The origins of Sino-African relations can be traced back to the voyages of famed Chinese admiral and explorer Zheng He, who arrived in Eastern Africa, near modern day Kenya, during his fifth voyage in 1417. Zheng had arrived on behalf of the Yongle Emperor to increase the Chinese Ming Dynasty’s reputation and prestige by showcasing China’s wealth and military prowess through generous gifts to local rulers and defeating piracy in the Indian Ocean. The Yongle Emperor ultimately hoped that by exercising China’s power and prestige, many of these kingdoms would declare themselves tributary states of Great Ming and integrate their kingdoms into China’s political and economic networks.

Understanding who Zheng He was, and why he was sent to Africa, is important in understanding contemporary China’s current relationship with developing countries across the world. Although Chinese goods had been in circulation in the Horn of Africa since Late Antiquity, this occasion would mark the first time Chinese merchants and officials traded directly with the inhabitants of the region. More than six centuries after China first began direct contact with Africans, Beijing continues to deepen its economic networks with African states. In 2000, the total value of Sino-African trade was $10.5 billion. In a little over a decade later in 2011, it had already increased to $166 Billion, with the trade deficit favoring China by $19.5 billion. By 2009, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s leading trade partner, and Chinese economic ties with Africa only continue to grow.

The growing Sino-African trade has mutual benefits for both parties. For China, Africa offers an abundance of natural resources and raw materials which are needed to continue Chinese economic growth. The majority of African exports to China include mineral fuels, lubricants, iron ore and food; while the majority of Chinese exports to Africa are machinery, transportation and manufactured goods. In exchange for the relatively cooperative nature of African states in fueling China’s increasing dependence on imported goods from Africa, China has invested significantly in the economic development of African nations such as Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 2000 and 2014, China loaned more than $86 billion to Africa. As the Brookings Institute summarizes:

What China offers Africa is not a blank check and a guaranteed result. Instead, Beijing offers Africa the opportunity to speed up its economic development based on the infrastructure China develops, to utilize the technologies, employment, and market opportunities China creates, and to stimulate the desire and competition for growth through market-based rather than assistance-based approach.

Sino-African economic relations are not based on altruism from either side, but rather from the mutually beneficial relationship that the two have developed. For example, the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis found that there was a massive trade imbalance between Kenya and China which heavily favored the latter. In2017, they found that Kenyan exports to China were valued $98.6 million while imports from China were $3.9 billion. Yet despite this disadvantage, Kenya still benefits from trade with China. It is clear that Beijing favors Kenya, granting the nation privileges such as being the first African nation allowed to export goods such as avocados into the Chinese market. China has also been working with Kenya to lessen the severity of the trade imbalance. 

Yet, Chinese economic efforts in Africa have not been without its challenges. In 2011, Zambians voted out President Rupiah Banda, who closely aligned Zambia with China and encouraged efforts to increase greater Chinese investment in his country. Zambians had been outraged when in 2006, Chinese copper mine managers opened fire at Zambian workers protesting for better work conditions, injuring several Zambians. Zambia’s election showcased the resentment many Africans feel towards China’s growing economic influence in the region. Michael Sata, who would go on to unseat Banda in the election, stated on the campaign trail that “Zambia has become a province of China…The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa” and tapped into anti-Chinese sentiments to defeat Banda.  After Sata’s government pressured Chinese mines to raise the wages of Zambian workers and passed legislation that prevented foreign investors from avoiding Zambian taxes. However, Sata was unable to achieve the majority of his promises due to his early death in 2014.

Similar sentiments are even more widespread in developing countries closer to China. Although China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was created in the hopes of enhancing greater economic connectivity between Eastern Europe and Asia, there has been intense skepticism amongst China’s neighbors, especially those in Central Asia. Central Asian states have received large sums of  Chinese investment in the region— China invested $20 billion on joint projects in Kazakhstan alone. While Chinese investments have produced an economic boon in the region, many inhabitants of Central Asia have become increasingly agitated due to the poor working conditions amongst Chinese corporations as well as the environmental damage inflicted by said companies. It is clear that while the government and business elites of the region have prospered due to growing Chinese investments, the same cannot be said for the working class.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are prime examples of both the benefits of Chinese investment as well as the potential pitfalls. Both states have recently received Chinese help in constructing powerplants and roads in the region, providing much needed infrastructure development as both nations struggle to recover from the economic fallout of the Great Recession. However, both nations are also heavily indebted to China. China accounts for 45.3% of Kyrgyzstan’s external debt and 51.1% of Tajikistan’s external debt, highlighting China’s vast economic influence over these two nations. This is in stark contrast with Kazakhstan, which has a large and diversified economy to benefit from Chinese investments without becoming too indebted to its eastern neighbor, with China only accounting for 9% of Kazakhstan’s external debt.

Kazakhstan has much to gain from the BRI, as infrastructure investments which pave the way for BRI would likely lead to roughly equally distributed investments across Kazakhstan that would benefit both rural and urban districts in the sparsely populated country. While BRI would bring economic prosperity to Central Asia—especially Kazakhstan—both Kazakhs and their government are wary of China’s growing influence on their country. Kazakhstan is often viewed by policymakers as a geopolitical battleground between the Russian Federation and the Peoples’ Republic of China, as both great powers compete for influence and try to become the regional hegemon of Central Asia. Kazakhs are generally wary of aligning with either of the two nations, and many Kazakhs fear that embracing BRI would alienate their nation from Russia. While China’s economic contributions to Central Asia have been greatly beneficial to the development of infrastructure in the region, the Sino-Russian rivalry in the region has added a degree of uncertainty within the region. With nations such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan heavily reliant on China, it worries both the inhabitants of the region as well as policymakers in Moscow that BRI will firmly cement China’s economic dominance within the region.

Political rivalries and fears of hegemony lead us back to Zheng He, and why he is important in the context of China’s impact on developing countries. Chinese soft diplomacy emphasizes the history behind Zheng He precisely because his expeditions to the Indian Ocean and East Africa were largely peaceful. Part of Beijing’s efforts is to assure its neighbors that China’s intentions are peaceful, and it does so by invoking Zheng’s legacy. For example, Chinese State Councillor Dai Bingguo, who is a leading figure in foreign policy, said. “The voyages of Zheng He brought “porcelain, silk and tea rather than bloodshed, plundering or colonialism.” President Xi Jinping also invoked history to assuage fears that the BRI was paving the way to Chinese dominance, comparing the founding of the ancient Silk Road to the modern day BRI. President Xi also cited Zheng’s legacy, describing him alongside Han Dynasty Ambassador Zhang Qian as “friendly emissaries leading camel caravans and sailing treasure-loaded ships” who “built a bridge for peace and East-West cooperation”.

As China’s economic impact on developing countries continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly important for China to create a better image of the nation abroad. Zheng’s legacy is important for Chinese soft power due to growing uncertainty amongst these developing countries of China’s intentions. While trade and investment have provided a strong foundation for China’s relationship with many developing countries, only by building trust can China hope to deepen its relationship with her trading partners. To achieve this, China must focus on increasing cultural and historical dialogue with her neighbors, as economics can only go so far in reducing animosity and uncertainty.

By Sun Woo Park