Niheer Dasandi

The rise of China as an economic power has led many to question what this means for its global political influence. Nowhere has China’s economic engagement come under greater scrutiny than in Africa. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, which many see as having increased China’s political influence across the continent. China’s growing involvement in countries across the continent – from the Gambia to South Africa – has led to questions about whether this represents a ‘new colonialism’?

Adapted from an article in Political Studies.

The rise of China as an economic power has led many to question what this means for its global political influence. Nowhere has China’s economic engagement come under greater scrutiny than in Africa. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, which many see as having increased China’s political influence across the continent. China’s growing involvement in countries across the continent – from the Gambia to South Africa – has led to questions about whether this represents a ‘new colonialism’?

China’s influence in Africa is seen to come at the expense of traditional powers, particularly the USA. This has certainly been a concern for recent US administrations. During the Obama Presidency, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton toured the continent in 2012 with the intention of countering Beijing’s influence. At the end of 2018, John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser unveiled a new US strategy in Africa, which explicitly aimed to counter China’s growing power across the continent.

Yet many have questioned this dominant narrative on China’s involvement in Africa. Deborah Brautigam, for example, argues that China is much more open about the nature of its relationship with African states than many perceive, which means that these countries have more ability to shape their engagement with China than is generally claimed. This is closely related to broader criticisms of the failure to acknowledge African agency in international politics.

In our new study in Political Studies, Pádraig Carmody, Slava Jankin Mikhaylov and I consider these different perspectives, by systematically examining the effects of Chinese trade on African foreign policy positions in the United Nations. We look at different dimensions of foreign policy – such votes on resolutions on which China and the US disagree, votes that the US State Department consider to be of important, and human rights resolutions. We also draw on a new approach to measuring foreign policy position based on applying text analysis to countries’ annual statements in the UN General Debate, which allows us to test how similar African states’ speeches are to those of the USA and China.

Our results show that increased trade with China has a somewhat paradoxical impact on African states’ foreign policy positions. We find that on several dimensions – including speeches in the UN General Debate, resolutions the US State Department considers important, and resolutions on which China and the USA disagree – as African countries do more trade with China, they move closer to the US foreign policy position. The one exception to this is voting on human rights resolutions in the UN, where we find that growing trade with China leads African states to align with China, and oppose human rights resolutions.

These findings, we argue, provide evidence that China’s growing economic ties across the African continent has led to African governments engaging in balancing behaviour with China and the USA, whereby African elites seek to play off the rival powers against one another in order to strengthen their own autonomy and maximise gains from trade. This is in line with existing studies that argue staying in power is the primary focus of many African leaders, whereby the main objective of these countries’ foreign policy positions is to ensure regime maintenance and to minimise external interference in domestic affairs. The finding that human rights votes is the only area where increased trade leads African states to align with China is consistent with this view. Many governments perceive a contradiction between human rights resolutions and national sovereignty. Growing trade with China has provided an opportunity for African states to reject human rights resolutions that are seen to undermine their sovereignty – in opposition to Western powers that typically support these resolutions. Indeed, several African countries have withdrawn, or threatened to leave, the ICC for similar reasons. However, on other foreign policy dimensions, growing trade with China leads African states to align with the US in order to counter Chinese influence.

Therefore, our analysis highlights the limits of the simplistic interpretations of the political effects of China’s increasing trade with African countries, whereby greater economic engagement is seen to automatically translate into political influence. Instead, we find that African governments have used China’s involvement to try to minimise the external influence of China and the US in their domestic affairs. As such, our study provides some support for the need to recognise the agency of African states in their relations with external powers. However, it also highlight the limits of this agency. African governments have managed to secure limited policy autonomy by engaging in this balancing behavior between China and the traditional Western powers rather than being able to reshape these relations, which are still characterised by dependence. More broadly, our paper shows that the relationship between China’s growing economic power and its political influence are more complex than is generally assumed.