The History of Sino-Africa Relations

Early years from 1956 to 1977:

China-Africa relations got off to a slow start after the first Asia-Africa Conference, the Bandung Conference, in 1955, as Beijing attempted to assert its leadership over the Third World and the nonaligned movement[i]. Egypt became the first African country to establish diplomatic relations with China in May 1956. By the early 1960s, over 10 African countries, including Morocco, Algeria, and Sudan, had established diplomatic relations with China. By the end of the1970s, 44 of the 50 independent African countries had entered into diplomatic relations with China[ii].

China’s early involvement in Africa was primarily centered on building ideological solidarity with other underdeveloped countries to advance Chinese-style communism[iii]. China supported independent movements in Africa, providing not only moral and rhetorical support, but also weapons and military training. China’s Africa policy then served two main purposes: first, to counter recognition of Taiwan as the representative of China and thus to shore up votes for the eventual rejection of Taiwan’s China credentials in the United Nations[iv]; second, to counter the West’s influence and then the Soviet Union’s influence on the continent.

During these times of political orientation, economic aid was provided to Africa gratis even though China’s own economic circumstances were far from optimal. By Western standards, China’s aid programs, marking its early engagements with African countries, were paltry. For the two decades from the mid-1950s to mid-1970s, China gave about $2.5 billion to 36 African countries in aid[v]. China also sent ten thousand engineers, doctors and technicians to provide assistances for African development, and undertook various infrastructure projects, one of which was the 1860-kilometer long Tanzania-Zambia railway, financed and built by China, and hailed as a monument of China-Africa friendship upon its completion[vi]. Through those aid programs China gained a good reputation among Africans. In retrospect, China’s contemporary engagement with Africa has its roots in policies pursued during this early period. The ultimate achievement of China’s Africa policy during this period was that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) replaced the Taiwan-based Republic of China (ROC) as a member of the United Nation in 1971 with help from African countries.

 1978 to 1990s

China embarked on economic reforms in 1978. As it focused on domestic economic development and opened up to the Western world, China’s political interest in Africa waned. As a result, China-Africa relations were largely neglected in most of the 1980s. The Tiananmen Square Protest of 1989 ended China’s honeymoon relationship with the western countries. Censured and isolated by the West, China re-evaluated its foreign policies, subsequently reinvigorated its political interest in Africa, and found support from its old African friends in multilateral forums once again.

With China’s renewed attention to the region, China also stepped up its ongoing isolation campaign against Taiwan in the continent.  South Africa, one of Taibei’s most important partners in Africa, cut off its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1998. Today only 5 out of total 53 African countries keep diplomatic relations with Taiwan, all of them small and strategically unimportant.

The 1990s presented a good opportunity for China to enhance its influence in Africa. With the end of the Cold War, the West’s interests in Africa had been waning and the West’s involvements in African countries had been declining. China seized its opportunity to strengthen the political and economic ties with Africa. This became more visible when President Jiang Zemin paid a state visit to six African countries[vii] and delivered an address to the Organization of African Unity in 1996. He put forward a “Five Points Proposal” for the development of a long-term, more structured cooperative relationship between China and African countries. It eventually led to the creation of the Forum for China-African Cooperation in Beijing in 2000.

Although China recognized Africa’s potential and began to increase economic engagements, throughout most of the 1990s, China’s share of Africa trade was still comparatively small at $3.5-4 billion[viii]. But this was all about to change!

Latest Developments

The new millennium has seen the China-Africa relationship explode in all aspects. Sino-African trade has grown at a rapid pace from $10.5 billion in 2000, to $ 29.4 billion in 2004, nearly $40 in 2005 and over $50 billion in 2006[i]. In 2008 the volume reached a record of $106.8 billion, with an average growth rate of 30 percent in eight straight years[ii].  By 2007 China had become the second largest trade partner second only to the United States, and the largest individual country exporter to sub-Saharan Africa with a market share of 9.8% and a volume of $26.5 billion. China’s direct investment in Africa had also increased sharply during this period and exceeded $5 billion by 2008.

With increasing economic ties, China boosted its development assistance to Africa as well. In June 2006, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced that China’s assistance to Africa between 1957 and 2006 had totaled RMB44.4 billion ($5.7 billion). According to Minister of Foreign Affair Li Zhaoxing, between 2000 and 2003 the aid to Africa represented 44 percent of China’s total foreign aid. Doubling aid by 2009, as promised, would bring the budget for Africa aid to around $1.6 billion a year[iii]. 

China intensified its political ties with African countries during the same period. From 2002 to 2006 ninety African parties sent their delegations to China and the Communist Party of China (CPC) sent seventy-eight delegations to Africa[iv]. In addition to the contacts between parties, China and Africa also increased exchanges between their high level leaders, congresses and parliaments.  The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was established to facilitate “South-South” cooperation in 2000. China’s first white paper on its African policy in 2006 publicly announced Africa’s strategic importance and stressed the interest to further such cooperation in the future.

Part One: Background

Part Two: The History of Sino-Africa Relations

Part Three: The Analysis of China's Africa Policy

Part Four: The Challenges China Faces in Africa

Part Five: Conclusion


[i] Wenping He. “China’s Perspective on Contemporary China-Africa relations”, China Returns to Africa, Chris Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, 2008, 151

[ii] China Daily. Trade between China and Africa has broader Prospects” <http://www.entrancechina.org/news.php?id=82717>

[iii] Deborah Brautigam. “China’s foreign aid in Africa: What do we know?”, China into Africa: Trade, Aid, and Influence, Editor: Robert I. Rotberg, 2008, pp209

[iv] Li Anshan, “China’s New Policy toward Africa”, China into Africa: Trade, Aid, and Influence, Editor: Robert I. Rotberg, 2008, pp24



[i] Michal Meidan. “China’s Africa Policy: Business Now, Politics Later”, Asian Perspective, Vol.30, No.4, 2006, pp72

[ii] Wenping He, “Partners in Development”, Beijing Review, No. 44, Nov.2, 2006, <http://www.bjreview.com.cn/expert/txt/2006-12/10/content_50377.htm>

[iii] Peter Brookes and Ji Hye Shin. “China’s Influence in Africa: Implications for the United States”. Backgrounder, the Heritage Foundation, No.1916, 2006

[iv] Michal Meidan. “China’s Africa Policy: Business Now, Politics Later”, Asian Perspective, Vol.30, No.4, 2006, pp73

[v] Garth le Pere, Garth Shelton, “ China, Africa and South Africa: South-South Co-operation in a Global Era”, Institute for Global dialogue Midrand, 2007, pp56

[vi] Wenping He, “Partners in Development”, Beijing Review, No. 44, Nov.2, 2006, <http://www.bjreview.com.cn/expert/txt/2006-12/10/content_50377.htm>

[vii] Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mali, Namibia, and Zambabwe

[viii]. Chris Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveria. “Introduction”, China Returns to Africa, Chris Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, 2008, 5

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