In His First Year, China's Xi Puts Unprecedented Focus on Africa

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Namibian Prime Minister Hage Geingob on April 8 in Beijing Photograph by Parker Song-Pool/Getty Images

A little over a year ago, Xi Jinping embarked on his first foreign trip as China’s president, making stops in Russia and Africa. Over the past 13 months, his administration has focused unprecedented attention on strengthening economic and political ties in Africa, according to a new policy briefing by Brookings Institution scholar Yun Sun.

While China’s People’s Liberation Army has long maintained what Sun calls a “tacit operating principle of ‘no troops on foreign soil,’” last spring Beijing sent 170 combat troops from the PLA Special Force to accompany the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. In the past, only Chinese engineers and medical personnel had ever been dispatched to foreign soils under a UN mandate.

“China’s choosing Africa to dispatch combat troops for the first time does suggest Beijing’s rising interests,” writes Sun, as well “enhanced commitment and [a] direct role in maintaining [the] peace and security of Africa.” China has also “dispatched a total of 16 fleets and escorted more than 5,300 ships and vessels” around the Gulf of Aden, in effect taking responsibility for maintaining the security of key shipping lanes.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew to Addis Ababa in January to join Ethiopian-led efforts to mediate between rebel forces and government officials from South Sudan. In the past, Beijing had officially frowned on “open intervention in … [foreign] conflicts through direct mediation,” writes Sun. But with China now importing significant oil from South Sudan—almost 14 million barrels in the first 10 months of 2013—a shift in China’s rhetoric and strategy is evident.

China is also deepening direct economic ties. Over the past year, Beijing has granted $10 billion in direct loans to African governments. And the focus of Chinese investments is evolving. “One striking feature of these loans lies in China’s new priority in financing infrastructure, agricultural, and manufacturing industries in Africa,” writes Sun, “a strategy that shifts away from its traditional heavy investment in Africa’s extractive industries.”

In addition to Chinese government-directed investments and security campaigns in Africa, more than 1 million Chinese immigrants are now in Africa, ranging from short-term construction workers to entrepreneurs aiming to settle there long term. These new arrivals come both to seek opportunity and to escape oppression in their homelands, a dynamic explored in moving detail in an upcoming book, by veteran foreign correspondent Howard French, called China’s Second Continent.

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