(In)Roads and Outposts: Critical Infrastructure in China’s Africa Strategy (Introduction)

(In)Roads and Outposts: Critical Infrastructure in China’s Africa Strategy

by Nadège Rolland
May 3, 2022

This is the introduction to the report “(In)Roads and Outposts: Critical Infrastructure in China’s Africa Strategy,” which examines the implications of China’s growing presence in Africa’s critical infrastructure.

The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) project “Into Africa: China’s Emerging Strategy” endeavors to examine where the African continent fits in relation to China’s overall strategic vision. Our first report, “A New Great Game? Situating Africa in China’s Strategic Thinking,” found that Africa is centrally situated in China’s strategic thinking in the Xi Jinping era.[1] Chinese elites have been pondering options that will lead the continent through a series of transformations, both economic and political, so that it can better fit within the subsystem that Beijing aspires to create and dominate. Among the options discussed is the possibility of exporting elements of China’s economic development model, more specifically the combined development of labor-intensive industries, special economic zones (SEZs) and industrial parks, and infrastructure building that China adopted in the early stages of its reform and opening- up period.[2]

The current report examines how this effort to “share China’s experience” is taking root in Africa and what strategic implications may arise from China’s growing presence in the continent’s critical infrastructure. Each essay sheds light on a specific domain of activity that China is particularly invested in: ports, railways, industrial parks, information and telecommunication networks, and electrical power generation. The collective work presented here goes beyond available discussions of debt management, possible economic spillovers, and impact on Africa’s environment or employment rates. It attempts to understand whether and how China’s investment in critical infrastructure may help generate strategic advantages and focuses on what this could mean in the context of China’s global ambitions.

In no other sector has China’s expanding footprint in Africa been more obvious than in infrastructure building. Over the past two decades, China has financed one in five infrastructure projects and built one in three projects. Over half the Chinese-funded projects are in the transportation sector (including shipping and ports), followed by energy and power.[3] As of 2018, Chinese companies had completed or were in the process of building 30,000 kilometers of highway, 20,000 megawatts of power-generation capacity, and over 30,000 kilometers of power transmission lines.[4] Dozens of Chinese-built airports and terminals, bridges, ports, power stations, stadiums, and parliament and other government buildings have sprung up across the continent.[5] Isaac Kardon finds in his essay that Chinese companies, acting as builders, financiers, owners, or operators, are involved in one out of four commercial ports in Africa—a higher level than has been observed anywhere else in the world. Railroad infrastructure is one of the largest sectors of Chinese financing and construction in Africa, notes Yunnan Chen. Chinese information and communications technology (ICT) companies such as Huawei have built the majority of Africa’s 4G networks and are involved in hundreds of projects, from carrier infrastructure to hardware, storage and software infrastructure, and software applications, points out Daria Impiombato in her essay. Erica Downs finds that Chinese contractors and financiers support 80 African coal and hydropower electrical generation projects. Likewise, Thierry Pairault notes that Chinese companies have established 25 overseas economic and commercial cooperation zones (OECCZs) throughout the continent to accommodate China’s national economic needs. Chinese actors are present across the board, all over the African map.

Since 2013, discussions related to China’s expanding role in and impact on global infrastructure building have mostly revolved around the deployment of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), branded as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) during the first two years following its launch. This is unsurprising considering Beijing’s public commitment to spend $1.3 trillion and its promotion of BRI’s infrastructure-building component as China’s generous contribution to closing the “infrastructure gap” faced by most developing countries. Initially, however, Africa was not officially included in the BRI scheme, which focused primarily on the 64 countries of the greater Eurasian continent.[6] The State Council’s March 2015 foundational “Vision and Actions” document did not mention Africa except when it described BRI as an effort to “connect Asian, European and African countries more closely,”[7] and BRI did not appear in China’s second white paper on Africa, published in December 2015.[8] Even the Johannesburg Declaration, issued in December 2015 following that year’s summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), remained vague about exploring possible linkages of BRI with African development agendas.[9]

Several prominent figures were early advocates of the continent’s inclusion into the BRI fold. Lin Songtian, director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Africa department, repeatedly expressed the view that Africa is an “important direction” for the construction of BRI,[10] while Lin Yifu, former World Bank chief economist and senior vice president, pushed for the realization of not just OBOR but “One Belt, One Road, One Continent.”[11] Was Africa an afterthought in Beijing’s grand vision? It does not appear so. In a 2015 interview, Ambassador Liu Guijin, China’s special representative for African affairs, indicated that the government intentionally did not officially include Africa within BRI in order to “avoid unnecessary speculation from the outside world, especially from conspiracy theorists who will say that China seeks geopolitical advantages and is intent on confronting whomever.”[12] Instead, during his May 2014 visit to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya, Premier Li Keqiang put forward the idea of “three networks and one-ization” (san wang yi hua), a flavorsome condensed formula for “three infrastructure networks (high-speed railways, expressways, regional aviation) and one industrialization” that many Chinese experts considered at the time to be the African version of BRI.[13] The incremental “Africanization” of BRI, or integration of Africa within the Belt and Road strategy, started with the December 2015 Johannesburg Summit in response to African countries’ “increasingly positive attitude” toward China’s initiative.[14] They were later invited to join the May 2017 Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. The following year, in his opening address to FOCAC’s Beijing Summit in September 2018, Xi Jinping reiterated his willingness to create a “China- Africa community with a shared future” that would deliver “happiness for all of us.”[15] African governments responded enthusiastically to Xi’s call to join BRI. As of late 2019, in addition to the African Union as an institution, 43 individual countries had signed cooperation agreements with China, making over a third of BRI’s “circle of friends” African.[16] By 2021, the number had risen to 46,[17] and Xi could proudly announce at the November 2021 Dakar meeting that “almost all African members of FOCAC have joined the big family of Belt and Road cooperation.”[18]

Is being able to count a large number of African members as part of the BRI family China’s ultimate endgame? As observed earlier, from a strategic standpoint, Beijing appears keen on transforming the continent and preparing it to welcome China’s expanding presence. The development of critical infrastructure and industrial parks appears to be one key instrument that Beijing intends to use to help achieve this vision. As highlighted by a People’s Daily China’s Voice (Zhongsheng) op-ed published in 2017, the nature, structure, and overall vision for China’s cooperation with Africa have undergone major changes during recent years.[19] Rather than simply offering development aid, or buying minerals and natural resources, China is now attempting to “build a nest to attract the phoenix” (zhu chao yin feng).[20] The expression, regularly used by Xi Jinping and Wang Yi in the context of China’s Africa policy,[21] usually refers to Chinese local municipalities’ efforts to attract businesses and professional talent by providing quality infrastructure (e.g., electricity, sewage, and telecommunications) and financial incentives.[22] For Lin Songtian, “building a nest to attract phoenixes” is the essence of “China’s wisdom” that will help support Africa’s “independent and sustainable economic development.”[23] Which “phoenixes” will find Africa’s China-built infrastructure and industrial “nests” most comfortable?

The report is divided into five essays that address separate sectors in sequence. In his essay on port infrastructure, Isaac Kardon examines the push and pull factors that have led Chinese companies to invest in African commercial ports. Although economic objectives, rather than military basing, appear to be China’s primary interests, “‘strategic strongpoint’ ports are not envisioned as standalone projects but rather as platforms for building and sustaining an integrated Chinese presence.” Djibouti offers a striking example of how such an ecosystem can be established past the pier.

Yunnan Chen argues that similar push and pull factors explain Chinese interest in building African railroad infrastructure. Chinese overcapacity and capital abundance met clear demands and needs from African states at a moment when multilateral development banks were disengaged and uninterested. Beyond evident commercial benefits, China gains long-term advantages by creating linkages among Chinese-financed projects and establishing a presence within African rail management bureaucracies.

Daria Impiombato finds a similar mix of commercial and potential political gains as she examines the upward trajectory of Chinese tech giants in Africa, a region that has become crucial to China’s increased influence in the telecommunications sector. Chinese ICT companies enjoy a nearly absolute dominance over the continent’s digital infrastructure. In a world increasingly defined by competition among great powers, the “dissemination and adoption of critical and emerging technology can play a pivotal role in the degree of influence these powers have in the international arena.”

Erica Downs’s study of China’s role in the development of power-generation capacity in Africa uncovers similar patterns. Push factors from China’s side combine with African demands and needs to produce serendipitous results. Beyond market opportunities for Chinese companies and the export of Chinese industrial standards, Chinese-supported power plants have “contributed to a positive shift in perceptions of Africa among external investors and development financiers.”

In the final essay, Thierry Pairault looks beyond Beijing’s alluring invocation of industrial parks as a way for African states to emulate China’s early economic development model and facilitate Africa’s industrialization. Peeling off the misleading characterization of these parks as replicates of the SEZs established in China in the early years of its reform and opening-up era, he finds that OECCZs are akin to “quasi-extra-territorialized” appendages designed to “generate Sinicized ecosystems abroad in order to boost Chinese economic development at home.” Rather than sharing elements of China’s development model with African countries, African-based OECCZs appear as a 21st-century Chinese version of the 19th-century Western enclaves established in China.

When all the layers of activity are overlaid, what emerges is a map of the African continent crisscrossed with projects that could easily be integrated into a unified whole: electrified railways connecting to ports encased within digitally connected industrial parks, ready to export natural resources, materials, and manufactured products to overseas clients. Seen in this way, the purpose of China’s African critical infrastructure building seems not an end in itself but a means to a larger end: preparing Africa to play a role in relation to China similar to the role China has played so far in relation to the West. The transformation of Africa into an integrated and efficiently connected low-cost manufacturing platform could, in the longer term, also facilitate the emergence of a class of African consumers eager to buy Chinese higher-end products. In short, as China secures its long-term presence in African critical infrastructure, it may be outlining the future map of Sinocentric globalization.


[1] Nadège Rolland, “A New Great Game? Situating Africa in China’s Strategic Thinking,” National Bureau of Asian Research, NBR Special Report, no. 91, June 2021.

[2] He Wenping, “Zhongguo jingyan yu Feizhou fazhan: Jiejian, ronghe yu chuangxin” [China’s Experience and Africa’s Development: Reference, Integration, and Innovation], Xiya Feizhou, no. 4 (2017); and Lin Yifu, “Feizhou ying cong Zhongguo gongyehua Jincheng xuexi shenme” [What Africa Should Learn from China’s Industrialization Process], Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), January 6, 2016, https://fmprc.gov.cn/zflt/chn/zfgx/zfgxjmhz/t1329671.htm. For more detail, see Rolland, “A New Great Game,” 21–24.

[3] Hannah Marais and Jean-Pierre Labuschagne, “If You Want to Prosper, Consider Building Roads: China’s Role in African Infrastructure and Capital Projects,” Deloitte Insights, March 22, 2019, https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/public-sector/china-investment- africa-infrastructure-development.html.

[4] Feng Qiyu, “Zhong Fei ‘shida hezuo jihua’ jingmao jucuo quanmian luoshi” [China-Africa “Ten Major Cooperation Plans” Economic and Trade Measures Fully Implemented], Economic Times, August 29, 2018, http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2018-08/29/content_5317272.htm.

[5] Liu Qingjian, “Zhong Fei hezuo fazhan de xiandao zyoyong yu Yidai Yilu changyi” [The Leading Role of China-Africa Development Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative], Contemporary World, no. 6 (2018): 68–71.

[6] Nadège Rolland, China’s Eurasian Century: Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (NBR: Seattle, 2017).

[7] National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce (PRC), “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building Belt and Road,” March 28, 2015, http://www.china.org.cn/china/Off_the_Wire/2015-03/28/content_35182638.htm.

[8] “Full Text: China’s Second Africa Policy Paper,” Xinhua, December 5, 2015, http://www.china.org.cn/world/2015-12/05/content_37241677.htm.

[9] “Declaration of the Johannesburg Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs (PRC), December 10, 2015, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/2649_665393/201512/t20151210_679428.html.

[10] “Lin Songtian da Zhong ping: Yidai Yilu kending hui yanshen dao Feizhou” [Lin Songtian to China Review News: The Belt and Road Will Definitely Extend to Africa], CRNTT.com, May 8, 2015, http://hk.crntt.com/doc/1037/4/3/0/103743083.html?coluid=70&kindid=1 850&docid=103743083; and “Feizhou shi jianshe Yidai Yilu de zhongyao fangxiang he luojiaodian: Fang waijiaobu Feizhousi sichang Lin Songtian” [Africa Is an Important Direction and Foothold for the Construction of Belt and Road: Interview with Lin Songtian, Director of the Africa Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs], Center for African Studies of Shanghai Normal University, September 5, 2016, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:qtDYLvD6AoQJ:shcas.shnu.edu.cn/2016/0905/c18799a517753/page. psp+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us.

[11] Lin Yifu, “‘Yidai Yilu’ xuyao jiashang ‘yizhou’” [“One Belt, One Road” Must Add “One Continent”], Guancha, January 19, 2015, https:// www.guancha.cn/LinYiFu/2015_01_19_306718.shtml?web.

[12] Liu Guijin, “Zhongguo you Feizhou ban de Yidai Yilu jihua” [China Has an African Version of the Belt and Road], Takungpao, June 1, 2015, available at http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:HXskY-fvXNsJ:222.xinshishe.net/3g/Show.asp%3Fm%3D1%26d%3D2 9673+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=safari.

[13] Yun Sun, “The Sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation: New Agenda and New Approach?” in “Foresight Africa: Top Priorities for the Continent in 2015,” Brookings Institution, December 30, 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/china-africa- cooperation-sun-2.pdf; and “Waijiaobu: Yuan tong Feizhou gongtong tuijin ‘san wang yi hua’ he channeng hezuo” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Willing to Work with Africa to Jointly Promote the “Three Networks and One-Ization” and Production Capacity Cooperation], Xinhua, September 21, 2015, http://www.xinhuanet.com/world/2015-09/21/c_1116631655.htm. See also “Zhong Wai xuezhe tan Zhong Fei hezuo: ‘San wang yi hua’ shi Feizhou ban ‘Yidai Yilu’” [Chinese and Foreign Scholars Discuss China-Africa Cooperation: “Three Networks and One-Ization” Is the African Version of “Belt and Road”], People’s Daily, September 11, 2015, http://world.people.com.cn/n/2015/0911/c1002-27569764.html.

[14] Zhao Chenguang, “‘Er gui waijiao’ zhuli Yidai Yilu changyi zai Feizhou de tuijin” [“Track-2 Diplomacy” Helps Advancing Belt and Road Initiative in Africa], Journal of Liaoning University 46, no. 1 (2018).

[15] “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Speech at Opening Ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit,” China.org, September 5, 2018, http://www. china.org.cn/world/2018-09/05/content_62273841.htm.

[16] The data was offered by Gu Shengzu, vice-chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. See “Guanyu tuijin Yidai Yilu Zhong Fei hezuo de shitiao jianyi” [Ten Suggestions on Promoting China-Africa Cooperation Under the Belt and Road], China National Democratic Construction Association, November 6, 2019, http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/ search?q=cache:PYHc041Bt4MJ:www.cndca.org.cn/eportal/ui%3FpageId%3D458511%26articleKey%3D1439044%26columnId%3D461315+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us. See also Zhao, “‘Er gui waijiao’ zhuli ‘Yidai Yilu’ changyi zai Feizhou de tuijin.”

[17] Wang Yi, “Forge Ahead Together to Deliver a Brighter Future for China and Africa” (remarks, Beijing, May 25, 2021), https://www.fmprc. gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjdt_665385/zyjh_665391/202105/t20210527_9170549.html.

[18] “Keynote Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at Opening Ceremony of 8th FOCAC Ministerial Conference,” FOCAC, December 2, 2021, http://www.focac.org/eng/gdtp/202112/t20211202_10461080.htm.

[19] Zhongsheng is a pen name typically used by the People’s Daily editorial board to express views on foreign policy and international affairs. See David Gitter and Leah Fang, “ The Chinese Communist Party’s Use of Homophonous Pen Names: An Open-Source Open Secret,” Asia Policy 13, no. 1 (2018): 69–112.

[20] Zhongsheng, “Dang Zhongguo zhuli Feizhou jinru ‘kuaishidai’” [When China Helps Africa Enter the “Accelerated Era”], People’s Daily, January 12, 2017, http://opinion.people.com.cn/n1/2017/0112/c1003-29016590.html.

[21] “Xi zhuxi guanyu Feizhou de naxie jin ju” [President Xi’s Golden Words about Africa], Xinhua, December 1, 2015, http://www.xinhuanet. com/world/2015-12/01/c_128487410.htm; and Zhang Shuo, “Xi Jinping tan dui Feizhou hezuo: Shourenyiyubang zhuchaoyinfeng” [Xi Jinping Talks about Cooperation with Africa: Teach People How to Fish, Build Nest to Attract Phoenixes], Ifeng, April 8, 2014, http:// sd.ifeng.com/dongying/xinwenzaobanche/detail_2014_04/08/2098450_0.shtml.

[22] Qi Hang, “Cong ‘zhuchaoyinfeng’ dao ‘weifengzhuchao’” [From “Building Nests to Attract Phoenixes” to “Building Nests For Phoenixes”], Huanqiu, January 18, 2017, https://finance.huanqiu.com/article/9CaKrnJZOal.

[23] Lin Songtian, “Quanmian luoshi Zhong Fei fenghui chengguo, tuijin Zhong Fei hezuo fazhan mai shang xin taijie” [Fully Implement the Outcomes of the China-Africa Summit, Advance China-Africa Cooperation to a New Level], Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, undated, http://www.cpifa.org/cms/book/64.

Nadège Rolland is Senior Fellow for Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research. She is the author of “A New Great Game? Situating Africa in China’s Strategic Thinking” (2021), “China’s Vision for a New World Order” (2020), and the monograph China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (2017). She is also editor of the report “An Emerging China-Centric Order: China’s Vision for a New World Order in Practice” (2020).