China was the largest single export market for 16 African states in 2019, and the largest single source of imports for 33 states in the same year, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit report on Africa-China relations. Although the pandemic caused a dip in trade during 2020, China has started 2021 briskly by strengthening and developing links across the African continent. It is a trend that has been building for a decade. Between 2009 and 2014, the European Union dominated bilateral trade with African states, but China narrowed the gap considerably between 2015 and 2020.

China’s relations with Africa have diversified from natural resources to consumer goods and mobile phones through a strategy of engaging with state governments at a high level; funding and delivering transport, water, power, and telecoms projects; and focusing attention on key ports and economies. “Chinese companies have tended to be more risk averse when it comes to Africa,” said Pratibha Thaker, editorial director, Middle East and Africa. “However, China is now more confident about hands-on engagement.”

The Covid-19 pandemic proved difficult for Sino-Africa relations, although Beijing’s gestures of goodwill helped. These included preferential access to vaccines, medical supplies, and PPE. Some external debt has been restructured, Ms Thaker observed, providing a financial lifeline for highly leveraged and vulnerable states. The success of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa is shown by DR Congo and Botswana signing up earlier in 2021 as the 45th and 46th African states.

Chinese companies operate a string of major ports in the continent, much of which has come with Chinese project finance and expertise. The east coast ports of Djibouti, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam have been targets for Chinese investment, serving as stepping-stones for inland states, such as Ethiopia. “China started investing in Ethiopia at a time when the country was chaotic,” said Sanya Suri, EIU country analyst for Africa. “China has looked at Ethiopia as a crucial point in its BRI, [especially for] penetration into Sudan. Ethiopia was handpicked as the first go-to country,” she said.

Ethiopia is undergoing political transition, a development that is creating tension in neighbouring Sudan and Djibouti. While this is concerning, China has refrained from engaging in domestic political issues, Ms Suri commented. “We believe China will stay out of domestic concerns across Africa.” There is also tension between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over Nile waters. However, China has not offered to mediate talks, “which reflects China’s desire to remain uninvolved”, Ms Suri added. China is also supporting the development of industrial parks and free trade zones in several African countries, and is working to secure bilateral and collective free trade deals. The first African state to sign a free trade agreement with China was Mauritius, in January this year. A further 13 states have bilateral investment treaties, which could develop into FTAs in the near term.

One of the critical issues to emerge during the pandemic is African states’ increasing debt to China, and whether debt restructuring would be considered. It would be possible, suggested Ms Suri, on a case by case basis. “China will look at specific factors such as a country’s economic growth, strategic importance, resource significance, and the political climate,” she said. With Chinese investors becoming more risk averse, new loans could be more focused. Asset takeover is not thought likely, but it is clearly in the minds of Africa state financiers. Last month it was reported that the Kenyan government had dismissed claims that the port of Mombasa could be taken over by the Chinese government if Kenya defaulted on a rail investment loan. A government press statement on March 15 clarified: “For the avoidance of doubt, there is absolutely no risk of China or any other country taking over the Port of Mombasa. The [Star Newspaper] story is not only alarmist but also risks straining relations with development partners and foreign investors.”

What might cause problems for China is discontent among young Africans that new jobs being created for local workers are in the labouring sector. The higher skilled jobs are not being offered widely. However, this is not thought to be a significant concern because most African economies have hugely benefited from Chinese investment. Among the conclusions was that China is building from a position of strength with a solid footprint in Africa “and an eye on maintaining dominance for years to come.” Future investment will continue to develop infrastructure and connectivity. This is “a busy commercial two-way street”, the EIU speakers said, that will present opportunities for China, African states, and third parties.