Chinese Engagement in Africa Is a Two-Way Dynamic

For Release

March 12, 2014

Contrary to conventional wisdom, relations between China and Africa are a vibrant two-way dynamic in which Chinese leaders adapt to feedback from the continent, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

Most analyses of Chinese engagement in Africa present China's quest for oil and other natural resources as a single-minded focus that dominates the nation's policy toward the continent and generates widespread local opposition.

But the RAND study finds Chinese-African relations have a give-and-take dynamic in which Africans have driven China to change its approach. Those steps have resulted in Chinese pledges to provide more jobs and professional training to locals, and to promote commercial partnerships that provide greater benefits to African nations.

Researchers say China's impact in Africa is mixed. On the one hand, its investments in extractive industries and infrastructure generate revenue for African governments and create jobs. On the other hand, because its aid and investment come with few strings attached and little transparency, Chinese engagement fosters waste and supports leaders who are unaccountable to their people.

African governments typically welcome working with China, as it brings them political legitimacy and contributes toward economic development. But some segments of African society criticize Chinese enterprises as providing poor labor conditions, unsustainable environmental practices, job displacement and low-quality consumer products.

Study authors Larry Hanauer and Lyle Morris say Chinese leaders have changed their approach to the continent as a result of this often-hostile feedback. These modifications include a greater emphasis on sustainability in the economic and trade relationship, the promotion of Chinese soft power and culture through the expansion of people-to-people exchanges and training programs, and participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa.

Although the prevailing narrative suggests that China is locking-up oil and other resources and thus competing with the United States for access and influence, Hanauer said that this is not the case. Both the United States and China want Africa to be stable and prosperous. However, the two engage Africa in such different spheres that it is difficult to say that the two nations are competitors.

“China wants to ensure that African countries remain stable enough for it to pursue commercial initiatives, while the U.S. seeks to advance a broader humanitarian agenda, guarantee access for the U.S. military and prevent instability from undermining U.S. allies or threatening the U.S. homeland,” Hanauer said.

U.S. and Chinese commercial interests differ as well. For example, although both countries are concerned with natural resource extraction, Chinese aid and investment focus primarily on mining and infrastructure development. The United States tends to pursue higher-technology exports and services, while offering aid policies aimed at promoting democracy, good governance and human development.

For its part, the U.S. has few tools to directly modify Chinese behavior in Africa, given the two nations' leaders have other significant issues on their bilateral agenda. However, the RAND study suggests that if the United States wants China to act more constructively in Africa, it should promote U.S. investment there.

“The more U.S. companies create local jobs, provide opportunities for training and foster more-humane working conditions, the more Chinese firms will be compelled to follow suit,” Hanauer said. “China already has demonstrated that it will respond to African feedback. The United States should empower Africans to demand a more-equal political, economic and commercial relationship with China.”

The study, “Chinese Engagement in Africa: Drivers, Reactions and Implications for U.S. Policy,” can be found at

Research for the study was sponsored by and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally-funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies and the defense intelligence community.

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