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The Impact of the Growing Sino-African Relationship and the Challenges for Canadian Foreign and Economic Policy

By Alexander Fremis and Alexander Landry, this article was originally published by the Royal Canadian Military Institute in October 2021.

As western nations complete their respective withdrawals from Afghanistan following a confict engagement spanning close to two decades, pundits are beginning to analyze potential future strategic implications based on the entry of other stakeholders into the region such as Pakistan, India, and China. Speaking specifcally to the latter, and considering the most recent relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Western Powers, questions begin to arise regarding the strategic balance moving forward on the global scale.

China, however, has been politically and economically active on an international scale elsewhere—on the continent of Africa—for most of the past decade. With examples of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the fact that Sino-African trade is now topping $200 billion per year, China has gone to great lengths to legitimize its international interests through projection on the African continent.

Accordingly, as the focus of future development within the region grows, western nations must consider how deeply entrenched China’s infuence currently sits in Africa, and further re-examine their own commitments to the continent. This is imperative considering the return to great power competition, increasing foreign interference in complex domestic issues across the international community, and consequent threats to the liberal democratic world order. For a middle power with Security Council interests moving forward, it behooves Canadians to understand PRC interests on the African continent, and how it may afect Canadian aspirations in the region over the next several decades.

PRC Interests and Sino-African Relations

Considering previous international involvement in the region dating back to the colonial-era, and its subsequent quagmire-like embodiment, one has to question whether the PRC’s newfound involvement in the area will end in a similar manner. Western nations are wholly familiar with the situation in Africa, including previous American, European, and Canadian expeditionary deployments for various humanitarian reasons to the likes of Somalia and Rwanda. However, with the PRC’s altruist approach to the area, specifcally resulting in overwhelming host nation favorability thus far—according to several RAND corporation reports—results may be diferent for investors and regional stakeholders alike.

China is intensely interested in the African continent, and has been for the better part of the current century. Prior to the BRI of 2013, China’s involvement in the region included lobbying for diplomatic recognition of the PRC, as it sought to establish geopolitical infuence in the international community. Accordingly, Chinese interests in Africa can be generally grouped into two distinct categories based on economic and geopolitical interests.

China’s economic interests basically revolve around the search for access to cheap resources and cheap labour, both of which the African continent provides in spades. This need is the result of a shifing dynamic of the PRC’s domestic workforce as the population changes over the next several years. The initiation of the BRI has heavily involved the African continent as it has provided access to both interests, while also creating an opportunity for domestic private corporations to work internationally and produce profts outside the scope of the internal consumption of the PRC.

Recently, China has begun seeing the efects of its aging population, recording its slowest population growth rate since the 1950s, as indicated by the 2020 national census. Accordingly, there will likely be a loss of more than 70 million people from the Chinese workforce over the next decade. Furthermore, China’s internal indebtedness is inversely growing as personal savings are depleted, which are heavily weighted on speculation and borrowing to compensate for the weaker state social-security provision.

To make up for this internal dilemma of an aging population, yet growing internal debt, the PRC has begun seeking alternatives to its domestically-focused workforce in parallel with economic stimulus for the country. Consequently, a core component of the PRC’s 2021 Fourteenth Five Year Plan has been its Dual Circulation Strategy (DCS). The DCS is an ideal of an internal circulation of domestic economy enveloped within an outer circulation of the global economy, the former being complete and independent of the latter, but not closed to it, as to enhance its competitiveness and stimulate technological growth.

Accordingly, by continuing to leverage the BRI and its provision of infrastructure to other countries, China maintains access to the cheap labour and resources it is seeking. Further, it allows for an outlet for its domestic corporations to work outside of its internal circulation, enhancing competition, and sees the nations targeted by the BRI to continue accruing debt that consequently translates to infuence on the geopolitical stage.

To this efect, the situation regarding Africa’s fscal intertwining with the PRC may only aggravate the current world economic post-pandemic situation. In February 2021, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies published a report indicating that Chinese lending to Africa may only increase, considering countries in the region would look to pay of COVID-19 debts, while still maintaining infrastructure progress as a means of generating economic stimulus.

Looking at the geopolitical motivations behind their involvement in Africa, it is clear that they are based on force projection intended on furthering the reach of their military capacities, while also establishing legitimacy on the international stage as an emerging superpower. One could consider such manoeuvres as similar to the expansion of infuence the Soviet Union following World War II with their support for South American communism.

Accordingly, although the BRI is touted as a tool for economic partnership and development, it also exists to enable the furtherance of PRC interests along both economic and geopolitical lines of efort. Considering the required commitment from countries to the BRI, it consequently consolidates China’s stature on the global stage, allowing justifcation for increased military presence abroad to include the establishment of new bases for the protection of the new infrastructure. While the BRI doesn’t necessarily always lead to prosperity for committed nations, it almost always leads to furthering the PRC’s economic or diplomatic interests.

Consider, for example, the recent Sri Lankan Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill that essentially turned 660 acres of land surrounding the port in Hambantota into Chinese sovereign territory overnight. As many nations fnd themselves doing, Sri Lanka’s government burdened itself with loans and projects from the PRC, building the port with PRC state-owned enterprise, funded by the PRC itself. As the PRC expected, when Sri Lanka was unable to pay for the port’s debts, the PRC strong-armed the government into turning over the infrastructure to Chinese control, and subsequently entrenched Chinese infuence and naval power in the area.

With this example in mind, the African continent cannot be overlooked in terms of its vulnerability to the PRC and the BRI. Subsequent to the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, the PRC has invested billions of dollars annually to the region, including $60 billion in 2018 alone, thereby slowly absorbing the region into its own diplomatic orbit. Given projects such as the $4.5 billion Addis Ababa—Djibouti Railway, which cost Ethiopia a quarter of its 2016 annual budget, or the $11 billion megaport at Bagamoyo (which is already over budget), it is hard not to see the BRI as an outright debt trap, with some critics even going so far as to label this the PRC’s new form of colonialism.

Canadian Interests in Africa

When discussing Canada’s interactions with the world in 1924, Canadian senator Raoul Dandurand proposed that Canadian leaders should “be quiet and give no one cause for alarm”. He went on to famously describe Canada’s geopolitical position as a “freproof house far from infammable materials”. Nothing could be further from the truth today.

On the contrary, historical protections aforded to Canada by geography and a relatively predictable international environment have been stripped away during the 21st century. COVID-19, foreign interference, espionage, and daily cyber-attacks are but four examples illustrating this new situation. As such, the Government of Canada (GoC) must actively employ its instruments of national power in the pursuit of Canada’s national interests, including both domestically and internationally. Africa is one such area of signifcant concern for the GoC. Generally speaking, Canadian interests in the African continent ought to be conceptualized across three broad categories: supporting regional stability, economic growth, and contesting a potential PRC geopolitical/economic monopoly.

As a member of NATO and a potential target of Islamic-religiously motivated violent extremism, Canada has an undeniable interest in supporting regional stability throughout Africa. This is especially true when considering that seven African nations are among the top ten nations facing an extreme risk of terrorism according to a ranking of 198 nations by global risk consultancy, Verisk Maplecrof. This includes Mali, Somalia, and Burkina Faso, which are all ranked as equally susceptible to violent extremism as Afghanistan and Syria. Following the aforementioned are Cameroon, Mozambique, Niger, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, all of which are ranked as at a higher risk of violent extremism than Iraq. While singlehandedly eliminating the risk of terrorism in these nations would be an impossible task for the GoC, it is in Canada’s national interest to contribute to improving regional security and stability there. While the CAF is currently conducting six operations in Africa, these operations represent a maximum of about a hundred personnel. Should the GoC wish to better support regional security and defence in Africa, increasing the presence of the CAF would be an achievable, and arguably efective, measure to take. In so doing, the GoC would simultaneously degrade the ability of terrorist groups to base attacks against Canada, as well as foster diplomatic leverage and legitimacy in other interactions with stakeholders in this region.

Building upon this notion, with nearly 20% of the world’s population, as well as the same percentage of the world’s total GDP, Africa holds many economic opportunities for Canada. This includes vast mineral deposits, precious metals, inexpensive labour, and various oil deposits. With its highly developed economy, Canada has much to bring to the table in establishing economic partnerships with generally poor performing African economies in order to unlock the continent’s economic potential. In doing so, Canada would not only grow its own economy, but could also facilitate the growth of many otherwise underperforming African economies. While Canada alone would not be able to singlehandedly solve Africa’s various economic woes, it could signifcantly contribute to their improvement. Canada’s membership in La Francophonie, as well as its large English-speaking majority, make potential economic relationships with African nations much easier to establish and maintain. In a similar fashion to previously proposed contributions to African security, Canadian economic engagement in Africa would not only have positive economic efects, but would also build Canadian diplomatic power in the region, and improve the ability of the GoC to shape regional afairs.

Finally, whether the GoC likes it or not, competition with an increasingly belligerent PRC is and will continue to be a reality of the 21st century. The PRC’s strategic desire to reorganize the existing world order puts it in direct opposition to Western liberal democratic systems. This is refected in abundant evidence that illustrates the PRC’s eforts to steal Canadian intellectual property, intimidate members of the Chinese diaspora who reside in or are citizens of Canada, and unduly infuence Canadian domestic afairs. While there are certainly areas where the West and the PRC can work together, these areas are becoming increasingly limited as the PRC simultaneously becomes more powerful and belligerent. Building Western infuence in Africa, and contesting the growing infuence of the PRC there, and elsewhere, should be considered a signifcant national interest for Canada in the 21st century. Simply put, a 21st century dominated by the PRC is bad news for Canada and the West as a whole.

The Way Forward for Canada in Africa

Whereas China’s engagement in Africa is heavily concerned with natural resource extraction and infrastructure development, Canada’s engagement in Africa has focused primarily on international aid, promoting democracy, ethical governance, and humanitarian development. Thus, while Chinese engagement in Africa does not fundamentally undermine western economic goals, it does create commercial competition for Western involvement in the continent as the Belt and Road Initiative expands, and begins to capture larger and larger portions of African state national budgets. This may lead to a further growth of China’s infuence, while simultaneously minimizing Western, and specifcally Canadian, infuence and economic opportunities.

Canada must act to pursue its national interests on the African continent, not only as a member of NATO, but also as an economic partner. While the Government of Canada has arguably limited resources compared to other states to pursue its national interests, there are several initiatives which the GoC could pursue to accomplish its objectives. As a stakeholder in Africa for the past several decades, Canada can continue to ofer support to the western international community through bisecting courses of action concerning security engagements and economic alternatives.

With regards to security engagements, Canada has previously demonstrated commitment to the region through various international forums, such as the United Nations. This has most recently included deployments to provide tactical airlif and aeromedical evacuation capabilities in Mali and Uganda. Moving forward, Canada should continue to expand its support to peace operations with training and security force capacity building missions, such as taking part in the UN’s Engagement Platoon Initiative, and by enhancing Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) member presence in Uganda and Rwanda over the next few months. While additional partner nations and course locations are yet to be determined, it should indicate a renewal of Canadian commitment to ongoing peace operations.

NATO has also actively been cooperating with the African Union since the turn of the century, frst providing logistic and airlif support to local missions, but now expanding the relationship to include training support and infrastructure assistance. This includes the provision of Mobile Education Training Teams (METT), which is an expanding entity within the scope of Security Forces Capacity Building, for various areas of concern such as logistics, operational planning, and counter-improvised explosive device training. NATO currently maintains a liaison ofce embedded with the African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa, through which it ofers subject matter expertise relating to the ongoing security challenges in the region. As the CAF is already providing support to NATO for both operations and personnel in various headquarters, the CAF should seek to enhance its presence at the Liaison Ofce or participate in the METTs. This would beneft the African nations, as well as further enhancing CAF members knowledge and understanding of the region, and its security concerns.

Regarding economic alternatives, Canada must seek to establish further economic partnerships and commercial engagements, which would promote regional competition for PRC entities. This would, in turn, also beneft African countries and further the advancement of Western interests. Considering Canada’s current relationship with the PRC, the administration should not seek to pressure Beijing directly, but rather do so through promotion of accountability and transparency in the region, which continue to be weak points of the BRI moving forward.

Continuing with the notion of economic alternatives, public investment and government commitment won’t make the grade alone. Canada must consequently continue promoting private investment in Africa, which will, in turn, force PRC enterprises to ofer better terms with partners and governments in the region. This is already an active course of action through entities such as the Canada-Africa Chamber of Business, but the world pandemic has undoubtedly put a hold on many of these initiatives. Accordingly, the acceleration of trade, business, and investment on the continent must be resumed, albeit in a transparent and accountable manner as mentioned above.

Finally, Canada must continue to leverage already established relationships through enhanced participation in organizations such as La Francophonie, which provide a multilateral platform for cooperation with African nations. Beyond the simple diplomatic and economic benefts that such communities bring to all parties involved, they also further the beneft of the peoples that make up the nations involved, and allow the fostering of culture within an international forum, something many developing nations have previously been lacking, but that will ultimately allow for establishment of national identities that are outside of the pressure of other involved nations.


In conclusion, Africa’s importance to the PRC is unquestionable, as the superpower’s economic and geopolitical interests are both furthered by access to cheap labour and resources through the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. As such, Africa must be seen as an area of concern for the Government of Canada and western nations. With the winding down of major combat operations in the Middle East, Canada is poised to resume its commitments elsewhere in the world. Consequently, it needs to acknowledge both the opportunities and needs in the African continent, seeking infrastructure, development, and progress, and support them accordingly.

Overall, China is well positioned to continue rising as a world power, whereas the western hemisphere is only slowly emerging from a global pandemic. Although involvement and infuence on the continent is not wholly zero-sum, there is a price to be paid indirectly over time in allowing free fowing engagement of a perceived adversary within an area of interest. As the adage goes—“never interrupt your enemy in making a mistake”—and the PRC is surely following this mantra as it expands its Sino-African relationship unchecked, while the West grapples with a post-COVID world establishment.

As international cooperation and trade ramps up following a pandemic-induced slumber, Canada has the opportunity to bolster itself as an involved nation in a developing region of the world. It remains to be seen how the Government of Canada, fresh out of a federal election, will choose to manage its international relations in the region. What is certain, however, is that the current void of partnership in Africa will be flled, be it by Canada, the PRC, or some other entity moving forward.

Wednesday, 10 November, 2021 - 22:00