In early December 2015, Chinese president Xi Jinping promised $60 billion for African development projects, capping off a year that saw trade between China and African countries grow to $220 billion. With steadily increasing trade and aid flows, China remains at the forefront of the global push to increase engagement with the African continent. Given the widespread availability of natural resources and the explosive potential for economic development throughout the continent, China is among a host of global powers that have turned their attention to Africa, investing political and financial resources into expanding foreign aid, trade partnerships, and diplomatic ties with emerging African nations.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Western commentary on the growing Chinese presence in Africa has been rife with moral judgement. Pundits label Chinese endeavors immoral and dangerous when they involve resource extraction or take place in undemocratic regimes. American analysts also peddle the rhetoric of “zero-sum” competition between China and the United States, decrying the effects of Sino-African ties on American national interests. In a conversation with the HPR, Yun Sun, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative, explained that “the extension of China’s influence in Africa here, in the United States, is perceived as at the cost of the United States,” even though China’s primarily economic involvement actually opens the door for cooperation with America’s largely counterterrorism-focused presence.

In order to challenge this well-established narrative, Chinese presence in Africa must be analyzed through an objective lens—one detached from American goals in the continent. China’s relationship with the fledgling country of South Sudan elucidates the political, ideological, economic, and strategic pillars of Sino-African relations. As African nations like South Sudan face growing governance challenges and instability, though, Chinese adherence to this strategy has come into conflict with overriding economic interests.

Ideological Foundations

Chinese leaders often seek to increase influence in international institutions by building a coalition among emerging nations that agree to adopt Chinese international objectives and its model of development. For example, China’s engagement with African regimes began in an effort to bolster ideological support for burgeoning socialist regimes globally. By providing political and economic support for socialist nations, the young Chinese government simultaneously increased international recognition of far-left regimes.

Although China has continued encouraging socialism to demonstrate the efficacy of its economic development model, the CCP also maintains an ideological commitment to a non-interference principle and actively prohibits efforts to influence local governance through conditional aid and investment. This policy has been articulated as an effort to maintain anti-colonial solidarity with emerging nations, but serves also primarily to delegitimize efforts by other global powers to intervene in China’s own domestic politics, according to Sun. China understands that as an authoritarian regime it has a legitimacy problem; but by taking a strong stance against intervention in developing countries, it can object in good faith to other countries’ attempts to meddle in its own business

The case of South Sudan exemplifies China’s emerging dilemma in its adherence to the non-interference principle. The source of South Sudanese instability lies partially in the country’s roots—governed by British and Egyptian colonial overlords for over a century, Sudan was originally divided into two nations. When Sudan gained independence in 1956, though, it was unified by its colonial powers, with the authority to rule placed in the north. In spite of recurring civil wars, China established ties with Sudan early on, and as Sudan became a globally relevant oil producer, China expanded the scope of its involvement. When South Sudan gained international recognition in 2011 as an independent country, China chose to maintain diplomatic and economic ties with both Sudan and South Sudan despite continued tensions between the two nations.

Unfortunately, South Sudan’s secession failed to dampen regional instability, and since the end of 2013, South Sudan has undergone its own civil war. In the midst of this chaos, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir sacked his cabinet and expanded executive authority, inviting vocal criticism from numerous international sources and throwing a wrench into Chinese plans for a stable oil supply. Amid the escalating civil war and the widespread perception that the South Sudanese government represents the worst excesses of authoritarianism, China has been forced to balance its international reputation with its ideological commitment to non-interference. Cutting off ties with Kiir’s nation would send a signal of abandonment to China’s other undemocratic partners on the continent, diminishing the strength of China’s international coalition. On the other hand, supporting a despotic and internationally ostracized leader imposes reputational costs for China, and undermines its own legitimacy in international negotiations with other great powers.

Varied Complications

Unfortunately for Chinese decision-makers, China’s already complex relationship with South Sudan is further complicated by its burgeoning commercial and economic interests in the region. In the 1990’s, China’s focus in Africa shifted away from nebulous ideological commitments to economic development, with a special emphasis on expanding export markets and extracting natural resources. Sun articulated that since 2000, “economic interests have been perhaps the most important pursuit of China’s endeavors or China’s exploration in Africa.” While economic interests shape Chinese foreign policy towards Africa, the continent still represents only 3 percent of its global investment, and trade with Africa comprises only 5 percent of the value of China’s global trade. However, China remains a critical economic partner for many of African countries. China has been the largest trading partner on the African continent since 2009, and Chinese governmental and commercial actors have on multiple occasions offered loans whose value exceeds 10 percent of a nation’s GDP.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

Before South Sudan gained independence, for example, China maintained a heavy economic presence in its political forebear, making up 73 percent of total international loans to Sudan in 2007. As Chinese foreign aid to the region spiked, economic development accelerated throughout the African country. Capital and machinery became readily available for manufacturing firms, Chinese investment facilitated training and capacity building efforts, and technology and knowledge transfer programs improved the efficiency and productivity of industries. While the majority of Chinese aid and investment has gone towards expanding resource availability and accelerating the extraction of oil, it has also supported civil works projects and bureaucratic improvements. However, Chinese loans have also bloated both Sudan’s and South Sudan’s external debt obligations, hindering political flexibility for the recipient governments and ensuring dependence on China’s economic and diplomatic decision-making.

Moreover, the significant role of commercial entities in decision-making about Africa has hindered China’s own attempts to achieve other objectives. Relations with South Sudan, for example, were driven initially by the Chinese state-owned oil company, which prioritized its lucrative oil contracts with the developing country despite uncertainty regarding political stability. Sun emphasized that “Chinese oil company interests, [in order] to gain oil access in Sudan, have driven China’s foreign policy towards the country. Had they had the choice, the foreign ministry probably would not have proposed or promoted such a close engagement with the Sudanese government.”

The Challenges of Strategic Ambiguity and Rising Insecurity

None of this is to say that Africa’s role in China’s broader international strategy has grown murky. The Chinese foreign policy establishment maintains a clear division of nations into three strategic categories: the periphery (countries in China’s geographic backyard), great powers (international hegemons like the United States), and the foundation (developing nations with little international influence). African partners like South Sudan fall into the final category, and while the “foundation” remains collectively important, each nation individually has miniscule relevance to China’s economic objectives.

As a result of this relative insignificance, though, the highest level of the Chinese diplomatic machine remains largely uninvolved in Africa policy, complicating the hierarchy of decision-making. Historically, both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) have played important roles in defining Africa policy, but according to Sun, “Chinese commercial entities and Chinese political agencies operate China’s relationship with African countries on different tracks.” The growing logjam of domestic actors striving to direct China’s Africa policy without a clearly defined set of goals has led critics to question China’s ability to carry out its strategic objectives. In particular, the disparate directives of the MOFCOM and MFA often produce tension, as China’s emphasis on resource extraction and support for authoritarian leaders has deleterious effects on its international standing.

As partnerships with African countries have become commercially attractive, Chinese state-owned enterprises have served as a conduit for Chinese foreign policy makers. The prominent role of these SOEs in China’s own economy has spilled over to its relationship with the African continent, and large SOEs have developed close ties with important African political actors. Because SOEs retain political clout at home, the Chinese bureaucracy faces challenges monitoring the behavior of these enterprises internationally. Private businesses not associated with the Chinese government have also entered the African economy at growing rates, almost exclusively for the purpose of resource extraction. Their lack of supervision encourages commercial exploitation and risky practices, imposing costs on community stakeholders and increasing hazards for Chinese regional interests. These uncoordinated commercial activities further frustrate the formulation of a consistent grand strategy in Africa.

Making matters worse, growing insecurity in countries that house Chinese economic interests has forced the Chinese government to step up military involvement via arms sales and a reinvigorated naval presence. As a result, the Chinese military has also stepped up its involvement in the decision-making process, as security concerns have expanded domestic support for increased naval operations in the Greater Horn of Africa. In South Sudan’s internal struggle, for example, China has been forced to adopt the role of a mediator to protect its oil supply, a substantial shift from its otherwise hands-off approach to foreign policy. As a clear example of this sudden reversal, China initially blocked a UN resolution for intervention in the region but altered its stance in 2011, when it supported the introduction of peacekeepers in Sudan and South Sudan. As a result of international security involvement, South Sudan has been drawn into the growing rivalry between the United States and China, with both powers trying to facilitate diplomacy, to little avail.

As the case of South Sudan demonstrates, Chinese presence in Africa faces increasingly complex challenges amidst growing economic and political engagement. While the political, ideological, and economic foundations of China’s foreign policy establishment will shape and frame the future of Chinese engagement with Africa, a lack of strategic clarity in the continent continues to frustrate the accomplishment of Chinese objectives. The potential for mutual gains, especially in economic terms, is still immense and will likely drive closer ties, but without a coherent grand strategy and bureaucratic cohesion, the risks for China and its African partners remain substantial.

Image source: Wikimedia/John Hanson/VOA

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