Is Africa swapping out Europe for China?

The political economy calculus in Africa is changing. Any China-EU rivalry in Africa will only benefit the continent. The fifth column in our Year End Special series on making sense of the biggest economic and geopolitical shifts and what they signal

Vivek Y. Kelkar

[From Unsplash]

Through December, we will publish a series of essays that offer fresh insight into the Events That Shaped Our World in 2023. You can follow the series here. 

China’s interest in Africa spans decades. The EU has been involved for centuries, often unpleasantly.

Prior to 1999, China sought to build influence to ensure that African nations did not support Taiwan. From then on China sought economic influence to maximally garner beneficial resources to feed its economic engine.

In 2013, Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In Africa, the first BRI initiatives were on the continent’s eastern shores but soon stretched across the Sahel, North and Central Africa. Between 2006 and 2023 China has invested over $300 billion in Africa, peaking in 2016. The decline since 2020 has, however, been sharp.

BRI projects were often uncoordinated. Economic gains to the recipient nations were opaquely defined as indeed were terms of the loans. This left quite a few nations with extensive and out-of-control debt. Zambia, for instance, has threatened to repudiate Chinese debt. Kenya is upset that the highway from Mombasa to Nairobi is economically unviable and it remains Beijing’s biggest bilateral creditor. China now faces significant challenges to force repayment without upsetting its image as a friend of the Global South.

The EU and the US have woken up late to the game, but they’re focusing hard in multiple arenas. The EU’s investments are directed towards renewable energy, minerals, infrastructure, health and education through its Global Gateway initiative, the Green Deal, the Partnership on Global Infrastructure (where the US is also involved), etc. Investments worth nearly $250 billion are on the anvil. Other initiatives from institutions like the European Investment Bank (EIB) will see $1 billion spent to rebuild Morocco after its crippling earthquake a few months ago.

The EU is playing a strategic game, too. It has, for instance, designed its Global Gateway initiatives to align with the African Union’s 2063 vision. Education for both players is an exercise in soft power. An EU initiative in Niger imparts a European style curriculum. But a Chinese initiative in Tanzania has films with Xi’s pronouncements playing a central role.

Africa, as a continent, is complex. True democracy is a problem, as are social structures, governance systems and institutions. French or British legacies are now more cultural or social, not truly political or economic. Western political interference is no longer ideological like it was during the Cold War, nor is there a bitter battle over oil, though there is worry over minerals like cobalt.

The old colonial legacy may linger culturally, and occasional socio-political interference may occur. But the old anti-colonial question no longer lingers quite as much as it did two or three decades ago. Generations have passed. Much of Africa is today open to Chinese, European and American money, so long as it fosters Africa-centric economic gain.

China approaches local politics and social issues quite differently from the West. Its lens is uniquely Chinese. They bother little about local social or cultural issues and rarely, if ever, get drawn into local conflicts that morph into political unease. They’re quite happy to play with any regime in power, so long as the economic contracts are adhered to. So far, if there’s been a danger of repudiation it’s because of economics, not politics or geopolitics.

Africa, today, is more conscious about its developmental challenges than ever before. China, the EU, and to a lesser extent, the US are rivals in Africa but the play is economics, not old-style colonialism nor Cold War ideology. It’s too early to argue that Africa is swapping Europe for China, but African nations are, for now, clearly benefiting from both rivals.

Dig Deeper

1. What Happened to Africa Rising? It’s Been Another Lost Decade | Bloomberg

2. The Overlooked Crisis in Congo: ‘We Live in War’ | The New York Times

3. The Niger crisis shows France’s quasi-empire in Africa is finally crumbling | The Guardian

4. French mistakes helped create Africa’s coup belt | Al Jazeera

5. Africa, beware of Putin’s money promises | Al Jazeera

The next question in this series:

Is India too late to the Global South party?

On Friday, December 22, we will publish Pramit Pal Chaudhuri’s take. He is head of the South Asia practice of Eurasia Group and fellow at the Ananta Aspen Centre of India

About the author

Vivek Y. Kelkar
Vivek Y. Kelkar


The Cosmopolitan Globalist

Vivek Y. Kelkar is a researcher, journalist, and strategy consultant with extensive global top management experience across the media and the corporate world. Kelkar focuses on writing, research, and analysis across several global and Indian publications and delivering strategic solutions to a select clientele.

Kelkar is skilled at analyzing the nuances of political economy, industry, and corporate strategy. He has extensive experience of new product launches, marketing, business strategy, investor relations, and M&A.

A former editor of The Strategist at the Business Standard and a Senior Editor of Business Today, Kelkar has written extensively for The Spectator, Asia Times, Singapore Business Times, Asia Inc., and Asian Business. Kelkar has an M.A. in International Political Economy from the University of Sheffield, U.K. and an M.B.A. from the Ashridge Business School. He is also a visiting faculty at several universities.