Long before Columbus encountered America, Admiral Zheng He led a Chinese expedition to East Africa. The admiral sailed west in 1414 in command of a majestic Ming Dynasty navy boasting hundreds of ships, including huge trading galleons, and a crew of 30,000 sailors. His flagship was said to be four hundred feet long; all three of Columbus’s ships could have fit on its deck with room to spare.

Zheng He’s voyages took him to the Middle East, to India, and to East Africa, from which he returned with vast treasures, new maps and charts, adventurous emissaries from distant lands, and curiosities such as a pair of giraffes, which the Chinese considered unicorns. But in the years that followed, China’s seafaring skills atrophied, its shipbuilding expertise was lost, and the most powerful navy in the world faded from history.

Six hundred years later, China’s treasure fleet has returned. China has revitalized its maritime industry and is within a few years of competing with Japan and South Korea for the world’s number-one shipbuilding spot. Today’s treasure fleets carry not giraffes but crucial natural resources.

Considering that China’s first priority is to sustain its expanding economy, it is clear what its rulers seek from Africa in voyages of the twentyfirst century. China’s role in Africa is broad and complex, and it will continue to expand; policy makers in the United States need to take this into account. The news media frequently highlight critical views of China’s involvement in Africa, including charges that Beijing practices neocolonialism or controls Africa’s resources while failing to stimulate African economies. But this is only part of the tale. Africans recognize colonialism and reject it. They want to avoid having to choose sides once again, as they did during the Cold War, or to repeat a cycle of dependency on external actors. China is not interested in exercising sovereignty over foreign countries. Its interests in Africa are primarily commercial.

China is a formidable player in Africa. Its centralized government lets it combine the instruments of national power—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic, often abbreviated DIME—with great effectiveness, although Beijing places more emphasis on the diplomatic, informational, and economic instruments than on the military ones.

Many perceive the United States, by comparison, as relying more heavily on its military than on the other instruments. Suspicions about U.S. military intentions in Africa center on the creation of a new unified command, Africa Command (AFRICOM), due to be activated this fall. AFRICOM was designed to address Africa’s emerging strategic importance and take a comprehensive approach toward the continent, but some accuse the United States of overemphasizing military force in Africa and thereby militarizing the continent. America is engaged in an uphill public relations effort to accurately portray AFRICOM’s composition, roles, missions, and interagency approach.

African countries want to avoid having to once again choose sides, as in the Cold War, or to repeat a cycle of dependency upon external actors.

China, despite various criticisms, has already established diplomatic, informational, and economic leverage in Africa and is exercising it vigorously. Chinese initiatives, which both aid and hinder African development, have the same push-pull effect on U.S. policy objectives there.


Criticism of China’s activity focuses on these points:

1. China props up repressive and corrupt regimes such as Sudan and Zimbabwe.

2. Unconditional aid from China and its policy of noninterference (distributing aid with no strings attached) undermines efforts to improve governance and reduce corruption. There is poor accountability for how Chinese aid money is spent.

3. China engages in destructive environmental practices in Africa, particularly in mining, logging, and fishing.

4. Chinese state-owned companies commonly underbid international businesses and local firms for African contracts.

5. Chinese companies in Africa bring in their own labor forces to countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, where they do not hire enough Africans, thereby worsening poverty instead of alleviating it.

6. Chinese firms provide little useful technology transfer in crucial sectors, holding African economies back from self-sufficiency and longterm growth.

7. Chinese own disproportionate shares of the industries that extract resources such as oil and stand to profit more than the host country.

8. Chinese weapons shipments to Africa contribute to human rights abuses, genocide, and instability. The cargo ship An Yue Jiang, which captured international media attention in April 2008, attempted to deliver weapons and munitions to Zimbabwe amid a hotly contested election.

9. Unfair trade practices have shut down African industries that cannot compete with Chinese goods.

China’s involvement in Africa has also benefited the continent, mostly but not only in an economic sense. Here are some of the benefits:

1. Trade with China has contributed to economic growth in Africa during the past five years. Investment in infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, power stations, and the like—though often linked to support for Chinese interests in the extractive industries, has formed a desperately needed transportation network.

2. Chinese projects are low cost, of decent quality, and most often completed on time.

3. China has supported and participated in Sudan peace talks.

4. China has provided more than 1,300 peacekeeping soldiers to U.N. missions in Africa, including a peacekeeping battalion to the U.N. Mission in Liberia and an engineer battalion to the U.N. Mission in Sudan.

5. China has canceled over $10 billion in bilateral debt with African countries.

6. Thirty-four Chinese medical teams operate in Africa to treat and prevent disease.

7. China gives scholarships and technical training to Africans at Chinese universities.

8. China is involved in projects such as telecom and tourism that directly benefit Africa.

9. China’s oil investments in high-risk countries could serve to increase world supplies and hence drive down oil prices.

10. Aid and technology help undeveloped countries, especially the oil producers who would otherwise be unable to profit from their natural resources.

11. Chinese telecommunications projects are helping connect Africa to the rest of the world.

In designing and implementing policy in Africa, the United States must remain alert to Chinese influences, positive and negative, and anticipate ideological differences. Washington is in a position to mitigate the negative effects. As a first priority, the United States must convince China that in the interest of long-term stability and lasting prosperity, it is more important to promote good governance and prevent corruption than to merely do business and amass wealth.

China is not interested in exercising sovereignty over foreign countries. Its interests in Africa are primarily commercial.

The U.S. government can anticipate that its relationship with China in Africa will be characterized simultaneously by competition, collaboration, and confrontation.


China’s involvement in Africa should not be viewed as an automatic threat. Business is competition. China will compete for access to natural resources not only with the United States but also with members of the European Union, Russia, India, Brazil, and the other major actors in Africa. This competition does not directly threaten U.S. national security. There are, however, international laws and statutes that should be enforced among those doing business in Africa. No one is eager for China to export its human rights, labor, and environmental practices, for instance. But African nations and regional organizations, not outside parties with their own individual trade interests, are best suited to demand accountability in these areas.

The United States must convince China that for the sake of long-term stability and lasting prosperity, it’s more important to promote good governance and prevent corruption than to merely do business and amass wealth.

China has invested heavily in the information instrument of national power—a form of national-level public relations and marketing. Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs has skillfully organized and packaged public diplomacy. China sells itself as a model for African countries. Political visitors hark back to the Ming Dynasty treasure fleets to emphasize historical ties; they remind Africans of colonial occupation—a message that resonates especially well—and trumpet their own land’s transition from underdeveloped nation to economic superpower. These messages all help Beijing make its point.

The U.S. government has public relations capabilities that match or exceed those of China, but U.S. policy is harder to identify. For one, national interests overseas have centered on Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, and the U.S. stance toward Africa is less well defined. Also, the U.S. government requires time to work through its political differences, whereas China’s lends itself to quick decision making and policy formulation. Nevertheless, the United States can capitalize on ties to Africa just as China can; Americans can craft an appeal to Africans by working harder to publicize the accomplishments of U.S. economic, peacekeeping, and humanitarian initiatives, as well as some shared historical themes. America, after all, is a land that emerged from colonialism and a revolutionary war and ever since has endured a wide range of challenges, including economic depression and civil war. Moreover, in the United States a man of African descent has emerged as a serious contender to lead his country—something that in China, under the current system, would be impossible.

Africa is open to public diplomacy that focuses on partnership instead of donations and trade instead of aid. The United States needs to better coordinate its efforts to leverage the information instrument. Instead of dictating terms, democratic reforms need to be made as attractive and achievable as the Chinese model.

China sells itself as a model for African countries. It stresses historical ties and points out its own transition from underdeveloped nation to economic superpower.

The United States should frequently re-examine its trade relations with African countries. U.S. policies must be competitive with China’s; the mechanism to do so, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, is already in place. Additionally, as Peter Brookes and Ji Hye Shin of the Heritage Foundation observe, the United States should encourage “permanent free trade agreements that liberalize trade in goods and services, lower investment barriers, and strengthen property rights. . . . Charity and international aid will not solve Africa’s problems, but economic reform and growth can.”

In one respect, the United States has an enormous advantage over China: Africans largely admire the capabilities and legacy of the American military. Washington can improve security cooperation in Africa by building up military and police forces in host nations. This will help the partner countries uphold the rule of law, establish effective governance, and forge firm contacts that will advance U.S. policy goals as well. But this needs to be done as a joint, interagency effort and in a way that avoids the perception of the United States as an occupying force.


The interests of the United States, China, and the international community converge in Africa in many ways. Both China and the West are interested in improving agriculture, preventing disease (including diseases that might escalate into a global pandemic), reducing poverty, preventing conflict, and encouraging environmental responsibility. China has endorsed the charter of the African Union (July 2002), the New Partnership for African Development (July 2001), and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (September 2000). These multilateral initiatives emphasize the betterment of Africa.

China’s endorsement of U.N. intervention in Sudan and Darfur and its commitment of a small number of peacekeepers to Africa are further signals that China recognizes collaboration is in its long-term self-interest.

Washington and Beijing have an interest in Africa beyond oil and natural resources. As Princeton Lyman, a former ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, has indicated, both China and the United States recognize Africa as a growing market as well as a potential source of food, manufacturing, and industrial goods.

In U.S.-China dialogue, Africa should rank alongside such current high priorities as North Korea, Iran, and global warming. Through cooperation and coordination of aid, Chinese and Western efforts have the potential to complement each other.


Imminent military confrontation between the United States and China over African resources is unlikely. Destabilizing Africa is not in China’s economic interest.

But if China were to view the new U.S. Africa Command as a threat instead of a source of stability in Africa, political warfare could evolve into proxy war, similar to, yet more complex and lethal than, the ideology-based struggles of the Cold War. The proliferation of conventional weapons and more technologically advanced hardware such as land mines, fire-and-forget rockets, and precision-guided munitions on the continent could pose serious threats to U.S. security interests.

Future Chinese naval expansion is also worth pondering. China’s ability to project naval power is currently limited; Beijing cannot secure any of its foreign energy investments or prevent disruption of critical sea lanes. Worse, most of China’s imported oil must pass through key maritime choke points, specifically the Straits of Malacca or the Lombok Straits, where pirates and organized criminal groups are active and any embargo would be easy to enforce. China is considering a costly expansion of its navy so as to influence those key sea lanes.

In the meantime, U.S. military planners should anticipate that China will continue short-term remedies to its naval weaknesses, relying on “asymmetric” capabilities such as submarines, antiship missiles, and anti-satellite weapons. As for long-term capabilities, China reveals its intentions through ongoing modernization efforts and greater defense spending, although a potential Chinese blue water fleet, with aircraft carriers making port calls in Africa, is decades away.

U.S. policy makers must learn to persuade or peacefully compel the Chinese to adjust their policies. They need to understand China and seek a balanced approach to its increasing role in Africa and the implications of Beijing’s noninterference policy. In persuading China to change its policies toward Africa, the United States will need to call on international organizations such as the African Union and the United Nations.

The United States needs to be consistent in encouraging human rights and good governance. Although Sudan and Zimbabwe stand out as primary concerns, the United States and the international community should also keep a watchful eye on China’s emerging key trading partners, Angola and Nigeria. Consistency and vigilance are vital to prevent a re-emergence of more repressive regimes.


China describes its relationship with Africa as win-win. There are signs that suggest a potential “win-win-win” for Africa, China, and the United States. The United States and China may not agree on a form of government, but both agree on and desire stable, predictable governments in developing countries, especially where there are shared business and diplomatic interests. Both can help Africa improve its governance, security, and rule of law—steps that matter as much as reducing poverty.

Success for Africa will require appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for all foreign investment. If African frameworks are to command international respect, African nations need to be strong, prosperous, and stable. This, in turn, will require tangible improvements in governance, quality of life, and economic conditions. Ultimately, it will be African countries, not the United States, that will have to set the terms and conditions for diplomacy and business with China.

China describes its relationship with Africa as win-win. There are signs that suggest a potential “win-win-win” for Africa, China, and the United States.

China’s influence in Africa during the next decade is an opportunity for China to emerge not just as a growing world power but also as a key and responsible stakeholder in the global community. U.S. policy makers would be well advised to deal with China in Africa with this end in view.

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