Friday February 21, 2020



August 7, 2012

At the start of her 11-day visit to Africa last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks about American engagement with African nations spurred criticism from Chinese media, and drew attention to Chinese ties to the continent. The Secretary, speaking August 1 in Senegal, contrasted the United States’ commitment to democracy and human rights in Africa with the behavior of other countries that “look the other way and keep the resources flowing”. Her remarks were widely interpreted to be a criticism of China. Although Clinton did not specifically mention China, Beijing has strong economic relationships with African states such as Angola, Sudan and Zimbabwe, regimes the United States has had difficulty engaging due to differences on human rights and governance. In response to Clinton’s remarks, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua published an article defending China’s engagement with Africa and accusing Clinton of aiming to curb Chinese influence on the continent and “drive a wedge between China and Africa” through her visit.

Clinton’s trip has so far emphasized U.S. development programs in Africa, including initiatives on education and HIV/AIDS, the democratic achievements of states such as Senegal and Ghana, and growing U.S. security ties with several African nations. However, the Secretary of State has also focused on U.S. economic interests on the continent as well as the merits of the U.S.’ development-based approach to relations with African nations. American University professor Emilio Viano said in an interview with Voice of America that a major objective of Clinton’s visit was to “compete with China and try to limit China’s influence, business making and political power in Africa”. Beijing seems also to have interpreted the trip in this light, and the response of China’s state news agency likely reflects official attitudes towards Clinton’s remarks.

Xinhua’s response shows the value that China places on its expanding influence in Africa, which has grown significantly over the past decade through active engagement with African nations. China’s engagement with Africa is overwhelmingly economic, focused on trade, investment, and foreign aid, with China emphasizing its policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. Heavy investment, particularly in infrastructure, and aid has boosted China’s trade with the continent. Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa has risen from less than $100 million in 2003 to over $12 billion in 2011. In 2009, China surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner, and trade between China and Africa totaled $160 billion in 2011, compared to $10.6 billion a decade earlier. Africa has become an important source of raw materials for China; crude oil and copper top African exports to China, and Angola is currently China’s largest source of imported oil. Investment and trade with Africa has become an important solution to China’s search for natural resources and need to maintain high economic growth rates to underlie domestic stability.

China considers its African partners as strategic allies as well. In order to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing, African nations must accept the “one China” principle and reject official relations with Taiwan. China’s stated policy towards Africa includes an objective of “mutual support and close coordination”, and China has helped to support and advocate for African concerns within the UN and other multilateral organizations. Last year, China constructed a new headquarters for the African Union in Addis Ababa as a gift to symbolize its deepening relations with the continent. In July of this year, China held the Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, a two day dialogue between foreign affairs and economic ministers from China and 50 African countries. The outcome of the conference was the adoption of the Beijing Declaration, which announced the goal of an enhanced “strategic partnership” between China and Africa encompassing greater economic cooperation, increased people-to-people exchanges, and coordination on international affairs.  During the meeting, Chinese President Hu Jintao additionally announced that China would offer $20 billion in new loans to African countries for the development of infrastructure, agriculture, and manufacturing, double the amount of aid China committed in 2009.

As the Secretary’s remarks on August 1 and Xinhua’s response demonstrate, China’s engagement with Africa has drawn criticism as well as praise. Critics of China’s involvement and growing influence in Africa, including the United States, argue that Chinese economic engagement with Africa amounts to exploitation for natural resources, and its “no strings attached” foreign aid to nondemocratic regimes is seen as supporting governments with poor human rights records. In contrast to the Chinese model, the United States attaches conditions to foreign aid relating to labor policies, human rights, and democratic governance. China’s presence in Africa has some domestic critics as well. During the FOCAC conference on July 19, South African President Jacob Zuma warned that imbalanced Chinese trade with Africa, based on a supply of raw materials, was “unsustainable”.

However, China’s investment and engagement with Africa has strong support as well. China defends its engagement with Africa as being win-win; China benefits from being able to secure supplies of raw materials, a market for its manufactured products, and political support for its government, and Chinese investment brings economic benefits to Africa. The Xinhua article that followed Secretary Clinton’s speech last week argued that African states prefer China’s no-strings-attached aid and benefit from Chinese investment in infrastructure. The number of African states that have welcomed Chinese aid and investment seems to support this argument. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that 86 percent of participants saw China’s influence in their country as beneficial. The same survey reported that only 56 percent felt that America’s influence in their country had a positive impact. Following the FOCAC summit in July, Kenyan prime minister Raila Amollo Odinga praised China-Africa cooperation on the grounds that Chinese investment was helping to develop and open up Africa’s economy.

While Clinton’s Africa trip may not be an attempt to “drive a wedge between China and Africa”, it is aimed to increase U.S. influence on the continent following a period of relative inattention and focus on other regions of the world. Recent heightened mistrust in the U.S.-China relationship, related to suspicions about the intentions of the U.S. “pivot” to Asia and China’s actions in the South China Sea, makes China likely to interpret Clinton’s Africa trip as part of a U.S. effort to counter Chinese influence. However, political and economic influence in Africa may not be a zero-sum game, and competition between the United States and China over the continent is neither inevitable nor productive. Both the United States and China have an interest in African stability; there may therefore be an opportunity for bilateral cooperation or coordination in areas such as peacekeeping, public health, or capacity building. Furthermore, African states are currently seeking rapid economic growth, and welcome foreign investment and aid for economic development and job creation that helps to reduce poverty and contribute to political stability. The United States and China can both fulfill this need, but they will first need to communicate their interests and intentions in Africa more clearly to one another.




For more information on Clinton’s trip to Africa, please see the following news sources:

The Guardian – “Hillary Clinton launches African tour with veiled attack on China

Reuters – “China state news agency slams Clinton remarks on Africa trip

Voice of America – “Clinton Africa Trip Seen as Move to Counter Chinese Influence

Xinhua – “Fifth ministerial conference of FOCAC concludes with Beijing Declaration strengthening cooperation



For Chinese language commentary on Clinton’s trip and China-Africa relations, please see the following news sources:

Xinhua (新华网)希拉里访非欲“限制”中国影响力

Xinhua (新华网) – “中非合作论坛第五届部长级会议隆重开幕



Compiled and edited by Amanda Watson.