05 July 2014

Chinese Engagement in Africa: Drivers, Reactions, and Implications for U.S. Policy

Worth a long Saturday of thorough reading and reflection! The hallmark RAND quality and clarity, focused on a topic that will be with us for decades, particularly as Africa is projected to become the last, largest locus of global population growth in an otherwise largely graying planet.

Balanced and nuanced–not yet another polemic either ignoring or exaggerating problems. (And, in my strong opinion, we don’t need any more heat-over-light polemics in the Chinese studies field–certainly not along the lines of Death by China “The world’s most populous nation and soon-to-be largest economy is rapidly turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin” or When China Rules the World “Soon, China will rule the world”). Instead, in this informative RAND study, inductive findings flow from a commitment to 实事求是 (seek[ing] truth from facts).

Very serious treatment, yet with some fascinating data points and even a few unforgettable quotes and lines! Invoking David Shinn with “Chinese opera just does not cut it in Africa” was a deft touch.

This will be a standard reference in the field for a long time to come.

Larry Hanauer and Lyle J. Morris, Chinese Engagement in Africa: Drivers, Reactions, and Implications for U.S. Policy RR-521-OSD (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2014).


Most analyses of Chinese engagement in Africa focus either on what China gets out of these partnerships or the impacts that China’s aid and investment have had on African countries. This analysis approaches Sino-African relations as a vibrant, two-way dynamic in which both sides adjust to policy initiatives and popular perceptions emanating from the other. The authors focus on (1) Chinese and African objectives in the political and economic spheres and how they work to achieve them, (2) African perceptions of Chinese engagement, (3) how China has adjusted its policies to accommodate often-hostile African responses, and (4) whether the United States and China are competing for influence, access, and resources in Africa and how they might cooperate in the region.

The authors find that Chinese engagement in the region is primarily concerned with natural resource extraction, infrastructure development, and manufacturing, in contrast to the United States’ focus on higher-technology trade and services as well as aid policies aimed at promoting democracy, good governance, and human development. African governments generally welcome engagement with China, as it brings them political legitimacy and contributes to their economic development. Some segments of African society criticize Chinese enterprises for their poor labor conditions, unsustainable environmental practices, and job displacement, but China has been modifying its approach to the continent to address these concerns. China and the United States are not strategic rivals in Africa, but greater American commercial engagement in African markets could generate competition that would both benefit African countries and advance U.S. interests.

Research Questions

  1. What are China’s and African countries’ respective goals, in both the political and economic spheres, for Chinese-African engagement, and how do they work to achieve these goals?
  2. How have African governments and populations reacted to Chinese engagement, and how has China adjusted its policies to accommodate these often-hostile responses?
  3. Are the United States and China competing for influence, access, and resources in Africa?
  4. What opportunities might exist for the China and the United States to cooperate in Africa in ways that advance their mutual interests, as well as those of their African partners?

Key Findings

Intertwined Interests of China and Africa

  • China has four overarching strategic interests in Africa: access to natural resources, particularly oil and gas; markets for Chinese exports; political legitimacy; and sufficient security and stability to continue its commercial activities.
  • African governments look to China to provide political recognition and legitimacy and to contribute to their economic development through aid, investment, infrastructure development, and trade.

The Impact of Chinese Engagement on African Countries

  • Chinese engagement in Africa has had some positive effects: job creation, the development of critically needed infrastructure, and an increase in economic growth, particularly in sectors or geographic areas in which international financial institutions and Western governments and companies have been unwilling to engage.
  • Chinese engagement has also had deleterious effects: It has helped nondemocratic regimes cling to power; reinforced many African countries’ dependence on raw materials and unskilled labor; contributed to the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in certain industries, such as textiles; and contributed to high levels of debt, economically unviable decisions, and official corruption.

African Perceptions of Chinese Engagement, and China’s Reaction

  • African leaders and governments generally portray Chinese engagement as positive.
  • Opinion polls show that Africans hold generally positive views of China, but public opinion of China is also negatively affected by perceptions that Chinese investment contributes to corruption, waste, poor working conditions, and job displacement.
  • To better foster sustainable, long-term relationships in Africa, China has increased its efforts to develop soft power (media, culture, and people-to-people exchanges) and provide more aid in areas such as health, sustainability, and security.

Implications for U.S. Policy

  • Washington and Beijing do not compete directly against each other for strategic access or influence in Africa.
  • There has been relatively little Sino-U.S. cooperation in Africa, and opportunities for greater cooperation are limited.
  • Greater American commercial engagement in African markets could generate competition for Chinese entities that would both benefit African countries and advance U.S. interests.


  • China modified its Africa policy — pledging to create more local jobs, transfer more technology, and improve working conditions — because African publics demanded it. Therefore, the best way for Washington to promote a change in Chinese policy toward Africa is not to pressure Beijing directly, but rather to do even more to promote democracy, accountability, and transparency in the region.
  • Similarly, the United States should promote greater private investment in Africa. Competition from American industry will force Chinese enterprises to offer better deals to African governments and private partners, as well as drive Chinese firms to be more socially responsible and generate greater benefits for the communities in which they operate.

The United States should cultivate good relations with a wider range of African countries, much as China does through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.