Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 21

If current trends continue, China will become a major player in Africa and one that may both challenge traditional Western interests and offer an alternative reading of democracy and human rights that may not benefit the average African. Growing Chinese activity on the continent thus merits particular attention by the United States and other Western countries.

Certainly, Africa’s economic involvement in Africa is rapidly increasing. Since 2000 more than 40 agreements have been signed between Beijing and African countries, and trade has doubled to more than $20 billion between 2000 and the end of 2004. In fact, according to testimony given before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in July 2005, by the end of 2005 China is widely expected to emerge as Africa’s third most important trading partner after the United States and France and ahead of the United Kingdom. This is a remarkable development given the pace and timeframe within which this has occurred.

Beijing’s economic interest in Africa is based on three factors. First, Beijing asserts that the macroeconomic situation in Africa is taking a favorable turn. This analysis is based on the belief that African countries have adopted a set of active measures to push forward the pace of privatization, open to international trade, and reform their economies. China believes this affords great opportunities to Chinese companies. Second, Chinese manufacturers and shopkeepers believe that the types of goods they produce and sell have immense potential in Africa. They believe that the economy in Africa is not yet as developed as in Western nations and consumers are perceived to be more receptive to the type of inexpensive products that China typically produces. Third, the Chinese government and business look to secure access to Africa’s abundant natural resources, particularly crude oil, non-ferrous metals, and fisheries.

Indeed, China’s rapidly developing oil requirements have helped propel Sino-African trade in recent years. In 1993, China became a net importer of oil and China is projected to rely on imports for 45 percent of its oil use by 2010 (Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy). As a result, China has been faithfully developing linkages with oil-rich countries in Africa such as Angola, Nigeria and Sudan. Since around 1995 China has begun an “outward-looking oil economy” policy. This is for primarily economic reasons, as the average production cost of Chinese onshore oil is very expensive compared to African or Middle Eastern oil. As a result, Chinese oil companies now have a presence in places as diverse as Canada, Peru, and Sudan. One way by which this policy has been cemented is to use what China refers to as “special relationships.” Arms sales are one part of this policy and also help offset costs.

China’s economic interests in Africa have been manifest through increased joint ventures, Chinese investment, and economic interaction. An emphasis on trade and economic affairs now dominates Sino-African relations and China’s trade with Africa is growing speedily. Traditionally, Sino-African trade has been vastly unbalanced in China’s favor, and although African exports have recently risen (due almost entirely to oil imports from Africa), the trade balance is still firmly dominated by China. Low-quality cheap household products flood African markets, discouraging indigenous African manufacturing.

This somewhat negative aspect of the relationship is arguably worsened by China’s sale of arms to the continent. China is currently the world’s fifth-largest arms supplier, and the Chinese government hopes to turn the country’s arms industry into a top global player by 2020. This has not only taken on the guise of providing military supplies and weaponry to the continent, but has also involved an active participation in actual conflicts. Remarkably, such involvement has passed with relatively little international attention.

The classic example of Beijing’s weapons exporting policy in Africa is China’s involvement in Sudan’s long-running civil war, which has claimed nearly two million lives so far. China has pursued a policy that is entirely based on narrow economic interests and has been keen to supply the Sudanese government with fighter aircraft and an assortment of weaponry. Apart from the profits accrued from these arms sales, the policy helps consolidate and protect Chinese investment in Sudan’s oil reserves. Reliable reports from Aviation Week & Space Technology say that Sudan has obtained 34 new fighter jets from China, and that the Sudan air force is equipped with $100 million worth of Shenyang fighter planes, including a dozen supersonic F-7 jets [1].

The motivation for such supplies is simple. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) owns the largest share (i.e. 40 percent) in Sudan’s largest oil venture. The Sino-Sudanese oilfield project covers 50,000 square miles in the southern non-Muslim region of the country and is expected to produce 15 million tons of crude oil annually. With proven reserves of 220 million tons, the project is among the largest China has undertaken overseas. At the same time, Sudanese government forces, armed with Chinese weapons, have used Chinese facilities as a base from which to attack and dislodge southerners in the vicinity of the new oil fields. According to Lam Akol, former Transportation Minister (a southerner who temporarily served in the government during a period of reconciliation), helicopter gunships deployed in attacks on civilians are Chinese-made and are based at airstrips controlled by Chinese oil companies. Such a statement confirms findings from the charity World Vision who spoke to survivors of such attacks, as well as government military deserters (The Washington Post, December 23, 2004). A Christian Aid report in 2001 noted that CNPC’s oil roads and airstrips were used to conduct bombing raids on southern Sudanese villages and hospitals. The charity accused the Chinese, through their activities in Sudan, of being complicit in scorched earth policies. China, for its part, has deployed its “alternative” reading of human rights to block United Nations action against Sudan and has consistently opposed any intervention by the United Nations with regard to Khartoum’s affairs.

China has also provided military training in Equatorial Guinea and Chinese specialists in heavy military equipment have been sent to the country, presumably in order to sell such weapons to Equatorial Guinea in exchange for oil. Equatorial Guinea appears the perfect customer: climbing oil prices have granted the country extra finances and, possibly concerned to defend their oil wells from Nigeria and Cameroon, Malabo has turned to China for military weapons and training.

China provides weapons to other parts of Africa, often during times of conflict.

According to the Congressional Research Service, Chinese exports to Africa made up 10 percent of total conventional arms transfers to Africa between 1996 and 2003.

While Ethiopia and Eritrea were edging toward war, Chinese corporations transferred a substantial share of US$1 billion in weapons dispatched to both countries between 1998 and 2000. In 1995 a Chinese ship carrying 152 tons of ammunition and light weapons was refused permission to unload in Tanzania as the cargo was destined for the Tutsi-dominated army of Burundi (Agence France-Presse, May 3, 1995). And at least thirteen covert shipments of weapons by China were delivered to Dar-es-Salaam, with the final destinations mislabeled and the weapons disguised as agricultural equipment. These were almost certainly destined for the war-torn Great Lakes region (Overseas Development Institute, May 1998).

More recently, Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe ordered 12 FC1 fighter jets from China as well as 100 military vehicles in late 2004, China’s most advanced military aircraft order from an African nation that was worth $200 million.

According to the Commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, this move enraged South Africa, with many political analysts fearing that such transfers could spark an arms race in southern Africa (testimony given before House of Representatives Committee on International Relations, July 28, 2005). Previously, it was widely reported that Chinese small arms were exchanged for eight tons of Zimbabwean elephant ivory in May 2000.

Turning to politics, a key aspect of China’s policies toward the continent that attracts certain African leaders’ support is its stance on “non-interference in domestic affairs.” Beijing consistently casts talk of democracy and human rights as a tool of neo-imperialism and demands that internal matters remain outside the concern of external actors. Central to this is the assertion by China that all countries have the right to choose their own definition of human rights. Beijing has gone so far as to state that good governance conditionalities, which include discussion of democracy and human rights, constitute a violation of the human rights of the receiving country. It is axiomatic that such a stance grants the rulers of each country the right to define their own version of “human rights” and also, how such rights should be protected (or not, as the case may be). China rarely attaches any political strings to its assistance to Africa. This has opened up space for China to deal quite profitably with some of the more heinous regimes on the continent. It is no coincidence, for example, that Sudan and Zimbabwe now play host to a very large Chinese economic presence. In short, by advancing the theme of non-interference in domestic affairs and promoting a culturally relativist notion of human rights, China has been able to appeal to numerous African leaders. At the same time it secures African support for Beijing whenever China’s own human rights record is put under the spotlight in forums such as the United Nations.

What benefits might Africa expect from Chinese expansion on the continent?

Currently, China’s somewhat cavalier stance toward arms sales and its disregard for norms surrounding democracy and human rights is troubling. There is a very real danger that Beijing’s supposed “non-political” stance merely masks its bottom line: the chase for profits and oil. Unmoved by ideological concerns and without fear of political consequences, the Chinese government seems willing to deliver arms to and conduct business with African despots. Curiously, Beijing does not seem to realize that political instability, a lack of accountability and a continent awash with arms sabotages the long-term possibilities of a sustained Sino-African partnership. For such reasons, the West needs to closely watch China’s expansion into the African continent.


1. See also Daniel L. Byman and Roger Cliff; China’s Arms Sales: Motivations and

Implications; The RAND Corporation, 1999.