The relationship between China and Africa, at least when it came to the political dimension, became apparent back when Mao Zedong shared his worldview about there being a First World (the richest countries on the planet), Second World (average economies) and a Third World (poorer nations). Interestingly enough, he included China in the Third World and had clear goals for China to essentially become a leader of the Third World.
Of course, a lot of things have changed for China since then. Needless to say, with it ranking #2 in terms of nominal GDP, it would be an intellectual challenge to find ways to still include China in the Third World, even with its existing cap when it comes to GDP Per Capita. On the contrary, all descriptions of modern-day China inevitably end up including references to its 10%+ yearly growth until 2010 and even nowadays, the 6-6.5% region is more than robust in terms of yearly growth.
China’s current relationship with Africa is therefore shaped by pragmatic rather than political or ideology-based variables. More specifically, that China’s remarkable growth over the past decades was (among other things) generated through an impressive energy consumption volume. In its quest for resources, Africa plays an important role.
To understand the sheer dimension of the equation, keep in mind that China was once the largest oil exporter in Asia at one point. However, its domestic energy needs made it become a net importer as of 1993 and at this point, it’s the world’s #1 importer of energy.
While China is also the world’s top producer of energy rather than just consumer, its need for energy seems hard to quench and as such, it’s turning more and more toward strategic partnerships in Africa. The fact that President Xi Jinping embarked on four distinct African tours over the past year speaks for itself.
After the Middle East, Africa is actually China’s #2 supplier of oil, from which China receives roughly 22% of the oil it imports, from countries such as Angola, the Republic of Congo and South Sudan. To consolidate and expand these relationships, China relies on an expensive combination between diplomacy and resource allocations. Simply put, it engages in robust infrastructure spending and helps African governments secure financing cheaper than they would normally be able to and in return, it expects favorable terms for its trade deals.
It… well, works.
As of 2009, China became Africa’s main trading partner, surpassing the United States. Almost 1/6 of Africa’s exports end up in China, whereas Africa itself depends on imports from China to a 1/5 to 1/6 degree.
When it comes to the structure of the trading relationship between China and Africa, things are unfortunately not looking great for the latter. As one might expect, the overwhelming majority of African exports to China are represented by mineral fuels, iron ore, metals and so on, whereas the exact opposite is true for China, which exports all sorts of high value-added machinery, equipment and manufactured goods.
However, as mentioned previously, China puts a wide range of benefits on the table to make up for that, for example loans from the PBOC, the Export-Import Bank of China, the China-Africa Development fund and the China Development Bank.
This complex relationship ended up taking the trade volume between China and Africa from practically nothing in 1995 to almost $50 billion in 2005 and roughly $200 billion nowadays.
As a conclusion, the relationship between China and Africa is in line with President Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” perspective to development and the ultimate goal is, of course, generating prosperity in a deeply-interconnected Eurasia + Africa region.
While there are controversies involved such as the lack of regard toward transparency and human rights when it comes to its dealings with Africa, things seem to be going in the right direction when it comes to the relationship between the two entities, as illustrated by both trade numbers and public perception realities (with over 6 out of 10 Africans having an overall positive perception according of to the Afrobarometer of the Council on Foreign Relations).