Chinese Influence in Africa: An Overview

09 JUNE 2023

Amboseli national park, Kenya.


China has historically had relatively less influence in Africa. In the last four decades, however, Beijing has steadily dominated many economies on the continent in many ways that have established its "primacy" to the continent.

Much of the influence exerted by China has been economic, political and diplomatic, military and the projection of soft power.

Despite its increasing power in the continent, Beijing faces strong competition not only from the United States and the West but also from emerging powers like India, Turkey, Brazil and Israel. Even Russia, a known ally of China, poses significant competition to Russia.

Regardless, for the foreseeable future, China would continue to leverage its increasingly growing economic might and concomitant military prowess to keep its influence in Africa in place.


China, a great power in the current global dispensation, is one of the countries that had a significantly low-level presence in Africa in 19th and 20th century Africa. In the 19th century, China, like Africa, was dealing with the debilitating effects of foreign domination within its territories. European powers and Japan had taken control of different parts of the country in what had been called spheres of influence.

The major powers in this had been Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Japan. Later, the United States' presence in the region was depicted by its influence in the Philippines. These spheres of influence by mainly European powers became more pronounced after the Opium War Britain waged against China.

Historically, therefore, China has more parallels with Africa than many of the great powers on the continent. While the US was itself a group of colonies, it had gained its independence earlier in the late 18th century.

Politically and ideologically, China's relations with Africa had become more pronounced during the Cold War. This does not negate earlier links the country had with the continent. With the Communists taking control of the country in 1949 and the Cold War beginning around the same period, the current Chinese influence in Africa had found its genesis in the ideological struggle. Even though China shared ideology with the Soviet Union--the main communist state in the struggle--over time, differences had emerged with the approach with which these two powers wanted to approach the propagation of Communist ideology across the world.

In Africa, these differences had been felt in the independence struggle in some territories. In Zimbabwe, China and the Soviets supported different sides of the liberation struggle. While Peking (Beijing) supported a faction led by Robert Mugabe, Moscow backed another led by Joshua Nkomo. Here the China-backed faction became the most dominant before and after independence.

Elsewhere in the continent, the PRC had supported other liberation fighters. With some African countries gaining independence in the 1960s, China provided technical expertise and support for the development of critical infrastructure within their territories. This cooperation was based on both ideological and south-south solidarity. It also gave Beijing the needed diplomatic recognition it lacked at the time. Not recognized in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, such recognition was vital.

In 1971, when the PRC was given formal recognition and accepted by the UNGA and UNSC, African states who had kept ties with the country had given it their support. Admittedly, the Western world led by the US had initiated a rapprochement towards China and President Nixon had paid a pivotal visit to Beijing in 1972. However, the diplomatic support given by African states was also significant in the global acceptance of the PRC.

After the global acceptance of mainland China and the death of Mao Zedong, the most consequential event that has determined the country's influence in Africa has been the economic reforms that followed.

China, led by Deng Xiaoping, its defacto leader after the death of Mao, undertook bold economic reforms that opened it to the rest of the world. In what has been known as "socialism with Chinese characteristics", the country adopted capitalist principles and placed them under the strong control of the state. This meant that businesses and multinationals from other could invest and take advantage of its "ending" supply of skilled workers. Big corporations saw the opportunity in outsourcing parts of their production to the country. Over time, China's production capacity and output increased very fast.

Politically, Deng had pushed for "collective" leadership over the towering kind of leadership under Mao. This also made the Chinese leadership more accountable, at least, to the Communist Party. A combination of market and political reforms, therefore put the PRC on the path of an unprecedented transformation.

Economic Influence

China's transformation has been consequential to the relations it currently has with African states. It has determined to a greater extent its influence on the second largest landmass on earth.

Economically, increased production and sustained economic growth have meant that trade, both in volume and value, has been steady between the PRC and the continent. From the 1980s to the 1990s and currently, trade between the two sides has increased. In 2013, China's trade with Africa surpassed all other economies in the world. In many countries in Africa, the trade balance continues to favor Beijing.

Also, China has increased the value of its investment in the continent over the decades. These investments have been in diverse and critical sectors of the economy. These have included mining, the oil and gas industry, and communication among the many sectors. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)in Central Africa, Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, Nigeria in West Africa, Uganda in East Africa and Sudan in Lower North Africa and most countries in the continent, Chinese investment cut across. There are hundreds of Chinese companies and corporations across the continent. The continent, especially East Africa has been made integral to Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).

With significantly huge reserves emerging from sustained economic development and growth, China could give huge loans to African states that approach it. Many countries across the continent owe a large quantum of their debts to China. Beijing has also provided grants to sponsor some infrastructural projects across the continent.

These have meant that African states have become significantly dependent on the PRC in respect of economics. The provision of huge loans across the board has been criticized by some as a deliberate attempt to keep African states under its sphere of influence. Some have called it a "debt trap". For states that are not so friendly to Western countries, this has resulted in an almost sole dependence on Beijing in respect of tangible economic assistance apart from the Bretton Institutions. Many African states have defended their economic engagement with China. Most have argued that it provides the critical investment and loans other advanced economies are unwilling to provide.

Beijing has not hesitated to use its economic leverage to exert influence in Africa. It has utilized it to land deals worth billions of dollars across the continent. These have included "infrastructure for resources" deals it has with several countries. In the DRC, there is a deal that has China building roads and hospitals while it exploits the country's rich cobalt mines.

Beijing sees Africa's huge resources to be critical to its continuous growth and development. The expanding economy of metropolitan China communicates the need for uninterrupted resource supply from across the world--Africa is an important source. This has translated into investment in ports and harbors as well as other infrastructure that keep these resources close to Beijing.

The Political Dimension

Politically, Africa China's influence in Africa had not been pronounced during the Cold War era. As earlier mentioned it had mostly supported communist factions and movements while granting assistance to friendly states. However, after the 1980s and 1990s, the country's success has given it political clout in Africa. In the past couple of decades, China has created periodic summits which allow African leaders to meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing and discuss multi-sector issues. This has been similar to what other countries in the West and Russia do.

Unlike China, many countries in Africa are theoretically democratic. Most hold periodic elections with few changing governments and individual leaders. China on the other hand is a one-party state. Even though it had started some form of rotational leadership where individual leaders leading the country had term limits, a recent development that has seen Xi Jinping having a term has, however, depicted a possible return to the days when Mao was in control.

This has raised issues with the closeness of African leaders to Beijing. African states continue to face the problems of leaders that do not want to leave power after their terms of office have expired. Defenders of this class of leaders have often cited China and other developed countries that had long-time leaders as good examples to follow. Politically, therefore, many believe that African leaders may adopt the Xi kind of leadership over time and may even go back to adopting one-party state constitutions.

Arms Involvement

China's rise has been accompanied by corresponding military expansionism. This has been in the form of increased production of armament and other equipment for the defense of its territory and interest. Even though Beijing had initially had its military philosophy to be overwhelmingly defensive, in recent times, it has gone beyond that to project military power beyond its territorial waters and immediate neighborhood. With the acquisition of large equipment including several aircraft carriers, the PRC's quest for military reach beyond Asia Pacific is not in dispute.

In Africa, China has not shied away from establishing some military presence. The PRC established one of its first overseas military bases in Africa. It is located in Djibouti--a small Horn of Africa country. Located in the strategic region that is adjacent to the main Indian Ocean and Red Sea maritime route, China's military presence there is well understood. It wants to protect its maritime interest in the region. This has also improved the country the logistics capabilities across the region.

The country has also made good business with its military tools and equipment in Africa. Beijing has many clients in its arms industry. From small arms to armed drones and other heavy equipment, African states continue to acquire a plethora of arms from China. This has been worth billions over the years.

Sudan, Zimbabwe, DRC, Angola, Central African Republic (CAR), Ethiopia, Algeria and many other countries in the continent buy arms from China. The expansion of the Chinese arms market in Africa comes with a military influence. Training, servicing and parts of these machines would depend on long-term relations with Beijing--more or less.

This also means that China is gaining control of the outcomes of different conflicts in the continent. China must be made to take responsibility for how its weapons are used by its growing client base across Africa. With rising incidents of clashes, this has become more imperative.

Soft Power Projection

Furthermore, China has also projected soft power in its determination to influence African countries. This has been in the form of grants, awarding of scholarships, cultural exchange programs, and institutional support. In several academic centers across the continent, Confucian Centers have been established to project Chinese culture and ideals to the African people. Thousands of scholarships have been granted to African students to study in institutions of higher learning in China.

Beijing has also projected soft power by supporting both governmental and intergovernmental institutions. Ghana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense had its modern offices constructed by China. The African Union headquarters was also sponsored and built by China.

Influence contested

Despite these efforts and moves made by China over the decades to maintain a foothold and influence Africa, it faces stiff competition from other great powers and middle powers who equally want to maintain or establish some influence in the continent.

The most potent of these rivals is the United States. Before 2013, the United States was the most dominant trading partner in Africa. It was also the most consequential state in terms of diplomacy. Under the Obama administration, the US had been mostly occupied by its recovery from the "great recession". While the administration had not neglected Africa, it was mostly put on the back burner in the face of troubling domestic economic hurdles. It is not surprising that China's dominance in Africa had been cemented during the period. Trump had openly made it known that Africa was not his priority by using unsavory words.

The Biden administration has however resuscitated the quest by the US to lead once again in Africa. This will not be easy despite the administration's determination to invest billions of dollars in the continent. In the 2022 US-African Summit, Biden openly declared a renewed US interest in Africa.

France and Britain, are among the traditional powers in Africa. With billions of dollars of investments and other interests, their presence continues to challenge China in Africa. Despite the waning influence of these powers, they are still potent as they maintain a significant military presence across the continent. Germany also falls under this category of economies.

Also, India is another major player in the continent. Over the decades, New Delhi has leveraged its South-South links with Africa to explore economic opportunities. In the course of the, it has invested billions of dollars and also increased trade with Africa. Trade is worth billions of dollars. Having geopolitical competition with China in Asia, India remains a potent competitor to Beijing in Africa.

While Russia remains a strategic ally to China, its increasing presence in Africa in the last couple of decades also presents significant competition to Beijing. With Russia selling arms and equally interested in African resources, its interests in many ways implicitly clash with those of China.

Other emerging powers or "middle powers" have included Turkey, Brazil, Israel, the Gulf States and others. These states, while not recognized as great powers, have exerted a lot of influence in Africa in recent decades. These have been in the form of infrastructural development, grants, trade, arms deals and many other areas of cooperation.

The way forward and Outlook

Despite these competitors with solid economic foundations, China is likely to remain a leading external actor in Africa. This would be ensured by several factors that cannot be ignored.

China's economy despite its current challenges continues to be a leading global market and production hub. It is still the second-largest economy with the potential to overtake the US economy in the next few decades or even less. This means that it will continue to maintain its foothold in Africa in the coming decades.

This would be further enabled by the diplomatic clout Beijing continues to garner in Africa. With many African leaders getting the red carpet rolled to them, by the Chinese leadership, the Asian power's influence is not waning anytime soon. In addition to the arms sales to these leaders, it would be difficult to tame Chinese influence in Africa.

In the coming decades, China is likely to increase its military presence and have more countries in Africa having Beijing as their largest creditor. This would mean a more pronounced influence from the Asian country.

The best way Africa could reduce or manage Chinese influence would be to seek better and more favorable investment deals with Beijing while reducing borrowing and investing in more critical sectors of their economies.


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