Viewing China’s Engagement in Africa through the Lens of Energy Diplomacy

Viewing China’s Engagement in Africa through the Lens of Energy Diplomacy


Meghna Ria Muralidharan

Energy is considered one of the five essential elements for the survival of mankind and is important for social development and national security. In the last few decades, countries across the globe have been emphasizing on energy security. With the growing population, energy consumption has witnessed an upward trend thereby pushing countries to diversify their energy basket. The continent of Africa has emerged as a major resource destination for countries to fulfill their energy needs. Among the many actively engaged players, China has emerged as one of the top economic partners of the African continent. Despite the challenges, the relationship between China and Africa has undergone tremendous transitions and the two continue to look for common areas of cooperation. Energy continues to be an important factor in China’s cooperation with Africa and is also one of the important elements used in the international system.

China’s Energy Requirement

A remarkable change has been witnessed in China’s energy sector and the energy sector is moving into a new direction following President Xi’s call for an “energy revolution”. He has emphasized on curbing pollution and adopting a service-based economic model. China is the world’s largest consumer of energy, the largest producer and consumer of coal, and also, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

In the last half-century, China’s large manufacturing-based economy has been solely fueled by coal. China has been the largest consumer of coal as compared to the rest of the world. From 1990 to 2018, China’s coal consumption has surged up from 0.99 billion tons to 4.64 billion tons. According to the sources, China has aimed to reduce the percentage of coal in its energy mix below 58 percent by the end of 2020. Though the energy consumption of China has remained robust, the forms of energy continue to diversify. Along with coal, China’s energy mix also shows reliance on hydrocarbons, and consumption of oil is predicted to reach by 6.2 million tons in the coming time.

The rapid economic growth of China has increased the energy demand thereby putting pressure on the domestic sources of supply. Domestic production is comparatively low than its overall consumption. Thereby, to compensate for the underproduction of domestic energy resources as well as anticipating a further rise in energy consumption, Beijing has framed an energy security strategy based on three main pillars. First, it seeks to expand domestic energy production and to attract foreign direct investment. Second, China is reducing its dependency on fossil fuels and increasing its reliance on a clean source of energy. Third, Beijing is diversifying its energy basket to avoid dependence on a single region or country.

China’s ambition of “energy diplomacy” has kept its diplomats engaged throughout the globe and this diplomacy is considered to be part of China’s soft power agenda. However, China’s activities have raised security concerns for many countries, which worry that China’s energy diplomacy will impact their own energy security. China has been engaging with various countries in the international system and Africa is considered as China’s primary destination.

China-Africa Energy Cooperation

China’s growing engagement with Africa is linked to the Chinese need for oil. In other words, China’s foreign policy towards Africa is described as “getting resources to fulfill its economic development and taking its quest to lock down sources of oil and raw materials”. Africa is China’s second-largest source of oil, after the Persian Gulf. In the last few years, Chinese firms have expanded their presence in Africa’s oil-rich countries such as Angola, Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Gabon, Libya, Nigeria, and Tunisia. Among these, Angola is the largest exporter of oil to China. The bilateral engagement between China and Angola has grown tremendously and huge infrastructure investments are made in the country. The African continent is of strategic interest as an international development field for Chinese oil companies aiming to become global players. Moreover, the African market has been a potential hub to produce Chinese goods and services.

China’s energy diplomacy in Africa has made Beijing deeply involved in providing aid and assistance to the region. The number of private Chinese firms has also increased in the African continent. Dominating their presence in Africa has been the China National Petroleum Corporation, Sinopec, and China National Oil and Gas Exploration and Development Corp. Furthermore, the revamping of the Egina fields in Nigeria is said to increase the production volume from Africa.

Along with the positives, there are certain challenges that impact China’s energy diplomacy in Africa. Like the West, the Gulf of Guinea is considered to be of geostrategic importance for China as many countries along the coast are resource-rich and most of the imports are carried through the sea but piracy remains to be a major challenge. Secondly, Africa provides China with a challenge to decide what kind of global power it aspires to be and to determine the factors that will help in enhancing the cooperation. Taking these factors into consideration, China has been carefully weighing its actions and has continued to follow the policy of non-interference while engaging with the African countries. Though the role of Chinese NOCs seems to be expanding in Africa, western oil companies continue to dominate the oil market both in terms of production quantity and asset holding.

What is in Store?

China and Africa have been cooperating primarily in hydrocarbons and Africa continues to be dependent on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs while on the other hand, China has been at the forefront of climate diplomacy and policy. It has emphasized reducing the use of fossil fuels and is installing the largest amount of renewable energy capacity in the world. The cooperation has been comparatively low in the clean energy sector. Therefore, plausible cooperation in this regard will be beneficial as Africa provides a great asset base for renewable energy mainly wind and solar. China can enter in this scenario by providing infrastructure assistance.

Thus, if China and Africa cooperate in the clean energy sector, China can rise as a global leader of climate governance and the structural development will help Africa in sustaining energy thereby creating a “win-win situation” for both. To add to this, the global pandemic has severely impacted progress on energy access and lockdown measures have put off-grid developments at risk. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how China and Africa continue to cooperate in terms of energy and the impact of the pandemic on long-existing cooperation.

Meghna Ria Muralidharan is a research scholar at the Centre for African Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.