The integration of the People’s Republic of China into the world’s economic and political systems has become crucial to long-term global stability. Over the past 30 years, China has transitioned from a Cold War pariah to an international powerhouse, due in large part to the country’s ability to forge positive economic and commercial relations with other developing countries. As the PRC deepens its international ties, whether it plays fairly by the existing ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to trade practices, currency valuation, politics, and foreign aid policies has become a hugely important matter for all countries.

Touching on the full range of international interests – economic, diplomatic, strategic, technological, and military – China’s relations with Africa can be seen as a laboratory for the country’s global ambitions.  Since the late 1990s, we have seen a dramatic escalation in China’s engagement with African nations and, consequently, a growing anxiety in the West. As China’s influence continues to rise, will it challenge Western models of economic development, democracy, and human rights? Does Beijing provide African nations an alternative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) consensus on governmental and development policies, giving China an “unfair” advantage in competing for the continent’s resources? Given China’s presence in the continent’s conflict zones, the world financial crisis, and so on, it is even more critical to understand China’s behavior in the long run.

This essay measures China’s behavior in Africa against international norms, and evaluates whether this behavior indicates long-term convergence toward or divergence from these norms. The central contribution of our work is heuristic, providing a new way to frame and think about these issues. We do not seek to provide full and perfect evidence, but to combine the framework with available data to illuminate China’s behavior and guide practical responses.

We first explain the Convergence/Divergence model. After describing the tendencies that constitute conventional and provocative behavior, we review the specifics of four issue areas of the Sino-African relationship: trade, aid, arms sales, and human rights. Our final analysis reaches conclusions about the long-term effect of the Chinese influence in Africa, and outlines the policy implications for governments.

Convergence vs. Divergence
If we consider ‘international norms’ somewhat constant in the long-term, then at any given moment a country’s behavior will be above, in-line with, or below acceptable global standards. If we chart that behavior over time, we should be able to explain that country’s long-term convergence or divergence with the larger norm. By aggregating various singular issues (aid, trade, arms sales, etc.) into a single value - “International Norms & Behavior” - we create a common framework.
We assume that over time a country largely acts within a consistent range of behavior. Countries that are active in international institutions, in-step with global practices, and positive influences in the world may generally operate above the international norm base line. Countries like Sweden come to mind. Those that blatantly violate international regimes and practices abusive domestic practices are generally well below the norm. North Korea is an obvious example. In our case, the rising green line represents the sum of Western/OECD norms governing key elements of international relations. Conceptually, this line would be the sum of domain-specific regimes – trade, aid, diplomatic engagement, human rights and so on. As a heuristic, the point is that over a long enough period of time a country’s course of convergence towards or divergence from these norms should be the primary factor in judging that nation’s behavior.


For our purposes, we consider China’s involvement in Africa as one case study of the country’s convergence/divergence with international norms, and assume that its behavior can fall into one of three paths. China can be largely compliant with OECD norms and headed towards convergence; it can remain on a static path, always outside of global norms yet demonstrating no purposeful movement either way; or it can be non-compliant and increasingly divergent in its behavior. Do we observe China converging with international society or away from the current global system?

We will concentrate on four topic areas to illustrate our understanding of China’s interactions with the African continent: trade, aid, arms sales, and human rights. Because of data limitations, our analysis will be illustrative but not definitive of China’s behavior over the years, focusing primarily on developments since escalation of the two countries’ relationship in the mid-1990s.

China’s Trade Relations with Africa

As documented in Lum & Nanto’s 2007 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report for Congress, China’s economy has been growing on average at 9 percent annually since 1999, spewing out US$3.5 trillion of goods while importing US$3.2 trillion from 1995-2005.  China-Africa trade has also blossomed over the past decade. While the mid-1990s saw single-digit flows, by 2008, China-Africa exports and imports topped the US$100 billion mark. Since the mid-1990s, a starting point of China’s increased engagement, 19 sub-Saharan countries have experienced GDP growth rates of 4.5 percent or higher.  Foreign direct investment is growing, and trade in natural resources is booming. China became a net importer of oil in 1993, and stands today as the second-largest importer at 8 million bbl/d. Between 2000 and 2006, China’s oil consumption increased from 4.7 million bbl/d to 7.4 million. With 1.3 billion people and hundreds of millions emerging as a middle class, that rate is likely to increase. On global trade issues, Western concerns in particular have largely rested on whether China has cheated on trade and currency rules to boost exports.

Establishing a complete definition of Western trade norms can be an elusive task. However, it is fully possible to gauge the principal concerns around which East-West debates occur. For example, the use of tied aid is one such critical debate.


Scholars H. Lee and D. Shalmon have documented China’s tendency to tie its oil investments to government-to-government financial assistance, without demanding the democratic liberalization and governmental accountability that Western nations demand. Thus, some Western critics consider China to have an unfair advantage in its ability to extract resources from Africa. One example is China’s involvement in the oil industry of Angola. Following the end of the country’s civil war, Angola’s domestic infrastructure lay in ruins. The IMF had agreed to a substantial loan for infrastructural development, but required the country to commit to a series of transparency reforms, including demands for the country’s largest oil company, Sonangol, to open its books.  In 2004, however, Angola suddenly broke with the IMF, announcing a US$2 billion line of credit from China’s Export-Import (Exim) Bank in exchange for oil reserves in the future. Beginning in five years, Angola would begin to repay the loan by setting aside 15,000 bbl/d for sale to China, later increasing to 40,000 bbl/d until the debt was repaid. Angola would see some monetary returns for selling the oil while a percentage was taken by Exim Bank to repay the loan. The original loan stipulated that the money had to be used for infrastructural projects, and not surprisingly, all construction concessions by mid-2007 had been awarded to Chinese companies.


The Chinese system deviates from the OECD approach, which is to divorce official state support from commercial arrangements by private actors. China’s Exim Bank has been set up as a holding bank through which the Chinese government can offer low-interest financial credit in exchange for agreements on resource trade, infrastructure projects, labor, and so on. Despite its ambitions, however, China’s influence in Angola is tempered by the fact that Sinopec and other Chinese companies are just one of several large companies operating in the country.


Other normative issues are those of local labor and manufactured goods.  A major point of contention for African publics, and some Western companies, is China’s reluctance to use African labor in their infrastructural projects, which goes against OECD expectations. In places like Zimbabwe and Zambia, this antipathy towards Chinese laborers has, in some instances, turned violent, and “ching chong” has become a racial slur against the migrant Chinese workforce. Meanwhile, Chinese manufactured goods have saturated the African marketplace. For many African traders just trying to get by, the large volume of cheap Chinese goods undercuts local firms, especially in the fledgling textile industry. Of course, with China as the manufacturer for most of the world’s goods, this charge is not unique to Africa.

We recognize that there have been few attempts by the Chinese government to actively steer the country closer to international standards, but the Sino-African trade relationship does fall somewhat outside typical economic engagement by Western nations. While the operations of China’s Exim Bank and its liberal use of low-interest loans is fairly normal, preferential concessions to Chinese companies do diverge somewhat from expected OECD behavior. Undercutting IMF negotiations is also questionable, and a refusal to hire local workers only hurts China’s standing within Africa. By our estimate therefore, China’s trade behavior with Africa remains largely static, lying outside of OECD norms, not worsening, yet not deviating so far as to provoke concerns of systemic challenge.
Aiding Africa
Related, of course, is China’s foreign aid to the continent. Africa has long been a top recipient of Chinese foreign assistance. By 1975, China already operated aid programs in more African nations than the United States. In the past two decades, however, China’s aid packages have shifted from the South-South solidarity that characterized earlier programs to more commercially driven expansion. This puts China at cross-purposes with the United States and other OECD countries, which two or three decades ago, undertook their own shift away from aid tied to domestic commercial interests to aid less linked to donor commercial interests. The recent China trend has been toward more tied aid, while the recent Western trend has been away from it.

We see three forms of aid coming from China: grants, zero-interest loans, and, since 1995, low-interest concessional loans. The concessional loans, managed by China’s Exim bank, lie somewhere between strictly defined foreign aid and simple economic cooperation. Several scholars believe that such loans do not qualify as official developmental assistance (ODA), due to China’s lack of transparency on financial dealings and insufficient funds given as grants.   Concessional loans are only given for larger projects (minimum of US$2.4 million) that involve considerable use of Chinese goods and labor (upwards of 50 percent). Deborah Brautigam argues that, while the US$5 billion fund announced at the 2006 FOCAC was characterized as an overwhelming aid package to the continent, it should not be viewed as such as it clearly aimed to support Chinese commercial interests.  Very clearly in China’s case, it is not clear where foreign direct investment (FDI) and simple trade agreements divide with aid.

Once again, evaluating convergence or divergence is not a black and white issue. China’s aid system appears to bundle some aid and trade, but it does not sit wildly outside of the historical behavior of Western countries. And some argue there is a repositioning to OECD norms underway as the economy liberalizes. A continuing complicating factor when judging China remains the opaque nature of its governmental system. Ambiguity arises when major economic activities are largely carried out by state-owned enterprises, giving the appearance and possibility of “cheating.” For our model, a long divergent pathway next to OECD norms seems to be bending slightly towards convergence, or at least straightening to a constant parallel.
The Arms Trade
As a developing world leader under Mao, China’s push for solidarity included support for armed struggles and revolutionary movements. The country gave small arms and light weapons freely to sympathetic and revolutionary governments to promote this notion of global leadership. In the 1970s, the country’s state-owned weapons manufacturers churned out millions of small arms, and though the total value of sales was less than other countries, the extensive use of smaller weaponry in African conflicts was worrisome. According to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Africa acquired US$42 million in Chinese small arms between 1961-71.

However, the 1980’s turn inward refocused attention to other sectors, and the military industry scaled back. In 1987, Chinese arms factories only pushed US$5.7 billion in sales. And the Department of State estimates sales between 1989 and 1999 at US$1.3 billion. Today, China’s arms sales remain relatively small compared with other arms-dealing countries. From a size standpoint, China is hardly the biggest supplier.

However, we find two major points that complicate a final judgment on the scale of the Sino-African arms trade. First, as D. Shinn notes in 2008’s China into Africa: Trade, Aid and Influence, 94 percent of China’s arms go to the developing world. Jiang Yu, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, claims that China only sells normal weapons in limited quantity, which will not harm regional stability. But small arms remain the deadliest in African conflicts.  Secondly, China has not declared its arms exports to the UN register of conventional arms since it withdrew from it in 1998 to protest US arms exports to Taiwan. Once again, a simple lack of data muddies the never-clear water of international arms sales.

We argue that China remains somewhat outside international norms in its sales to conflict zones and authoritarian regimes, but is well within norms in terms of volume. China has scaled back arms sales since the days of Communist and Third World solidarity. Overall, trade is miniscule compared with the arms giants. However, trade is picking up, and with such a high percentage to the developing world, the irresponsibility in management is a huge pitfall. The refusal to declare arms exports to international bodies and a lack of verification on their final destination comes across as seriously negligent. There is a tendency towards some accountability for support of peacekeeping missions (Jiang emphasized that since 1990, China participated in 12 UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, and has sent more than 4000 peacekeepers), and a recognition of the long-term implications for China’s reputation. Indeed, compared with the Maoist years, some may conclude we see a marked improvement. Until China reports numbers or refuses sales to the worst conflict-affected regions, it is difficult to say the country is edging closer to acceptable international behavior.

Human Rights

Human rights issues are consistently thought of as the biggest point of divergence for China (at home and abroad), and easily provoke the most passionate debates. China receives a near constant stream of criticism for its involvement in Africa’s conflict zones. Support of Mugabe’s regime and charges of culpability in the Darfur crisis remain hot topics, yet China’s broader presence throughout the continent and its possible human rights implications have been a steady source of international concern. As Ian Taylor states, there is an “explicit concern that China's stance is threatening Western interests” in Africa.  Paul Wolfowitz, as head of the World Bank in 2006, notably pointed out that Chinese banks are failing to meet international agreements that ensure projects they fund meet certain environmental and social standards, which include human rights issues.

The Chinese government regularly offers up its own argument for the discrepancy which few Western authorities accept: China’s conception of human rights is simply different from Western norms. As Burstein and de Keijzer note in 1999’s Big Dragon: Future of China – What it Means for Business, the Economy and the Global Order, for the Chinese, “human rights to food, clothing, shelter, economic development and security... are paramount over traditional Western-style individual political liberties.”  The Beijing government continues to espouse its “5 Principles of Mutual Coexistence,” which, as far as human rights are concerned, focuses on the importance of sovereignty and noninterference in the domestic affairs of other nations. From a communitarian emphasis on solidarity to the prioritization of social stability over individual rights, the Chinese view does represent a significant divergence from Western conceptions.

Thus, the CCP remains far outside international norms when it comes to dealing with repressive regimes throughout the continent. Still, it is hard to pin down China’s influence because it is best determined on a case-by-case basis. We can find a direct and detrimental influence in Sudan and Zimbabwe, but in other areas, economic development is in fact helping feed people.

In terms of local impact, however, Africa shows little evidence of a decline in “Western values” as China pushes into the continent. Some countries show an expansion of human rights norms. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), supported strongly by Nigeria and South Africa, is a clear example of the trend towards democratic norms and a culture of human rights. For China, the country’s concern for its international reputation may shift.   Its recent efforts to apply some pressure on the Sudanese government in spite of its strong economic interests in the region suggest that the government is not immune to public pressure.
Trends: Convergence or Divergence?
We began this essay by offering a way to frame how, over the medium term, the United States and other countries should consider their policies toward the world’s fastest rising commercial and geopolitical power. Each section offers a heuristic analysis of the trend in China’s relations with the African continent.

Human rights concerns and their interplay between all other aspects of the Sino-African relationship are at the top of our list. While attention to conflict zones is always critical, and the alleviation of such violence should be the goal of any reputable country, policymakers should pay close attention to how China’s behavior affects perceptions on the ground. China’s support for unjust regimes has already sparked some resentment by the local citizenry, some African governments, and NGOs, and the international community will continue to view these relationships with suspicion. The apparent disregard of the Chinese arms industry only furthers the divide. An interesting consideration should be the possibility of blowback on China. Certain unfair practices continue to put the African people at odds with the Chinese presence (i.e. nonuse of local labor, cheap goods undercutting local markets, etc.). Western policymakers would be wise to consider the rise of China’s presence in Africa in relation to the attitudes and actions of the African public.  China’s human rights record in Africa remains constant, with little evidence of radical convergence or divergence.

Second, trade and economic relations will remain the fundamental links in the Sino-African relationship. It is very difficult to separate the business of trade from the politics of aid in this case. It appears that China has yet to displace any Western operations in Africa, which should be a primary concern if we are to believe the country’s actions on the continent are to the detriment of Western actors. They compete with, but do not displace, Western oil firms. Economic concerns are valid as China constitutes a major player in the battle for resources, but there is little evidence to suggest a major clash is brewing. We should take note, however, of China’s willingness to circumvent international monetary institutions. The country’s system of aid-for-trade with Africa follows the long-standing Western model in place until the 1990s, but not the current regime of the OECD. The ways both sides respond to this divergence will have important implications for the international trade regime.

Third, the deepening of diplomatic relations between China and Africa are unlikely to alter global norms in any significant way. China is much more closely linked to the rest of the world than it was in its days of Cold War isolation. Its African relationships have yet to take on any appearance of powerful new “spheres of influence.” For Africa, China’s engagement should remind Western policymakers of the importance of maintaining sound relations with developing countries in a more competitive world. It may be a reminder for the West to maintain close aid and security relations with the continent, and with local governments to resolve their most pressing issues. We strongly believe it is essential to engage China directly on issues involving Africa, from energy trade and economic development to military exchange and human rights. It appears that the Obama administration is doing exactly that, like the Bush administration before them, including regular meetings at the Assistant Secretary level. It is essential to understand the views of African publics and their leaders as well.

In sum, China’s international behavior shows little evidence of radical shifts toward divergence, nor very substantial efforts to create a new international regime counter to Western interests. There is some evidence of convergence, with other policies showing “more of the same.” Because China-Africa ties present such a complex picture, analysts will place different values on each topic area, but there is little doubt that China is pursuing an expansionary but not radical path. We believe our model offers a more balanced and long term view of China’s rise in the world and its relations with other regions. The framework’s application to other countries or regions can provide substantive insight into the trajectory of international relations, highlighting areas of stability or concern. Other regions, like Asia or Latin America, may yield different conclusions. But for the moment, China’s rise on the world stage should be judged and acted upon with patience and trend-driven analysis by the United States and other OECD nations, not driven by daily headlines or political posturing.