At the 6th Forum on ChinaAfrica Cooperation last Friday in Johannesburg, a new relationship between the world’s second-largest economy and its fastest rising continent was on display. The forum is the main platform for official high-level political and economic dialogue between Africa and China, held once every three years. China made headlines at the event by announcing a $60 billion package of loans, aid, investment, and other financial support to Africa.

Yet for all the fanfare, the relationship between China and Africa is under strain. That is why Beijing must now rethink its engagement with the continent, focusing less on the size and number of commitments it offers and more on sustainability, with an approach that goes beyond government-to-government initiatives.

Xi Jinping (front L) poses with Robert Mugabe (2nd R) and Jacob Zuma.
Xi Jinping (front L) poses with Robert Mugabe (2nd R) and Jacob Zuma (C) during a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, December 2015.
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

First, the plusses. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled Africa’s importance to Chinese foreign policy by visiting the Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Tanzania on his first presidential trip overseas. African governments have welcomed China’s “no-strings attached” political approach, which broadly gives Africa an alternative to conditional aid from Western donors and allows China to leverage its economic position on the continent.

In a remarkable 22-fold increase, trade between Africa and China has risen from $10 billion in 2000 to $220 billion in 2014. African oil and minerals make up nearly half of the total trade with China, but Beijing has also singlehandedly revitalized Africa’s infrastructure network by financing and building sorely needed roads, bridges, and telecommunication infrastructure. Chinese firms are also slowly moving some of their manufacturing capacity to lower-cost African destinations, including to a special economic zone outside Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

But the Sino–African relationship is facing challenges. The global commodity crunch, coupled with the restructuring of China’s economy from manufacturing to services, has led to a 40 percent drop in Chinese investment in Africa since last year. At the same time, China has found itself ensnared in some of the continent’s hotspots. In May, opposition forces in South Sudan’s civil war threatened large Chinese oil investments, and in November, Islamist militants killed three Chinese executives from a state railway company in a luxury hotel in Mali’s capital, Bamako. 

For all the fanfare, the relationship between China and Africa is under strain.

African leaders have also criticized China’s relationship with Africa. South African President Jacob Zuma put on a diplomatic smile as host of the recent forum. But at the last summit in Beijing, Zuma called Africa’s relationship with China “unsustainable” if it continued to follow the neocolonialist pattern of trading African raw materials for Chinese manufactured goods. From Chinese textiles crowding out local competition in Nigeria to labor disputes in Zambia and oil spills in Chad, social and environmental scandals have dogged Chinese investment in Africa.

South African President Jacob Zuma speaks in Johannesburg.
South African President Jacob Zuma speaks in Johannesburg, December 2015.
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

The Chinese government is attempting to alleviate such concerns. Beijing contributes medical and engineering personnel to the majority of UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, but in recent years has elevated its involvement by sending military troops to support missions in Mali and South Sudan. At the 70th session of the UN General Assembly in New York in September, Xi captured the spotlight by announcing China’s commitment of $100 million in military assistance to the African Union over the next five years and 8,000 troops for a new UN peacekeeping standby force. Chinese destroyers are also part of multinational efforts to counter Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden, where China recently announced it is establishing its first overseas navy logistics facility in the tiny nation of Djibouti. 

During a four-country tour in 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang acknowledged “growing pains” in the Sino–African relationship and called on Chinese companies to respect local African laws and regulations. In official visits, Chinese leaders have stressed cooperation in infrastructure, agriculture, health, and the environment. Beijing has even committed to ending the legal sale of ivory—China is the world’s largest consumer—after repeated calls from international and African conservationists.

Yet China can do more. Beijing has deepened its bilateral military cooperation with African governments, albeit still not at the same engagement level as the United States and European powers, and provided billions in support to the African Union. But an overreliance on official lines of engagement limits China’s role in helping to end African conflicts. China can bolster its support to African grassroots and civil society groups working in conflict resolution as well as on early warning and conflict prevention initiatives. In South Sudan, church groups have a track record of alleviating communal violence, but need financial support and political backing. Such initiatives may take Chinese officials out of their political comfort zones, but part of China’s global expansion will involve navigating within social systems different from its own.

As for resolving the other issues in the Sino–African relationship, the solutions for Beijing will start at home. Promoting an understanding of specific African laws, customs, and norms before Chinese firms invest in the country will be essential to preventing labor and environmental violations. 

The forum is another demonstration that China’s political and economic engagement in Africa has reached a critical mass. Prioritizing security and social issues may not always be compatible with political and economic objectives, but they will certainly improve the sustainability of the partnership.

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  • LUKE PATEY is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of The New Kings of Crude: China, India, and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan. Follow him on Twitter @LukePatey. ZHANG CHUN is a Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Center for West Asian and African Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
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