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

Published on 20th July 2022


  • The Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) 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 involved more than 1,600 African policymakers 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 embracing corruption as a tool of trade.
  • The study further established that while African policymakers appreciate Europe's value-based policies, they are often perceived as paternalistic.
  • The study recommends that Europe must shift the locus of its engagement with Africa from aid to trade, recognize Africa as a strategic partner, and engage Africa as an equal partner.
  • For the African policymakers, the key recommendations are that African states should leverage on the choices and opportunities that the competition between the EU and China in Africa presents but guard against debt traps and expensive tradeoffs embedded in short-term gains at the expense of long-term interests.   


China’s successful edging out of Europe as a major trading partner and investor in Africa in the areas of large infrastructure projects and exploitation of raw materials has put European trade, investment and development policies in Africa to a severe test. To better understand the strategies of Europe and China and how they are perceived in Africa, and to give recommendations for European and Africa policymakers, the Global Partnership Hub of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation commissioned a Kenyan private think tank, IREN (Inter Region Economic Network), to conduct an independent survey study among 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 Africa policy and expose Europe’s sometimes 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 behavior of the two partners (EU and China)," says Stefan Schott, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in East Africa Project Director. "To put it simply: A road completed in record time by the Chinese is a value in the perception of Africans and more concrete than abstract European projects to promote democracy, human rights or sustainability."

The survey participants rate China highly with regards to quick decision-making. China has a massive approval of 75.2% over the European Union at only 55.8%. China is highly rated on timely completion of projects at 81.1% compared to 69.4% for the European Union. Though both China and the EU are perceived as meddlesome in the internal affairs of African partners, China is perceived to be less so at 50.1% compared to the EU at 64.4%. However, China is seen to have fewer scruples with regards to employing corruption as a tool of trade. The survey results show 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 the cooperation. These include quality of the products or services delivered, good working conditions, employing local workers and creating jobs for Africans, upholding environmental standards, and better treatment of Africans. The scores are as follows:

  • According to the perception results, the EU is strongest in delivery of high-quality products and services. 93.5% of policymakers perceive the EU as delivering high-quality products and services compared to 67.9% for China;
  • In job creation and the employment of local workers, the EU scores 84.8% against China’s 71.7%;
  • The EU also scores highly in upholding environmental standards at 82.5% compared to 58.5% for China;
  • The EU is 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 perceive the EU favorably 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 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 a continent of opportunities.

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

  • Policy and partnership options: Africa has options. With multiple suitors, influencers and distributed geopolitical centers of gravity, Africa can optimize on its policy and partner options in trade, investment, and development co-operation;
  • Risky trade-offs: While embracing and building on the momentum for development that China has injected into the continent, African policymakers must not sacrifice the long-term good of the continent for short-term benefits. Policymakers must be careful to safeguard against the pitfalls of “bling” projects;
  • Risk of debt traps: African policymakers must avoid getting irretrievably enmeshed in debt traps;
  • Digital security and data protection: In the era of increasing digitalization and surveillance capitalism, African states must put a premium on digital security and data protection.

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

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 and journalists, scientists, employees of think tanks, NGOs, business associations and government institutions. More than 1,000 people filled out the online questionnaire, which corresponds to a response rate of 62%.

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom:

The Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) is a German/European foundation interested in better understanding the activities of, and competition between, Europe and China in the field of development cooperation and investments in Africa.

The Global Partnership Hub:

The Global Partnership Hub is the Foundation's center 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):

IREN Kenya has over the years built institutional capacity in geopolitical matters through its annual Eastern Africa Thought Leaders and Africa Resource Bank forums. IREN Kenya pioneered non-state-led meetings on Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meetings from 2010 – 2015 on topics such as Peace and Security Cooperation; China-Africa Think Tanks Forum, China-Africa Media Forum and China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Programme. IREN Kenya has since 2001 been collaborating with European organizations on development cooperation and how to further partnerships that are beneficial to both Africa and the European Union.

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