China Seduces Africa: A Love Story Or A Honey Pot? Is It That Simple?


Shortly before 2010, China became Africa’s leading tradingpartner, ahead of the United States and Europe [1]. Since then, China’s expansion on the African continent has continued and grown. [2]Between 2000 and 2020, Chinese financialinstitutions signed 1,188 loan commitments worth $160 billion with 49 African governments, their state-owned enterprises and five regional multilateral organisations. [3]The media talk about unconditional loans at advantageous rates, often guaranteed by raw materials, of which there is no shortage on the African continent. Disillusioned by decades of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB), often conditional on structural adjustment plans(SAP) and, more generally, on neo-colonial and imperialist interference in their economies by the countries of the global North, many countries in the global South are now turning to China [4]for loans [5]. The latter promises more advantageous loans and, above all, highlights its better balanced relationships with African countries than those of Europe orthe United States. While this may be historically true, we shall see below that this relationship is very much to China’s advantage and highly open to criticism.

Supposition and pretence: when the North preaches to China, SAPping the myth Step by Step

The Western media speak of a debt trap [6]in the China/Africa relationship, because Chinese loansare granted, not to be repaid, butin viewof eventually appropriating the infrastructure that they have enabled to be built. This type of loan, which ironically could be called a Strategic Appropriation Plan(SAP), is therefore alienating, with the borrowing country agreeing to delegate the exploitation of its raw materials and infrastructure to China as compensation should non-payment occur. One cannot help but notice the irony of such an appellation by the same who ardently defend the loans granted by the IMF or the WB. In fact, failing to recover African infrastructures, the creditor countries of the North have themselves been organizing so-called ’debt traps’ for decades: in the event of non-repayment, intervention in the economy is skilfully organized and feeds a predatory North-South relationship to the benefit of the North. Indeed, the privatization and liberalization contained in neo-liberal structural adjustment programmes (the original SAPs) have beenand still are a means of organizing the ’strategic monopolization’ of state-owned enterprises and the most lucrative markets, all to the benefit of Northern capitalism.

So let’s not fall into the all too common trap of systematically demonizing China’s presence in Africa [7].

Nor should we forget the iniquitous colonial period and the loans taken on by colonizing powersinthenameofthe colonized states and protectorates, and the colonial debt that followed (debts passed on at independence that still weigh heavily on the finances of independent states today). In fact, contrary to what the former colonial powers would have us believe, they still have avery strong presence in Africa, especially in the domains of finance and debt [8]. While criticisms of Chinese loans to Africa and the termsand conditions of those loans are to a great extent justified, it is intolerable that they should be couched in undertones of respectability and self-righteousness by institutions and States that have historically committed much worse.

The difference between loans from the Global North and those from China lies more in the nature of the loan, which to a point resembles mortgage loans in the private sector. Here it is not houses or vehicles that serve as collateral, but cobalt, oil, ports and the like. We often speak of collateral backed loans (the collateral being the physical object ’pledged’ against a loan). This comparison has its limits, however, because it is not exactly the title of ownership that is being transferred to China, contrary to most media announcements.

The true nature of Chinese loans and investments, China’s strategy and figures

While China’s part in African countries’ debt has undoubtedly increased over the past years, weought to qualify some figures that are used to political ends. Several Western media relayed that China would hold40% to 60% of the African continent’s debt [10]. [9]A vague assertion, since itturns China and Africa into undifferentiated blocks; further this figure totals together old loans that have already been paid up along with currently outstanding loans, it does not indicate what the loans were used for, the interest rates applied or whether the lenders were private companiesor the Chinese State. The figure includes all African countries whereas some countries are more deeply indebted to Chinese creditors than others. This often quoted figure only applies to sub-Saharan Africa. It is the kind of information that has to be taken with a solid pinch of salt and analyzed with the kind of objectivity that is often lacking among political leaders or financial analysts whose views are guided by a definite political vision.

So the part of African debt owed to China was used to blame China for the crisis of the African debt during the Coronavirus pandemic. [10]Christine Lagarde (former president of the IMF and current president of the ECB) said that although the loans (she was talking about zero-interest loans) granted by China to the African continent were a good thing overall, they were not a ’free lunch’. Such comments, even if true, are not without irony, given that the IMF does not serve free lunches either, since its loans not only generate profits, but are also subject to SAPs. Not to mention the confusion that the institution deliberately maintains in its vocabulary, for example by speaking of cancellation when restructuring debt, or the reluctance of the IMF to cancel unsustainable debts. We rightly recall the fiasco ofthe HIPC initiative, which, apart from the great amount of publicity created around it, produced few results for few countries.

Figures are to be found in the 2018 Jubilee debt campaign report [11]that estimated 20% of Africa’s external public debt to be held by China, while China also receives 17% of Africa’s debt service. More importantly, the same report found that 55% of the continent’s debt service is owed to non-Chinese private sector creditors. Here lies another problem: while we know that private loans rarely come with conditions likethose granted by China or the IMF, we do know that the interest rates charged are often exorbitant. We also know that it is generally the private sector that is the most reluctant to accept a moratorium, a restructuring or ’worse’ a cancellation of the debts in its possession. Let’s not forget either that the private debt sector is largely westernized and defended by western governments, which, when the argument of collusion between State and banks is used in China, is bound to raise eyebrows.

Example of mineral-for-infrastructure agreements: the case of the DRC [12]

Under the mineral-for-infrastructure agreements signed by Joseph Désiré Kabila’s government, China was to build roads, hospitals, etc., in exchange for access to Congolese minerals [13]. The Congo has one of the richest sub-soils in the world in terms of minerals and rare earth elements, which has historically made it the prey of the fiercest capitalist and colonialist appetites. [14] According to the Congolese Chambre des Mines, China currently exploits 70% of Congolese mines.

The Sicomines agreements, signed in 2007 by the Kabila government, represented at the time the largest Chinese investmentproject on the African continent. [15]These agreements provide access to Congolese cobalt and copper in exchange for the construction ofinfrastructure. [16]In a report published in 2017, [17]the African Natural Resources Observatory showed that significant pollution had been caused, in particular by the discharge of chemical substances into the nearby Luilu river. The same report also showed that the compensation offered to local residents for the pollution of the soil, river and food, and the many illnesses caused by this pollution, was totally inadequate and insufficient.

The special minerals for infrastructure agreements have become, over the last 20 years, one of China’s most frequently used international policy tools. [18]

There are two types of agreement, similar but different:Resource-financedinfrastructure: the country providing the infrastructure repays itself out of the profits made from the export of raw materials, for example out of the profits from the sale of a given number of barrels of oil over a given period. This first strategy is double-edged, because it depends on the price of raw materials: as hydrocarbons and minerals are used as collateral, the amount to be recovered in the event of non-payment depends on the market price at the time of repayment, which, in the event of a fall inthe price of raw materials, automatically increases the borrowing country’s debt burden.

Resources-for-infrastructure agreement: this involves giving up mining resources in exchange for creating infrastructure. This is often done through the exploitationof amined resource. Under international law, the State is always the owner of its subsoil and therefore of its exploitation. However, it can lease this exploitation to private companies for a period of time, in other words grant a mining concession.

This kind of agreement is consistent with the usual mechanism of proposals made to poor countries that are rich in mineral resources but lacking in finance. Their resources are exploited in exchange for strong currencies or for infrastructure. The problem with this type of agreement is the deterioration in the exchange terms. One of the parties has the assurance that the value of what it is exchanging will not be depreciated, whereas the other does not. This is the case when raw materials, whose price is defined by their market value, are exchanged for services, hard currencies (whose price varies little and remains high) or infrastructure (whose price is known).

The real reason for China’s presence in Africa and its loans

China’s primary aim is to secure its diplomatic interests. Behind the official rhetoric of cooperation and fraternity often lies another reality. Historically, Beijing began investing in Africa in order to gain allies on the international stage. Indeed, in the 1960s, after the creation of the main international institutions (UN, IMF, WB), Mao’s China had few allies.This is the key to Chinese investment in Africa. While China is using North and East Africa for its New Silk Road project, this does little to explain its presence on the rest of the continent. Unless you remember that one of the conditions of Chinese loans is the disengagement of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Since the 1960s, China has made it a point of honour to isolate Taipei diplomatically, and its strategy has been a success: Burkina Faso has recently severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The only state on the continent that still recognizes Taiwan is Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

Apart from isolating Taiwan, China regularly uses its investments to provide outlets for its many companies that were beginning to feel cramped on Chinese territory. In order to maintain strong growth, China has turned its attention to the African market. Major Chinese telecommunication companies, such as Huawei, are now well established in Africa. Large Chinese construction companies are also winning contracts tobuild projects commissioned by African countries backed by Chinese loans. Once again, this is nothing new, it resembles the tied aid that European countries, and France in particular, have been granting African countries for a long time. It should be notedthat this system does not employ local labour and by-passes national construction companies that are not contracted on these projects.

China is also diversifying its sources of supply, whether oil and gas or minerals. So if a source dries up or a partnerdefaults or even tries to put on pressure, China can replace it almost immediately. In this way, it greatly increases its resilience to crises in materials and resources, for example.

The issue of soft power is also important. In 2021, there were 56Confucius Institutes in Africa (institutes for learning the Chinese language and promoting Chinese culture). Sino-African university exchanges are also on the increase, as is the creation of military institutes financed andsupervised by China. Through this presence, but also through the weight of its investments, China is seeking to win African votes in international institutions such as the UN, the WTO, the WB and the IMF. It is China’s path towards becoming a global ’discursive’ power, [19]to shape imaginations and narratives, as the USA and the USSR do and have done.

There is nothing special or atypical about China’s international strategy, the other powers, led by the United States, have long practised the same or similar forms of expansionism.

Further reading:

Patrick Bond, “China’s role in amplifying Southern Africa’s extreme uneven development”, 30 June 2021
Chiara Filoni, « La politique de prêts chinoise en Afrique subsaharienne », 2 January 2020,CADTM
Abdul Khaliq, “Is Pakistan falling into China’s debt trap?”,16 April2018,CADTM,
Tijana Okić, The debt of integration: Montenegro’s Chinese loan and the traps of Europe, 12 July 2021,CADTM,
ranslation : Mike Krolikowski and Christine Pagnoulle.


[1] Country by countrydetails are available atStrategy (UK), Department for International Trade / Department for Business, Energy and Industrial.« International Trade in Goods and Services Based on UN Comtrade Data ».Accessed6 June 2023.

[2] Le Temps. « Comment la Chine alimente la dette africaine ».25 July 2018. (in French)

[3] Chinese Loans to Africa during the Covid-19 Pandemic | Global Development Policy Center. Accessed6 June 2023.

[4] Global and country data available here - Chinese Loans to Africa Database - accessed 6 June 2023.

[5] It should be pointed out here that borrowing from the IFIs continues, as do the structural adjustment plans, with China’s loans ’complementing’ the traditional debtors.

[6] Le « Avec les « nouvelles routes de la soie », les pays pauvres pris dans le « piège de la dette » ».17 January 2021. French) or France Culture.“Afrique - Chine: un ‘piège de la dette’?”, 6 September 2018. French)

[7] Sautman, Barry, and Yan Hairong.Friends and Interests: China’s Distinctive Links with Africa.African Studies Review50, no3 (2007): 75‑114.

[8] Pairault, Thierry.« Annuler la dette de l’Afrique de Paris à Pékin - AOC media ». AOC media - Analyse Opinion Critique, 22 October 2020. French)

[9] Pairault, Thierry. « Detteafricaine  : la part chinoise à 40 %, mythe ou réalité  ? »Le Point, 4 May 2020. orLe Monde« La Chine face au problème de dettes africaines insoutenables ».28 November 2021.

[10] Pairault, Thierry.« L’Afrique et sa dette ‘chinoise’ au temps de la covid-19 ».Revue de la régulation. Capitalisme, institutions, pouvoirs, n° 29 (10 February 2021).

[11] Available here

[12] Ross, Aaron, Karin Strohecker, and Aaron Ross.EXCLUSIVE Congo Reviewing $6 Bln Mining Deal with Chinese Investors -Finmin. Reuters, 30 August 2021, sect. Africa.

[13] Landry, David.The Risks and Rewards of Resource-for-Infrastructure Deals: Lessons from the Congo’s Sicomines Agreement.Resources Policy, Special Issue on Mining Value Chains, Innovation and Learning, 58 (1 October 2018): 165‑74.

[14] Ekowana Hiemo, Dieudonné. « La dette coloniale ». CADTM, 21 décembre 2006.2334. (in French)

[15] Larrarte, Andoni Maiza, and Gloria Claudio-Quiroga.The DRC and China’s Sicomines: Why Future Deals Should Be Different.The Conversation, 3 April 2019.

[16] Maiza Larrate, Andoni and Gloria Claudio-Quiroga.How to Avoid Flawed Minerals-for-Infrastructure Deals like DR Congo and China’s Sicomines Pact.Quartz, 3 April 2019.

[17] Available here:

[18] Ogwang, Tom and Frank Vanclay.Resource-Financed Infrastructure: Thoughts onFour Chinese-Financed Projects in Uganda.Sustainability13, no6 (16 March 2021): 3259.

[19] Nantulya, Paul.« L’approfondissement des liens entre la Chine et l’Afrique au cours du troisième mandat de Xi Jinping ».Centre d’Études Stratégiques de l’Afrique(blog). Accessed 6 June 2023. French)