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What Do the Latest China-Africa Trade Numbers Tell us About This Relationship? Not as Much as You Might Think.

Containers are seen stacked at a port in Qingdao in China's eastern Shandong province on January 14, 2020.  STR/AFP.

Two-way China-Africa trade increased slightly by 2.2% last year to $208.7 billion, according to newly released data from China’s General Administration of Customs.

At first glance, trade between these two regions seems to be quite balanced overall. China imported $95.5 billion worth of African products, down 3.8% from the previous year, and exported $113.2 billion worth of products to Africa, up 7.8%.

The problem, though, is that China’s trade with Africa is not as balanced as it seems given that the bulk of what China buys from the continent is compromised largely of minerals, timber, and oil that come from around ten countries, according to data from the China-Africa Research Initiative. So, those resource-rich exporting countries like Angola and Gabon tend to do quite well overall but for other countries like Senegal, Kenya, and other resource deficient states, many are now struggling as to how to manage increasingly unsustainable trade deficits with China.

China is by no means alone in this regard as oil also represents approximately 90% of U.S.-Africa trade.

While $208 billion in two-way China-Africa trade is undeniably large, especially considering that it’s about four times as much as what Africa trades with the U.S., it masks an important disconnect that underlies economic ties between these two regions.

In purely economic terms, China matters a LOT to Africa but Africa is effectively meaningless to China. Last year, China did more than $4.14 trillion in total global trade. So that means Africa represents just a tiny fraction of China’s global trade balance, effectively a rounding error for the world’s second-largest economy.

For some additional context, consider that China does more trade with just Germany ($225.7 billion)  and about the same with Australia ($194.6 billion) than it does with all of Africa.

So, while the two-way trade figure is always interesting, it’s important to put it in the proper context and resist the temptation to use this single data point as some kind of proxy for the broader China-Africa relationship.

Three Key China-Africa Trade Trends to Watch for in 2020

  • THE U.S-CHINA TRADE DEAL: China agreed to buy $200 billion worth of U.S. goods as part of the phase 1 trade deal signed between the two countries last week. If the Chinese live up to their commitment, it could diminish Beijing’s appetite for African oil, timber, and other commodities in favor of American suppliers.
  • FEWER INFRASTRUCTURE DEALS: China’s exports to Kenya reduced sharply last year as construction of the Standard Gauge Railway wrapped up and there was less demand for expensive building equipment. The rest of the continent could see a similar downturn this year as Chinese lenders become more discriminating about which projects they choose to underwrite.
  • THE RISE OF THE REST: 15-20 years when China first started to ramp up its engagement in Africa, there weren’t many other places around the world where the Chinese felt comfortable to invest and trade. That is no longer the case. China does significantly more trade with Latin America ($307.4 billion) than it does with Africa and trade with other regions along the Belt and Road is similarly increasing.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Contrary to widespread perceptions in many U.S. and European countries, China’s strategic interests in Africa are less economic than political. Trade, as noted above is relatively small compared to other parts of the world, and the vast majority of the resources that China buys from Africa can now be sourced elsewhere. But African countries’ 54 votes at the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the IMF and other international bodies are now incredibly to China’s global agenda. Similarly, African countries’ support of Chinese positions on sensitive issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Huawei among others is greatly valued in Beijing.

There’s no doubt that economics remains important in the China-Africa relationship, that’s indisputable, but it’s just one part of a much broader political, military and technological agenda that many observers often overlook.

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