China’s Exceptionalism in Africa: from Rhetorical to Substantive Difference?

Image: China
Image: China

African leaders increasingly recognise the necessity of closer ties with the rising economic giant, calling for a concerted effort to better utilise the opportunities presented by China.

The emergence of China as Africa’s top trading partner and a leading source of foreign investment in 2009, surpassing the United States and key European Union states still struggling in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, has sharpened the focus on Chinese aspiration and conduct in Africa.

African leaders increasingly recognise the necessity of closer ties with the rising economic giant, calling for a concerted effort to better utilise the opportunities presented by China. At the same time, a chorus of dissatisfaction among some elements in African society – concerned primarily with the socio-economic and environmental impact of Chinese involvement on the continent – points to the growing complexities that accompany the deepening of such ties. While much of the analysis of the relationship has emphasised the structure of trade in aggregate, the impact of new investment in moribund sectors and particulars of Chinese firms’ behaviour, little effort has been made to unpack the normative sources of Chinese high profile involvement in Africa and the attendant implications for its trajectory. Understanding how the Chinese believe that their projection of economic and political power in Africa will ensure the development of a novel positive relationship that is distinctively different from that of traditional Western partners is crucial to assessing the capacity of China to manage the forces and stresses that will shape the sustainability of the relationship in future years.

China’s Exceptionalism in Africa

The moral basis of Chinese power in Africa is a form of what can be labelled ‘exceptionalism’ that is given expression and codified in the language, framing and actual conduct of official state relations. It is informed by a discourse of difference and similitude: China as a power that is categorically different than all previous external powers engaged in Africa and that this difference is based fundamentally on its seminal experience as a developing country. As such China’s exceptionalism is a modality of engagement that will ensure ‘mutual benefit’ and ‘win-win’ outcomes at continental and bilateral levels: it will structure relations such that they may remain asymmetrical in economic content but equal in terms of recognition of economic gains and political standing (mutual respect and political equality). The Chinese government’s distinctive mode of conducting its Africa relations is founded in a historically-informed framework defined by equality, mutual respect and benefit, sovereignty and non-interference, as well as the competitive practices that have contributed to its business expansion. It has been successful to date, even to the point where external reactions have suggested that China is immune to forces of political and economic gravity in Africa.

China’s exceptionalism as foreign policy is rooted in the Chinese interpretation of the famous 1955 Bandung conference’s principles which effectively laid out a framework for post-colonial states’ responses to the challenges of nation building in the international system; and its own assessment of its unblemished record of application of these principles in its foreign policy towards Africa. Moreover, drawing from Bandung has the advantage that its principles have been influential in shaping the construction of Africa’s regional sub-system and the foreign policy of most African states as well. It consists of three constitutive features: First, sovereignty equality and non-interference were seen to be a bulwark for weakly legitimated regimes coming to power in the wake of colonialism and the competing claims to recognition both within and without the territorial boundaries of newly formed states. Secondly, mutual benefit – a developmental principle of Bandung which allows conformity to a variety of practices from socialist-era barter trade to complex project financing – breaks decidedly with the donor-recipient model of development. The modality of negotiation, reinforced by China’s own experience as a developing country which involved a doctrine of experimentation, ranging for the ideological extremes of the early revolutionary period to the market gradualism of the ‘opening and reform’ policy, puts a premium on achieving practical outcomes recognised as such by all parties. It is an interest-based approach that is designed to ensure ‘ownership’ of the development process. Finally, China’s own interpretation of its experience in Africa, which casts its uneven record of engagement with revolutionary parties and regimes as one of seamless constancy, suggests that China’s relationship with Africa has already demonstrated conformity to the continent’s key aims, namely the political project of independence and the developmental project of economic welfare and nation-building.

These three constitutive features of exceptionalism underscore China’s preference for order and stability in the international system, and its overriding desire to work with fellow developing countries on a basis of political equality and mutual economic gain. As articulated in its Africa Policy of January 2006 (and echoed in subsequent declarations), it claims to be a durable interest-based framework that will hold fast to the nation building needs of African states and, as such, will not indulge in activities that undermine these central goals. This position provides the moral basis of its expressions of power in Africa by asserting that Chinese foreign policy will, unlike the West’s, be guided by principles that insure that the relationship will not devolve into one of exploitation.

The Burden of Delivering Difference

Out of this compelling claim of a foreign policy of difference comes a distinctive set of challenges that are rooted in China’s contemporary experience in Africa. These challenges by their very nature expose the complexities of implementing China’s foreign policy precepts – however high-minded in conception or grounded in practicalities – in the context of the diverse socio-economic and political terrain of the continent.

First among these is the tension between the key principle of non-interference and the dilemma of maintaining Chinese established economic interests. Conventional approaches adopted by other external powers have historically focused unashamedly on pursuing their overriding political and commercial concerns at any cost, including propping up some rather odious African politicians and regimes. A conscious policy of non-interference may argue strenuously – and correctly – against adopting such an approach but it provides precious little guidance as to how a state is to ensure its interests, be they in the form of national companies, private firms or individuals. How are the parameters of interference to be measured and do they allow for legitimate protection of interests? The gradual de-coupling of non-intervention from China’s non-interference policy that has taken place over the last decade – and given concrete political expression through Chinese support for the joint UN-AU hybrid peacekeeping force in Darfur – has demonstrated that Chinese officialdom recognises the dilemma facing it and has taken steps to redefine the boundaries of non-interference. However, as cases as different as the targeting of Chinese oil workers by dissident movements in Ethiopia and the reviewing of oil leases that accompany electoral change in Nigeria have shown, securing Chinese interests over the longer term is by no means guaranteed by formal reiterations of official statements of purpose.

A second challenge is the gap between the principle of sovereign equality and actual asymmetry of power evident in China’s relations in Africa. Julius Nyerere, the former President of Tanzania, in describing his country’s relations with the PRC, characterised it as a ‘most unequal of equal relationships’. Capturing the simultaneous combination of co-existent political equality and asymmetrical power relations, this description remains appropriate today when China’s principle of political equality continues to serve as a normative commitment informing the practice of its diplomacy and relations with African states. Yet, at the same time it is hard to square with broader economic and political relations whether these be with the minority of resource-rich key Chinese trade partners – Angola, Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa – or other less strategic partners, from Namibia to Cape Verde, Ghana or Kenya.

A third area involves the proliferation of sub-state actors, ranging from provincially-backed firms to private businesses, and the fact that their behaviour seems increasingly to suggest their own autonomy from Beijing. Echoing unknowingly the principle-agent dilemma in international institutional theory, Chinese diplomats will often assert when confronted by evidence of malfeasance by a Chinese company, the lack of knowledge of the firm in question and the absence of means to control such conduct. This situation is a deliberate outgrowth of decisions taken as far back as the mid 1980s when the Chinese government began authorising provinces and the three largest municipalities to conduct trade policy through local offices. By the 1990s, the richer of these like Guangdong and Zhejiang were able to use their financial reserves to launch trade initiatives and fund delegations to explore the economic opportunities to be found in Africa. In a clear expression of the gap between the official declaratory policy towards Africa and the emerging reality on the ground, Beijing has turned to these same sub-state actors to help fulfil the ambitious targets announced at FOCAC III and IV. The package of incentives put forward by the Chinese government at FOCAC and administered by the China Development Bank, which included export credits and insurance for firms investing or relocating in Africa, has served as a spur for greater expansion of these commercially-oriented agents into the continent.

In responding to heightened grievances surrounding business practices, increased security threats, or demands for protection by Chinese nationals in Africa, the central Chinese government is attempting to direct a diverse array of Chinese actors, over which its ability to exercise control is not as great as widely assumed. This use of an ever-widening range of state, sub-state and non-state (or putative non-state) actors as implementing agents of China’s foreign policy may offer a means of tackling specific problems. But it is unlikely to be able to reconcile the drive to secure economic (and other) interests with the strictures of policy principles in a consistent and coherent way such that Beijing is not continually held accountable for every misstep taking place under the rubric of ‘China’.


The Chinese government faces the challenge of meeting high expectations in Africa as one consequence of the optimism accompanying China’s prominent ascendancy throughout the continent. These are in part produced by its official rhetoric that puts Beijing in the position of needing to demonstrate that it is different to other external powers not merely in its declared principles but also in the substantive nature of its relations with Africa, not just in the comparative short term of emergent relations but more importantly over the medium-long term. Whether China can practically translate its official political rhetoric of difference into the substance of its increasingly complex relations with Africa remains a key overriding challenge.


According to the US Commerce Department, US-Africa trade fell by $55 bn in 2009 from a high of $141 bn in 2008 to a total of $86 bn while Chinese Ministry of Commerce figures put China-Africa trade was $106bn in 2008, it had only dropped to $90bn in 2009.

This term here is used only in so far as it delineates a Chinese position characterised by its own proponents as unique to the point of being exceptional both in itself, and in comparison to other external actors in Africa.

This essay is based on a longer forthcoming article, Chris Alden and Dan Large, ‘Chinese Exceptionalism in Africa and the Challenges of Delivering Difference’, Journal of Contemporary China, 20:68 2011.

25 Aug 2010