the current people-to-people exchange induces more negative impacts than positive contributions. China should strengthen NGOs and civil society groups nurturing, create better platforms for public diplomacy, make best use of diversification of diplomatic skills and stakeholders, etc.
Secondly, China should make concrete contributions to African peace and security. On the one hand, China now has a blueprint for peace and security cooperation between two sides without detailed strategy and plan supporting; On the other hand, to initiate peace and security cooperation, there is a risk of violating China’s traditional principle of non-interference. Thus, China needs a comprehensive strategic plan for such an initiative with multilateral institutions as the main platform.

Finally, China should pave the way for future symmetrical interdependence between China and Africa. We have witnessed the failure the western suffered and the success we enjoyed. However, the picture is changing that argues for early warning measures including how to build a real friendship between a would-be ‘developed’ country (China) and a real ‘developing’ continent (Africa), how to consolidate the Global South network, how to be a reliable friend and partner forever of developing countries, etc. The future is bright, but there’s still long way to go.

Source of documents:LSE IDEAS

more details:

[1] Chinese MOFA, China’s African Policy, January 2006,
[2] Address by Hu Jintao President of the People's Republic of China at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing, 4 November 2006,
[3] While 2011 was an exception because of the Sino-America summit held in mid January. However, if counting the lunar New Year, the first trip of Chinese Foreign Minister in 2011 was still Africa.
[4] “China-Africa trade up 45% in 2008 to $107 bln,” Xinhuanet, 11 February 2009,
[5] “Cultural exchanges and cooperation,” 21 September 2006,
[6] It’s important to note that there were few exceptions with Angola as the example, see Steven F. Jackson, “China’s Third World Foreign Policy: The Case of Angola and Mozambique, 1961-1993,” The China Quarterly, No. 142 (1995), pp. 388-422.
[7] Judith van de Looy, “Africa and China: A strategic partnership?,” Working Paper, No. 67 (2006), African Studies Centre,
[8] Ian Taylor, “China’s Foreign Policy Toward Africa in the 1990s,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1998), pp. 443-460.
[9] Chinese MOFA, China’s African Policy, January 2006,
[10] R. Schiere, "China and Africa: An Emerging Partnership for Development? – An overview of issues," Working Paper, No. 125, May 2011, African Development Bank Group, p. 17.
[11] For a more detailed analysis and discussion of the opposing views regarding China’s involvement in
Africa, see Sarah Raine, China’s African Challenges (London: Routledge, 2009).
[12] FOCAC was initiated by African states, aiming at a collective forum with China that’s why the Chinese understanding, both official and academic, is rather emphasising the bilateral character, see LI Anshan, “Why the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation-Analyzing China’s Strategy in Africa,” Foreign Affairs Review (Chinese), Vol. 29, No. 3. It is interesting to note that foreign observers – and many Africans – rather emphasise the more than 50 states of the continent and thus understand FOCAC rather as multilateral platform. For such an assessment of FOCAC’s political role, see S. Grimm. “The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation – Its Political Role and Functioning,” CCS policy briefing, May 2012, Centre for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch.
[13] S. Grimm, "The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation – Its Political Role and Functioning," CCS Policy Briefing, May 2012, Centre for Chinese Studies, Stellenbosch.
[14] “Vice Minister Wang Chao Addressed in China-Africa Small and Medium Enterprises Trade & Economic Exchanges and Investment Cooperation Seminar,” MOFOCOM, September 9, 2010.
[15] J. Holslag, "China’s New Mercantilism in Central Africa," African and Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2006).
[16] Hu Jintao, Open Up New Prospects for A New Type of China-Africa Strategic Partnership, Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Beijing, 19 July 2012.