Investigating Dynamic Parameters in the War-Torn Continent: Sino-French Rivalry in Africa



The aftermath of 1980, the proclamation of neoliberal theory by Ronal Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, capital and service flux were accelerated and thanks to that, new actors in the international arena have appeared. The most significant factor in this recent trend in international politics is China. By its significant efforts in economics, China became a gravity center in Extreme Asia thanks to its economic influence. In addition to this economic influence, it strived to extend its political influence in Africa. What gets our attraction in its bias, rivalry between France, its power based on colonial heritage, and China. In the latter process, this rivalry evolved into an advantageous partnership. To examine this evolution, we have to first look at French-African relations from the colonial period to contemporary interactions. Second, we will delve into Sino African rapprochement from the 1960s. And finally, we will compare French and Chinese cooperation in Africa.


French-African Relations

To treat Africa in a proper way, we have to first analyze France’s positioning in cultural and economic order in African states.

French Presence in Africa as cultural power and Bourdieu’s approach

In this part, we will start by delving into cultural order in African states. But, how can we apply a cultural approach into politics? To do that, we will refer to what Bourdieu suggested about production of inequality. According to Bourdieu, education is a sole source of how the dominant group is relatively superior to dominated groups. During the Industrial Revolution, the bourgeoisie became more visible and powerful and was a part of power in Occident. To preserve its position on power, it has invented a new set of tool, such as education to differentiate itself within other social groups. It means, bourgeoisie invented its “habitus”.  Thus, only the graduates from prominent universities or some groups which completed designated formations had the right to hold power. Bourdieu’s approach find itself in a proper position in Africa case because of the fact that France’s mainstay was formed by cultural dimension. According to UN rapport, the number of the daily newspaper in Africa which are published in French is 114[1]. By the framework of this, Africa foresees the world in the eyes of France. Also, amid the most qualified universities in Africa, 58 of them use French as an academic language[2]. It means, Africa discovers the world through French education model. That’s why most of the African leaders in the decolonization period were influenced by the political thoughts in France. For example, Félix HOUPHOUET-BOIGNY, Ahmed Ben BELLA, Patrice LUMUMBA and Aimé Cesaire shaped continent’s future by French education model and political thoughts. The period which these leaders lived in was a substantial moment for the peak of Existentialism and Constructivism in France. The works published during the decolonization period constructed cornerstones in African political organization. For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Foucault’s works were influential on African leaders’ opinion. On the one hand, this tendency in the formation of the political environment. On the other hand, elite cadres resembled in African countries. In addition to this formation manner, as Pierre Bourdieu said that, the production of inequality has been prioritized in governance just like the French governance system. France got signed “accords de défense” just before it had left its colonies. At the same time, as Bourdieu insisted, France implemented “governor habitus” to local elites. By doing this, France gained both political power at the macro level and linguistic advantageousness at micro level through which it can remain active in the region.

France as an economic power and Immanuel Wallerstein’s “center-periphery” approach

In this part, we will observe France’s economic power which is one of the elements amid France’s soft power. To evaluate it, we will take into account Immanuel Wallerstein’s theory. According to him, there are two types of country in the international scene: Countries at center and countries at periphery. Second type countries adopted a production model in accordance with the needs of first type countries. At this model, first type countries always gain comparative benefits because of the fact that first one can focus on the production of goods with high added value. These products cannot be understood not only materials but also a human resource. If we examine Africa by this understanding, France had economic control over the countries which were its colonies just before the decolonization process, until the 1960s. In addition, France enhanced its political view with the EU’s support through development aids to African countries. Therefore, France can disguise its national interests by claiming that its policy doesn’t reflect France’s intentions, it reflects the EU’s aims. Meanwhile, France performed a good image thanks to cognitive differentiation in the region. France is no longer a colonialist power in Africa. At this point, the most important factor is education because of the fact that qualified persons could facilitate inter-state trade. For this reason, France had embraced efficient and pro-active policies in higher education. For instance, African students in French universities were 110.936 in 2006. The most interesting part of this data is 28.000 African students who studied in France rest in France to continue their career. When we look at recent data, we can easily see what this policy is so gainful to France’s foreign policy. In 2016, 134.000 African students came to French universities[3]. From this point, we can assume that France formed high-class elites as well as upper-middle-class in order to benefit economic and social profits by subjugating them through French culture. As Wallerstein mentioned, de facto, France is the first type country in Africa, especially in Western Africa. In addition to France’s position, African countries profiled in this trade model according to symbiotic relations and liberalist theory, as well.

Sino-African Relations

In the first section, we have analyzed French-African relations. Here, we will probe into Chinese foreign policy approach in Africa due to the fact that China is always an actor, albeit its influence. To understand China’s position in Africa, we will first dig out Chinese foreign policy from  the decolonization process to 2001. Second, we will examine China’s economic influence in Africa. Finally, we will try to find out why China cares about Africa in a strategic manner.

From Decolonization process to 2001: Chinese Foreign Policy

In this part, we are eager to observe Chinese foreign policy approach between the 1960s and 2001. First, as we know, China was a country which had been torn apart by World War’s effects in domestic life. Nevertheless, China has aided African countries by underscoring the “principle of Pingdeng”[4]. For example, China was the first state who recognized Algeria as a sovereign State, except Arab states. In addition to the principle of Pingdeng, another principle which affects China’s foreign policy is “essence of Ren” that can be explained by Confucius. Confucius once said, “A benevolent person loves people”. This principal indicates Chinese medical cooperation with developing countries during the Cold War. For instance, in January 1963, China was the first to express its willingness to provide medical assistance to Algeria. Also, China played a central role for the African liberation movement during the Bandung Conference in 1955. To do that, China endeavoured to increase its soft power. Another example is quite significant to show China’s policy. In 1972, Benin could stand thanks to Chinese diplomatic support. In this case, we have to highlight China’s other intention, otherwise, it could seem like an angel. Besides China’s efforts to save Benin régime, China established a cigarette factory[5]. So, we can easily say that China has also economic drivers to invest or to support African people during the Cold War.  As Brautigam notes, of the major Chinese agriculture investments in Africa between 1987 and 2003, half of them were former Chinese aid projects. These examples are quite important to interpret Chinese action because of the fact that China’s world view is more different than the Western one. China makes forbearingly its policy as an Eastern country. For example, whereas Washington consensus is based on conditionality, Beijing consensus doesn’t stipulate any condition at the first place. Instead, China gradually releases its aids to convince other State[6]. Based upon this example, we can submit that China’s foreign policy is based on two factors, one of them is quite earlier, the second one is the “new era” notion: Economy and Strategy

China as economic power: Mutual partnership

In this part, we will address China’s effectiveness in Africa as an economic power. As we have already mentioned, China gained economics benefits through diplomatic ways in Africa, such as a cigarette factory in Benin. But, after China’s economic boom, China gave credits to extend its influence over the region. These credits can be explained as follow: 60 billion dollars as humanitarian aid, 5 billion dollars as value-free credits, and 35 billion dollars as low-interest credits[7]. These credits are non-conditional in accordance with “Sense of Shu”. Thanks to that, China gained economics profits through its aid policy. First, China lessened its energy dependence.

This graph explains that China’s petroleum need has sharply increased. As a known fact, China is growing %10 per year. In this situation, China requires new resources areas around the world. In fact, even if this graph shows China’s need, why China especially focused on Africa? Energy policy of the United States responds to the question. As we know, ExxonMobil has Iraq and Syria petroleum since 2003. Another petroleum giant, British Petroleum had occupied and settled in oil-rich countries in the Middle East. According to BP’s annual booklet in 2016, the company operates North Africa, Oman, Yemen and Egypt[8]. In addition to that, as we know, the United States got pressure on Georgia, especially in petroleum. Due to these reasons, China has to focus on East and West Africa to meet its energy needs. For instance, China National Petroleum Company made %7,7 of Chad’s petroleum extraction in the first quarter of 2009[9]. Also, according to Yu Zheng, The China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec) acquired majority ownership of several oil blocks and formed a joint venture with Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company. These active decisions in Africa show us the fact that China is keen to reinforce its presence in the energy sector in Africa. Another example is China’s infrastructure investments in Africa. At this case, China Road and Bridge Company (CRBC) is a pioneer of China’s activeness. For instance, CRBC started to build railways between Nairobi and Naivasha. This investment was about 1,5 billion dollars. So, China has special ambitions to affect African countries.

III. China’s New “Heartland”: Africa

In this part, we will finally analyze China’s strategic gains in Africa. To understand China’s strategic trajectory, we have to overlook “GO” game. In a go game, the most important aim is to contain the enemy’s predictable movements. In comparison to the chest, you don’t destroy your enemy, or not aim one chess piece. When we comprehend this logic, we can find out why Africa is so important for China. To make sense of this game’s approach in politics, we will use Halford John Mackinder and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s approaches. According to Mackinder, we have to hold terrestrial influence in a region, we can have total control. In addition to this perspective, Brzezinski suggests that if a country wants to be a superpower, it has to take control of middle area in accordance with its strategic previsions. He adds that the United States won the Cold War because of the fact that Europe was its middle area in its strategic projections. As for China, Africa is the middle area through which it can apply its policy over the world due to the fact that Africa’s geopolitical position in contemporary politics is central stand, such as its demographic power, geographic location, and natural resources. On the one hand, the Middle East has been occupied by the United States and two ancient colonial powers, the United Kingdom and France. On the other hand, Africa is an intersection point of maritime roads. For example, if you take control in Africa, you can easily take control of Red Sea and road which goes along to the South China Sea. Likewise, China tries to be sea power, as Alfred Mahan suggested. Yet, the United States is far away powerful than China. According to the Ministry of Defense of Pakistan, China has only 2 aircraft careers whereas the United States has 12 aircraft careers. By this framework, coastal African countries have vital importance for China. For instance, while the civil war was keeping up in Sierra Leone, China bought the Bintumani Hotel in the center of Sierra Leone. This action approves the fact that Africa is the main pillar in China’s strategy. In addition to that, Xi Jinping said emphasized that they are fate companion with Africa during his speech on 4 December 2015. To sum up, Africa is a strategic postpone for China and that’s why China’s investments in Africa is increasing both economically and diplomatically.

 Rivalry to Partnership: Sino-French Relations in Africa

Till now, we have separately analyzed France and China’s foreign policy approaches in Africa. In this part, we will overlook their bilateral relations in the region. To comprehend this, we treat the subject under 3 parts: First, we will look at the period between 2001-2008. Second, we will delve into the 2008 Great Crisis and its effects in their policies. Finally, we examine after the 2012 period which can be identified as China’s lead in free trade.

 The Rivalry emerged after 2001: China and France in Africa

In this part, we will take into account their firs interactions in Africa. France is an important actor since XIX. century, firs colonization period. But, we have witnessed China’s aggressive involvement after 2001, its membership to WTO. From this date, we saw an active competition between ancient colonizers, France and the United Kingdom, and China. Of course, there were some signs of competition like the case of Algeria in 1958 and Benin in 1960 in which China was the first country that recognized them as a sovereign State. These two examples prove that China was an active actor in the region, but not an aggressive actor. As for France, it was ancient colonizer, yet it was influential at the political organization in the new States after the decolonization process, as we have already underscored in the first section. For instance, the founder father of Cote d’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny have completed its education at Ecole normale William Ponty. In fact, we can’t see a real confrontation in Africa between China and France in a political manner. We can say that France and the United Kingdom was dominant in Africa until 2001. In the case of France, the “accords de défense” were strong proofs of what we claimed. By these treaties, even if France had retreated from these countries, such as the French army, France could preserve its military presence. For instance, France has active military bases in Djibouti, Cote d’Ivoire, United Arab Emirates, Gabon, and Senegal. By this framework, we can easily say that what we witnessed in the region, is parallel to what Mao suggested as “Three World Theory”. By this framework, China could overthrow France and the United Kingdom by the help of autochthone people in Africa. To sum up, until 2001, France and the United Kingdom were hegemon in Africa whereas China tried to be active by the same occasions.

2008 Great Crisis: China’s emergence as an economic giant and France in recession

In the second part, we will observe the effects of the 2008 Great Crisis on China and France’s foreign policy in Africa. In 2008, the economic crisis happened in the United States and it hit Europe because of the leverage effect in the banking system. That’s why most the European States went into the downswing. And, France was intensively affected by this crisis. In this period, France suspended its active African policy because of the economic recession. In addition to that, France had used its military power to adjust its balance of payment. For instance, the French army intervened the conflicts in Eritrea and the Gulf of Aden[10]. What is important here, is the improve in France’s balance of payment. France’s balance of payment after the interventions are shown below:

When we look at this graph, we will see an important increase after France’s intervention in Djibouti (10 October 2008). At this point, we can assert that France gained economic profits from this intervention. Normally, its balance of payment had to be affected negatively.

As for China, China won after the 2008 Great Crisis. When we look at the graph right-hand side, we will see a constant increase in China’s foreign exchange reserves. In 2007, China’s reserves were 2,5 trillion dollars. In 2008, it reached 2 trillion dollars. In 2009, when the world suffers from an economic downswing, China added 200 million dollars in its vault. That explains us the importance increase in China’s economic power which influences policies in Africa.

When we look at data from the World Bank, we can see an immense increase in favour of Chinese evolvement in Africa.

As we observe here, 2008 Great Crisis was positively affected in China. China gained economic influence in the region. As a result, China’s investments have augmented, even in 2008. In contrast, France strived to operate in Africa by consulting on its ancient hegemony.

III. After 2012, Liberal China and Reconciliatory France: Premise of Partnership

In this part, we will finally examine the transformation of rivalry between France and Chine to the mutual partnership. In this period, both China and France have needed a partnership. As for China, there were no economic and financial constraints, but there was some protest against China’s policy because of the fact that trade shares were in favour of China. As we look at the graph, we can easily see this proof. According to the IMF’s Africa Department, trade balance between China and Africa is shown as below.

After 2013, we see important fluctuations in the trade balance in favour of China.  Because of that, autochthone countries commenced seeing China as a new colonizer. This attitude explains to us why China is contested in Kenya, Mali and Sudan. For example, according to CNN, people prefer France rather than China in Tunisia, Benin, Mauritius, and Burkina Faso. Another example occurred during the Libyan Civil War in 2011. China couldn’t rescue its citizens and asked France to help him. In addition, China has no banking system in Africa. Of course, China Development Bank does some intermediary transactions, but it has no money transfer system in Africa. At this point, French banks have a comparative advantage. According to Global Finance, Société Générale is a powerful actor in the African banking system. Also, cooperation with France may be beneficial for both France and China according to He Wenping[11]. These examples show that France’s soft power is still influential in Africa. That’s why China seeks a partnership with France. In this case, France also seeks a partnership with China[12]. For instance, French company Peugeot and Chinese company Don Feng agreed on a new partnership in 2014. In addition, the Sino-French Partnership Conference held in Paris, in 2017 in order to ameliorate economic and political collaboration in Africa. Besides all these positive efforts, France is also suspicious about China’s new military base in Djibouti and China’s new fortification in Sierra Leone. Still, as a result, we can say that both China and France are in way of partnership in Africa.


As we mentioned at the beginning, France is still one of the most important actors in the region. France’s influence is based on cultural heritage from XIX. century. To enhance its cultural influence, France has adopted an active policy on education in Africa. In Western Africa, French is officially the most common language. And thanks to that, autochthone societies have sympathy to the French model. At the same time, African ruling elites have completed their educations through French model thanks to French government scholars. These elites organized the political system of their counties through French political thought. Therefore, both trade and bureaucracy were organized in accordance with the French system. Thanks to these facts, France gains comparative advantages in the region. As for China, it extended its political power by applying aggressive politics through its economic power after 2001. This policy was important for China because of the fact that China had to meet its energy need in order to sustain its economic growth. After China’s involvement in Africa, the rivalry between France and China has emerged in 2001. Aftermath of the 2008 Great Crisis, China became dominant in the African economy and tried to diminished France’s political power through aid policies. But, in the end, China’s advantage in trade balance provoked contestations in Africa. Thus, China has stepped back and sought to find a new partner in order to facilitate its involvement in Africa. After 2012, China endeavors to establish a new partnership with France which was gradually improving its economic situation after the 2008 Great Crisis. Thanks to this policy, both China and France gained and are benefitting mutual profits. As a result, the rivalry between them evolved into a mutual partnership.


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[1] [1] Nations Unies, Toute la Presse Francophone, Available on 15 October 2017,

[2] Martin Dreyfus, Enseignement/apprentissage du français en Afrique : bilan et évolutions en 40 années de recherches, Revue française de linguistique appliquée Vol. 11, No.1 (2006), s.73-84, Available on 19 October 2017,

[3] [3] Myriam Dubertrand, “Pour les étudiants africains, la France n’est plus une destination évidente”,Available on 19 October 2017,

[4]Anshan,L. “Cultural Heritage and China’s Africa PolicyChina and the European Union in Africa: Partners Or Competitors? ,London: Routledge, 2011

[5] Valérie Niquet, La stratégie africaine de la Chine, Politique étrangère Vol. Summer, Number 2, p. 361-374, Avaible on 24 October 2017, URL :

[6] François Godement and John Fox, A power audit of EU-China relations, (London: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2009

[7] [7] Les relations commerciales Chine-Afrique en 4 chiffres, Available on 30 October 2017,

[8] BP Annual Booklet 2016

[9] [9] Deborah Brautigam, The dragon’s gift: the real story of China in Africa (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2009)

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[11] Bassan, M. Coopérations tripartites: France – Chine – Afrique, Avaliable on 7 Novembre 2017,

[12] Frans-Paul van der Putten, John Seaman, Mikko Huotari, Alice Ekman ve Miguel Otero-Iglesias, Europe and China’s New Silk Roads, s. 21-23, Available on 13 Novembre 2017,