FEATURED | China's Role in Sub - Saharan Africa's Economic Development by Abdelrasaq Nal

FEATURED | China's Role in Sub - Saharan Africa's Economic Development by Abdelrasaq Nal

By Abdelrasaq Nal 

Within the purview of contemporary international development discourse, China, alongside other regional powers are perceived as growth poles or drivers of global development. In the context of Africa’s development around which some of the emergent issues have been framed, analyses often proceed along a bilateral framework where the influence of China is isolated and assumed to be neither connected with nor shaped by the influences of other growth poles. Inspired by recent development in policy circles, this paper develops a multi-polar framework to explain ways by which dimensions of possible interactions amongst activities of growth poles can affect development outcomes in other regions. It is then used to demonstrate how a nexus of Sino-EU activities has had limited impact on the development of Africa’s manufactured exports in comparison with similar nexus involving China and US.

 Image Attribute: China Africa Project


Following the emergence of Asia, particularly China, as a credible challenger to the economic dominance of The West, a seemingly unending debate over what this means for global development was provoked1. In the context of Africa’s development around which some of the very important issues have been raised, analyses often proceed along a bipolar framework where the economics of interaction between China and Africa is conceptualized and inferences made (Jenkings and Edwards, [1] ; Jenkings and Edwards, [2] ; Na-Allah and Muchie, [3] ). A key assumption in literatures of this kind is usually that China is an independent actor whose influence is isolated from, unconnected with and unshaped by the influences of other global powers.

But signaling a fundamental departure from this traditional line of analysis is a recent policy move by the European Union (EU) and China to adopt a multilateral framework in their efforts to contribute towards Africa’s development. Precisely, at the tenth China-European Union (EU) Summit held in Beijing in November 2007, the seed for what was to manifest later in 2008 as a trilateral approach to development cooperation was sowed (European Commission, [4] ). Also known as the EU-China-Africa Dialogue the framework specifically aims to contribute to Africa’s development through the process of identification and pursuit of areas of common interests between EU, Africa and China while at the same time addressing differences through dialogue (Wissenbach, [5] ).

Attempts to capture the dynamics of this sort of multi-polar interaction in current studies of the impact of China have been limited. One strand of analysis focuses on China as a competitor to Africa either in third markets or in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) from third regions (Jenkins and Edwards, [2] ). A major limitation of this type of exercise is that China’s influence is still taken to be a product of its own solitary action/attraction and not of such action/attraction interacting with those of other growth drivers.

In Jenkins and Edwards [2] , however, we find what arguably, is the closest attempt yet at explaining how a Sino-Global effort could actually influence the course of development in some other locations. As argued, this may occur if for instance, foreign investment flow into China stimulates, as part of integrated production systems, complementary investment flow into neighboring regions participating in the production network. We can interpret this to mean an indirect case of China’s attraction as FDI destination interacting with the actions of FDI providers (other growth drives) to produce development outcomes in third regions.

Another way of looking at it could be to speculate in a more direct way that both China and other growth poles can individually initiate actions whose combined effects would have developmental consequences for other poles. This is the line of analysis we pursue in this paper. We conceptualize a model in which different combinations of actions undertaken by growth poles are assumed to impact differently on economic performances of other poles. Then situating the model in the context of China’s impact on Africa we demonstrate how a nexus of Sino-EU activities has had limited impact on the development of Africa’s manufactured exports in comparison with similar nexus involving China and US.


As the search for better understanding of how the rise of China is impacting on development outcome in Africa continues, this paper has provided a glimpse of evidence on how a multi-polar approach to the analysis can be insightful. We moved from the premise that there are development outcomes that can be detected when activities of growth poles are seen as interacting with and complimenting one another that may not be visible when each of them is considered in isolation. This framework was then applied to a Sino-Global-Africa context to study how different combinations of China’s partnerships with other growth poles influenced the course of development in Africa. The main result of our exercise revealed that the interaction of values externalized by the EU and China had far less impact on development outcome in Africa than the interactions of similar values externalized by the US and China. In other words, when we considered the combined effect of market access privileges and transfer of production technology that the US and China respectively externalized to African countries, we found that African exports responded far more significantly than responses attributable to similar combination of values externalized by China and EU.

It is simply that any growth pole interested in making meaningful impacts on development in other regions must be sensitive to how their own activities interact with activities of other growth poles. On the part of beneficiaries as well, making the most out of their integration with growth poles would require that their policymakers focus on the collective rather than the individual attractions of actors they engage with.

About The Author:

Abdelrasaq Nal, Department of Economics & Development Studies, Federal University Dutsin-Ma, Dutsin-Ma, Nigeria and Institute for Economics Research on Innovation, Tshwane University of Technology, Pretoria, South Africa


1. Jenkins, R. and Edwards, C. (2005) The Effect of China and India’s Growth and Trade Liberalization on Poverty in Africa. Enterplan/ODG, Report to DFID DCP70. Reading.

2. Jenkings, R. and Edwards, C. (2006) The Economic Impacts of China and India on Sub-Saharan Africa: Trends and Prospects. Journal of Asian Economics, 17, 207-225. 

3. Na-Allah, A. and Muchie, M. (2010) Industrial Upgrading in Sub-Sahara Africa: The Competitive Impact of China on Supplier Linkage Development Potentials of Resident Asian Entrepreneurs. International Journal of Technological Learning, Innovation and Development, 3, 272-292. 

4. European Commission (2008) The EU, Africa and China: Towards Trilateral Dialogue and Cooperation.

5. Wissenbach, U. (2009) The EU’s Response to China’s Africa Safari: Can Triangular Co-Operation Match Needs & Quest? The European Journal of Development Research, 21, 662-674. 

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