Sino-African relations: A timeline from historical cooperation to today’s co-dependence

27 Mar

The relationship between both Africa and China was one that developed on the basis of ‘equal treatment, respect for sovereignty and common development’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the PRC, 2006). China’s presence in Africa has been noted by the international community for over thirty years, lying dormant, waiting for real action to occur. In January 2006, China’s Africa Policy, a white paper that the Chinese government promulgated forged the path to a new, and previously unseen, diplomacy between China and the African continent. The documents content entrenching a process of enhanced cooperation in Sino-African relations, it became the first of its kind for the Chinese nation, and subject to suspicion from the West (Li Anshan, 2007).


The premise of the white paper, however, has become lost in a Chinese shift towards exploitative action of the African continent to gain short-term economic gains. Consider the attitudes of China towards the African continent under Premier Zhou Enlai (in the 1960s), it was central to their relationship that China was fit to export revolution, provide aid that was ‘free and unconditional’ (Ogunsanwo, Alaba, 2000). Proven, of course, in their willingness to build great stadiums, statues, and many other embodiments of African decolonisation (Beijing: World Affairs Press, 2000) that truly contributed to the ‘formation of African nationhood’ (Li Anshan, 2007).


Historically, the relationship between the Chinese nation and the African continent was founded on a desire enabling mutual benefits to be received by both parties. China’s forthright stance on the backing of anti-colonisation meant that in the 1980s Africa had a state partner focused on aiding them through the struggles for independence. Likewise, Africa was keen to support political action, and recognise political achievement in China (Li Anshan, 2007). The reorientation of focus becoming more about China’s need to meet a higher energy demand domestically, meant that, economically, the relationship had to transform to a more position where Chinese interests dominated future action; primarily, increasing Africa’s exports of raw materials. Making note of China’s willingness to ignore African troubles, such as that of the Darfur ‘genocide’, it figures that Africa’s appropriate reaction is to meet the needs of their ally in the international realm. This obviously remains a contentious issue within the international community, whether the term ‘genocide’ is accurate is still undecided, yet, China backed the African response that it is unfair to measure, what was considered, a process of development in Africa – a developing continent – to the industrialised, democratised West (US Department of State, 2007).


Thus, bringing the whole situation regarding the Sino-African relations to a more contemporary context, the shift in direction is a co-requisite to challenge and risk both actors must face. Expansive interaction in terms of labour practices and markets strategies has become an aspect important to the Chinese in their relationship with Africa to best approach a solution (Li Anshan, 2007). Flooding Africa is a great deal of Chinese businesses and manufactured products, with interest in establishing similar business in Africa, the Chinese have been confronted with local labour laws. Tensions building between the African locals and the Chinese nationals, what with an increasing competitiveness for employment, is a result of China’s wish to be free from entanglement in such law set by the state where the franchise, or factory, has been established. In another respect, in order to maintain efficiency in the factory’s operations, by importing Chinese employees, communication between management – who are all Chinese nationals – and the average worker is easy and will not be blocked by language barriers. Tensions being exasperated further by the recognition that these Chinese industries are not contributing adequately, in fact, nowhere near adequately, to the local economy.


With an increase in Chinese industry, producing better-quality products than their African counterparts, at a more efficient and quicker rate also contributes to the tension. By driving down native businesses, understandably, something was bound to give. An example of which, would be the protests that took place in Dakar, and similar ones in South Africa (D.Z. Osborn, 2007). In the interests of maintaining their relationship, however, both actors were keen to come to a solution. The blinkered actors, though, both concerned with their own national interests, led to a difficult process of discussion. Realising co-dependence was necessary at this point in time; both agreed multilateral talks were needed between the China and the particular African nation with a concern. This action to allow the African nation the opportunity to become a more competitive member of the market does show a level of appeasement, not often seen in the international market, from China.


To conclude, it is important that China retains the notion at the forefront of all future action that it, as a nation, is just as dependent on the African nation, as Africa is on it. There is no doubt that further ventures will be pursued on African soil by China, but in order for these future links to run harmoniously, keeping both actors interests at the heart of the matter, there needs to be a more frequent and comprehensive dialogue generated between both actors. There is always going to be suspicion from the West in the international community about the Sino-African relationship – and so there should be. The links forged between the two actors are complex, susceptible to corruption and further tensions, and ultimately present the world with a picture of China’s ever-expanding influence.





  1.      Anshan, L. ‘China and Africa: Policy and Challenges’, China Security, Vol. 3, No. 3, 2007, pp.67-93. World Security Institute.
  2.      Anshan, L., Studies on African Nationalism. (Beijing: China International Radio Press, 2004), pp. 291-300; Li Anshan, “Africa in the Perspective of Globalization: development, aid and cooperation,” West Asia and Africa, Issue 7, (2007).
  3.      D.Z. Osborn, and a conversation with Togo journalist Adama Gaye in the seminar “China in Africa: Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Considerations” held by Harvard University, from May 31 -June 2. Discussion attended by Li Anshan, published 2007.
  4.      In the seminar “China-Africa Link” held by The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on Nov 11-12, 2006, a South African scholar stated that it is certain South Africa could benefit from the Chinese government’s decision to reduce its textile exports to South Africa, but it still had to deal with the challenges posed by textiles from Malaysia and Vietnam. The key to the textile problem for South Africa is not to cut the import of Chinese textiles, but to strengthen the competitive age of South African textiles. Attended by Li Anshan, published works, 2007.
  5.      Ogunsanwo, Alaba, China’s Policy in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 1974) pp.180-240; Barnouin B. and Y. Changgen, Chinese Foreign Policy during the Cultural Revolution, (London, 1998) pp.75-78; Wang Qinmei, “The Up and Downs in Sino-African Relations;” Long Xiangyang, “The Preliminary Probe to the Sino-Africa Relations from 1966 to 1969,” in China and Africa ed. by Center for African Studies, Peking University, (2000) pp59-71, 72-86.
  6.      Fifty Years of Friendly Relations between China and Africa. (Beijing: World Affairs Press, 2000).





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