Chinese officials were the first to report that trade between China and Africa reached $166 billion in 2011. This was confirmed by data from the UN, World Bank and other research institutes.
Any disparities in figures are likely to be because of differences in how bilateral trade is reported, including the valuing of mineral goods.
US trade volume with Africa has fallen, but experts say this shouldn’t be attributed to political disinterest or the US losing ground to China, but rather to waning US reliance on African oil imports.
In an October 2020 online article, South Africa’s Mail & Guardian said that while US president Donald Trump’s mission was to make America great, his administration had “largely remained disengaged” with Africa.
In contrast, as US influence lost ground under Trump, who the article noted hasn’t travelled to Africa, China “further accelerated its influence” on the continent.
The newspaper said: “Trade between Africa and China has grown rapidly, reaching US$166 billion in 2011, according to the United Nations.” But it didn’t give any more recent figures that could have included the Trump years. Trump took office in 2017.
As the US votes on 3 November, does this number stand up to closer scrutiny? What is the most recent volume of trade? And is there a rivalry between the US and China for Africa? We went in search of answers.
Figures traced to Chinese officials in 2012
We traced the claim to statements from Chinese government officials ahead of the fifth ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) held in Beijing, China, in July 2012. Focac is an official forum usedto foster relations between the two regions.
In a speech that month, vice foreign minister Zhai Jun said: “In 2011, trade between China and Africa reached $166.3 billion, an increase of 16 times from the 2000 level, with Africa running a trade surplus of $20.1 billion.”
A week later, in an opinion piece carried by Chinese state media, commerce minister Chen Deming said that China stood as the “unchallenged largest trading partner of Africa”.
Chen went on to quantify this: “In terms of trade the total trade volume between China and Africa hit a record high of $166.3 billion in 2011, growing by 83% from the year 2009.”
Neither official gave a source for their figures.
UN data confirms Africa-China trade numbers
The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies is home to the China-Africa Research Initiative (CARI), which focuses on, among other areas, the economic dimensions of China-Africa relations.
The research unit compiles China-Africa trade statistics using data from United Nations Comtrade, a branch of the UN statistics division that tracks trade in commodities and services. UN Comtrade data is based on reports made by individual countries or downloaded from official sources.
In data CARI shared with Africa Check, the sum of both Chinese exports to and imports from Africa in 2011 was about $147 billion.
China and South Africa report differently
The unit told Africa Check that the difference between their estimate and the $166 billion figure was likely due to differences in how China and South Africa report their bilateral trade. The country is a major trade partner for China on the continent.
“Figures for Chinese imports from South Africa as reported by the Chinese government are much larger than those reported by the South African government,” said Kevin Acker, research manager at CARI.
This may be due to differences in valuing mineral goods, he said. Because of this, CARI uses South African government figures to capture the value of Chinese imports from the country.
For other figures in their data, they use numbers reported by China, which they note is more consistent in reporting than many African governments.
“In general, we find that while UN Comtrade and Chinese government sources do not report the exact same trade figures, the two sources are very close,” Acker said.
World Bank figures for 2011 similar
Prof Miria Pigato is with the World Bank’s Macroeconomics, Trade and Investment Global Practice unit and co-authored a 2015 paper, China and Africa: Expanding Economic Ties in an Evolving Global Context.
She referred us to the World Bank’s World Integrated Trade Solution as a source of global trade data. This showed China’s trade with Africa in 2011 was $166.5 billion, with the Asian country importing $93.35 billion and sending $73.15 billion the other way.
What of US trade with Africa?
In 2018 trade between China and Africa was $185.3 billion, according to the most recent CARI data available. Official Chinese data valued this at a higher $204.2 billion.
In contrast, trade between Africa and the US was valued at $127 billion in 2011, before falling to less than half ($61 billion) in 2018.
But the fall in US trade with Africa in recent years is not because Washington has been losing ground to Beijing. This narrative leaves out a key factor, Cobus van Staden told Africa Check. He is a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, with a focus on China-Africa relations.
“American trade with Africa before the decline was dominated by oil sales from West Africa. The widespread application of fracking in the US provided access to a whole new domestic oil industry, and with it, American purchases of African oil declined sharply.” Fracking is a form of extracting more gas and oil from rocks using high pressure liquid.
With the decline in oil trade, there wasn't enough engagement to replace it with anything else, “so the total US-Africa trade volume shrunk”, Van Staden said.
Chinese purchases of African oil also declined during the same period, due to Beijing buying more oil from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, he added.
“But that decline was balanced out by increases in other forms of trade, due in part to Chinese companies' interest in Africa as a big emerging market.”
Is the narrative of China and the US duelling for Africa a compelling one?
Look up China’s economic engagement with Africa online and you will likely also be served up an accompanying narrative, that of the United States being in direct competition with the Asian country for resources.
But the drop in recent years of Africa’s trade volumes with the US is not a simple consequence of China’s increased economic engagement, Eric Olander told Africa Check. He is the co-founder of the China Africa Project, an independent non-partisan media initiative focused on China-Africa relations.
China is a manufacturing economy that depends on raw materials to make products that it sells in markets around the world, including Africa. “The US, by contrast, is a high-tech services economy that really doesn't need as much of the raw materials that Africa sells and whose consumers generally cannot afford to buy the high-end services that power the US economy.”
“In many ways, the US and China do not compete against one another in places like Africa, they're actually quite complementary. China produces a lot of the physical ‘hardware’ such as infrastructure and electronics,” he said. The US, in turn, provides a lot of “software” such as legal services, governance and international accounting standards.
“There are relatively few instances where US and Chinese companies go head-to-head,” said Olander. In fact US investment – to be differentiated from trade or infrastructure loans – on the continent “has remained relatively strong” while China’s investment has lagged considerably behind the US, he added.
Conclusion: Available data shows China’s trade volumes with Africa were at US$166 billion in 2011
Ahead of the 2020 US election, the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa wrote of declining US influence in Africa in recent years, as China’s trade volumes grew.
The article gave China’s trade volumes with Africa as $166 billion in 2011. While most of the data comes from China and is difficult to verify directly, this figure is supported by other reliable sources. We therefore rate the claim mostly correct.
Trade between the two regions had grown to $185.3 billion in 2018.
Analysts told Africa Check that Africa’s reduced trade with the US should not be simplified to being outmuscled by China.