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China in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities

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Understanding China Today

Part of the book series: Understanding China ((UNCHI))


China’s current economic presence in Africa dates back to the early 1990s, and has increased exponentially since the start of the new century, becoming one of the most debated chapters on PRC’s foreign policy agenda. While the mainstream trends to point at the asymmetric nature of the bilateral China-Africa relationship and considers China’s activities in the continent the emblem of a new neo-colonial attitude, the Chinese presence in Africa presents both risks and challenges for China and opportunities for Africa. On the one hand, the growing instability that characterizes most of the countries where Chinese economic interests are concentrated represents a crucial challenge for Beijing, which requires a rethinking of some of the key pillars of its foreign policy. On the other hand, Africa’s inclusion in the maritime branch of China’s New Silk Road Initiative, named the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, can become an opportunity for African economic growth and development.

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  1. 1.

    The notorious bainian chiru (‘century of shame and humiliation’) began in 1842 with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, and officially ended in 1949. The Unequal treaties had already been formally abrogated in 1943.

  2. 2.

  3. 3.

    “Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence”.

  4. 4.

    China started in the early 1990s, after a period of non-involvement in the United Nations, to become one of the major contributors to UN peacekeeping operations. As of September 2015, the PRC was the ninth largest contributor to the UN, and by far the biggest contributor of peacekeeping forces among five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, with a total of 3084 troops deployed to ten UN missions, seven of which are in Africa (‘UN Mission’s Summary detailed by Country’ 2015).

  5. 5.

    While China continues to generate controversy with its rapidly growing investments in Africa, new research reveals that some of the West’s biggest concerns over Chinese investment—its true size, its focus on natural resources, and its disregard for good governance—are not always well-grounded. Remaining on the scale of China’s direct investment in Africa, Chinese statistics on what they refer to as overseas direct investment (ODI) show a stock of $26 billion in Africa as of the end of 2013. This number would amount to about 3% of total foreign direct investment (FDI) on the continent (Chen et al. 2015). The same can be said for Sino-African trade, which constitutes only 5% of China’s overall global trade (Yun 2014, p. 14).

  6. 6.

    To date the PRC has published four policy papers (excluding their updated versions) dedicated to its foreign partners. Besides the one dedicated to Africa, the others are: China’s EU Policy Paper (Zhongguo dui Ouzhou zhengce wenjian); China’s Policy Paper on Latin America and the Caribbean States (Zhongguo dui Lading Meizhou he Jialebi zhengce wenjian); and China’s Arab Policy Paper (Zhongguo dui Alabo guojia zhengce wenjian).

  7. 7.

    As mentioned above, while in absolute terms China’s investment and trade with Africa has grown significantly, its share of the total remains negligible.

  8. 8.

    Terrorism is not new to either the Chinese people or the Chinese government, insomuch as the majority of the terrorist attacks within the country in recent history were carried out by the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) (Gong 2015).

  9. 9.

    The PRC has been very careful to avoid describing its facility in Djibouti as a ‘military’ or ‘naval’ base, preferring the use of more neutral terms, such as ‘support facilities’ or ‘logistical facilities’, or even ‘protective facility’ (baozhang sheshi), as defined by the People’s Daily in an article published on 26 November, 2015 (Renmin Ribao 2015).

  10. 10.

    Another demonstration in this sense was last spring, when China evacuated hundreds of Chinese and foreign nationals from the troubled cost of Yemen (Wang 2015b).


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Correspondence to Barbara Onnis .

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Onnis, B. (2017). China in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities. In: Beretta, S., Berkofsky, A., Zhang, L. (eds) Understanding China Today. Understanding China. Springer, Cham.

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