African Policymakers’ Perceptions of the Competition Between Europe and China in Africa

Published on 28th June 2022

A study release on African policymakers’ perceptions of the competition between Europe and China in Africa


  • The Friedrich Naumann Foundation commissioned an independent survey study to establish the perceptions of Africa’s policymakers on the competition between Europe and China in Africa.
  • The survey carried out over the period October – December 2021 was conducted by IREN and targeted more than 1,600 African policy-makers drawn from Africa’s 8 Regional Economic Blocs (RECs) and covered three key areas: trade, investment and development co-operation.
  • The study established that China has competitive advantage in four areas underlying its success in Africa: quick decisions, faster implementation of projects, non-interference in internal affairs and using corruption as a tool of trade.
  • The study further established that while African policymakers appreciate Europe's value-based policies, these policies are often perceived to be paternalistic.
  • The outstanding recommendation for European politicians and policymakers is that Europe must shift the locus of its engagement with Africa from aid to trade. Europe must recognise Africa as a strategic partner and continent of immense opportunities. To compete favourably, Europe should engage Africa as an equal partner rather than rely on the traditional patronage system.
  • For the African policymakers, the key recommendations are that African states should not only leverage the choices and opportunities that the competition between the EU and China in Africa present, but must also guard against the risks of debt traps and expensive trade-offs that may be embedded in short-term gains at the expense of long-term interests.

Over the past fifteen years, China has successfully positioned itself as a major trading partner and investor in Africa, displacing Europe as the most important partner in large infrastructure projects and the exploitation of raw materials. This competition by China puts European trade, investment and development policies in Africa to a rocky test. In order to better understand the different strategies of Europe and China and how they are perceived in Africa and further develop recommendations for European and Africa policymakers, the Global Partnership Hub of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation commissioned a Kenyan private think tank, Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), to conduct an independent study and key informant survey involving African policymakers. The results of the online survey have now been presented in a study entitled "The Clash of Systems - African Perception of the European Union and China Engagement".

“The African survey participants hold up a mirror to European policy on Africa and expose Europe’s sometimes still paternalistic and romantic view of Africa.

Europe's belief in the superiority of its own values contrasts with the pragmatic view of Africans on the performance and behaviour of the two partners (the EU and China)," says Stefan Schott, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in East Africa Project Director. "To put it simply: A road that is completed after a short construction period by the Chinese is also a value in the perception of Africans and more concrete than some European projects to promote democracy, human rights or sustainability."

The survey participants rated China highly especially with regards to quick decision-making. China received a massive approval rating of 75.2% over the European Union at only 55.8%. China was highly rated on timely completion of projects at 81.1% compared to 69.4% for the European Union. Though both China and the EU were perceived as meddlesome in the internal affairs of African partners, China was perceived to be less so at 50.1% compared to the EU at 64.4%. However, China was seen to have fewer scruples with regards to employing corruption as a tool of trade. The survey results showed that 55.2% of the policymakers believe that China uses corruption as a tool compared to 32.5% who think the same of the EU.

The EU, however, retains dominance in many aspects of cooperation where respondents perceive the EU as having an advantage. These include the following: quality of the products or services delivered, working conditions, employing local workers and creating jobs for Africans, upholding environmental standards and better treatment of Africans. The scores were as follows:

  • According to the perception results, the EU is strongest on delivery of high-quality products and services, with 93.5% of policymakers perceive the EU as delivering high-quality products and services compared to 67.9% for China
  • This is followed by job creation and employment of local workers in which the EU scored 84.8% against China’s 71.7%
  • The EU also scored highly in upholding environmental standards at 82.5% compared to 58.5% for China
  • The EU was also perceived as performing better in providing better working conditions at 70.5% compared to China’s 55.7%
  • 61.3% of the policymakers also perceived the EU favourably in terms of its treatment of Africans as equal partners compared to 51.4% for China.

“While the EU outperforms China on most performance indicators, China continues to gain ground in Africa. This apparent paradox is easy to explain: obviously, the aspects of cooperation where China is strong are of particular relevance to the African partners,” explains James Shikwati, Founder and CEO of IREN. "In particular, China is focusing on large, material projects, while Europe in Africa is focusing on smaller and often more abstract projects."

China has a commanding competitive advantage when it comes to large construction projects in Africa. Chinese state-owned companies have significantly changed the terrain of the continent with rails, roads, bridges, ports, dams and skyscrapers. This is also reflected in the survey of African policymakers. The statement “China supports the development of infrastructure in Africa” was supported by 85.5% of the respondents. This is an emphatic approval compared to Europe’s 64.2 percent.

The study recommends that in order to be able to compete with the centrally controlled China, the EU with its 27 member states and the complicated decision-making processes has a structural disadvantage. Against this background, the study recommends streamlining and accelerating the decision-making processes in the EU.

The study further recommends that Europeans must redefine their outdated and paternalistic approach to Africa. Africa should no longer be perceived as a recipient of aid, but as a continent of future opportunities.

For the African policymakers, the following are key observations and recommendations emerging from the study:

Policy and partnership options: Africa has options. With multiple suitors, influencers and distributed geopolitical centres of gravity, Africa can optimise on its policy and partner options. Africa states can and should leverage this advantage to optimise the continent’s trade, investment and development co-operation potential Risky trade-offs: While embracing and building on the momentum for development that China has injected into the continent, African policymakers must be careful not to sacrifice the long-term good of the continent for short-term benefits. Of particular concern is the kind of trade, investment and development co-operation contracts procured and the quality of especially the large infrastructural projects undertaken. Policymakers must be cautious about the pitfalls of “bling” projects.

Risk of debt traps: African policymakers must learn from the experience from elsewhere to avoid getting irretrievably enmeshed in debt traps.

Digital security and data protection: In the era of increasing digitalization and surveillance capitalism, the African states must put a premium on digital security and data protection. This is critical because these emerging digital megatrends shape the new frontier for global competition, development and security.

The study "The Clash of Systems - African Perception of the European Union and China Engagement" is now available on the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom website.

Download the Study Here

The survey

The survey of African policymakers took place between October and December 2021. Respondents come from over 25 African countries and 12 countries outside of Africa. The questionnaire was mainly sent to people from academia: journalists, scientists, employees of think tanks, NGOs, business associations and government institutions. More than 1000 people filled out the online questionnaire, which constituted a response rate of 62%.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) is a German political foundation that promotes liberal democracy. Founded in 1958, the Foundation is headquartered in Potsdam, and operates globally through its offices in over 60 countries around the world. Currently, FNF’s work is organized around 4 core areas; social market economy, open society, education and international politics.

The Global Partnership Hub

The Global Partnership Hub is the Foundation's centre of excellence for development cooperation. Based in Nairobi, the Hub works with partners from the Global South to develop innovative approaches to development policy and feeds them into the political discourse.

IREN (Inter Region Economic Network)

The Inter Region Economic Network (IREN Kenya) is a leading independent African Think Tank that promotes ideas and strategies geared towards catalysing prosperity in Africa through research, publications, events, consultancy and engaging Small and Medium Sized Enterprises.

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