Transatlantic Relations in a Changing World Order: European and U.S. Responses to China’s Rise in Africa

Anna Stahl

Jacques Delors Centre

Dr. Anna Katharina Stahl is a Policy Fellow for European foreign and security policy at the Jacques Delors Centre. Her work focuses on the EU’s relations with China and the United States, as well as geopolitics in Africa and the Middle East. Before joining the Jacques Delors Centre, Anna Stahl was a project director with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) in Tunisia. Dr. Stahl held research positions in Europe, the United States and Africa with the EU-China Research Centre at the College of Europe, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS), the Institute for European Studies (IES) at the Free University of Brussels and the Centre for Chinese Studies (CCS) at Stellenbosch University.

Anna Stahl obtained a PhD in political science from the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and holds degrees from the College of Europe, the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), the Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Lille and the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. She is the author of the book “EU-China-Africa Trilateral Relations in a Multipolar World” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

She is a 2018-2019 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

A Changing World Order: China’s Rise in Africa

The twenty-first century is characterized by the rise of new global players and changing power relations. In particular, China’s increasing international presence is transforming the existing world order. The “One Belt One Road” (OBOR)[1] initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in late 2013, as well as the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), are prominent examples of China’s rise.

In the context of its growing international engagement, the Chinese leadership has put particular emphasis on Africa. Since the turn of the century, there has been a dramatic increase of foreign direct investment (FDI) flows from China to Africa, reflecting the global expansion of Chinese companies.[2] In 2009, China replaced the U.S. as Africa’s first single[3] trading partner.[4] China’s exports to Africa mostly include manufactured products like textiles and electronics, while its imports consist of natural resources. Alongside growing Sino-African economic relations, China has formulated a specific framework to guide Chinese foreign policy toward Africa. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which was established in 2000, embodies China’s key forum of cooperation with African countries. The secretariat of the FOCAC is based in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is responsible for the organization of ministerial conferences and summits bringing together Chinese and African leaders. The work of the FOCAC is supported by China’s Special Representative for African Affairs, a Chinese diplomat solely dedicated to fostering the diplomatic relations with African countries.

China’s growing economic and diplomatic engagement in Africa can serve as an example for the current transition toward a multipolar world order. While Europe and the United States have been Africa’s traditional partners, China is starting to challenge their influence on the continent. This essay compares how Europe and the U.S. have responded to China’s growing influence in Africa. It departs from the assumption that transatlantic responses to China’s rise will largely define the direction and character of the emerging world order. Moreover, it argues that in the current context of global uncertainty, transatlantic policy coordination on China is needed to contribute to a more stable and predictable international environment and to avoid that the rise of new powers and the ongoing power transition will lead to confrontation.

European Reponses: The EU and Germany

Despite the appearance of so-called new players like China, Europe remains Africa’s main economic and diplomatic partner. European countries, namely Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, represent key investors and trading partners in Africa. Due to historical legacy and geographic proximity, Europe and Africa also maintain close diplomatic relations. Since 2000, the European Union (EU) and Africa have held regular summits to foster the collaboration between both regions. In 2005, the EU formulated an Africa Strategy toward the whole African continent,[5] which was followed by the Joint Africa-EU Strategy[6] adopted by European and African leaders together at the EU-Africa summit in Lisbon in 2007. Considering Europe’s close relations with Africa, European policymakers have been particularly alarmed by China’s rise in Africa. Whereas the initial European discourse on China’s involvement in Africa has been rather negative, European policymakers have rapidly realized that they cannot oppose China’s rise and contain its influence in Africa. Consequently, Europe has opted for a strategy of engagement with China.

The EU and China have held long-lasting diplomatic relations. In 2003, the EU and China established a so-called Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which includes policy dialogues on a multitude of issues, such as trade, security, and climate change.[7] Against the background of China’s growing presence in Africa, the EU started around 2005 to formulate a specific policy of engagement with China on Africa.[8] Initial Sino-Europe cooperation in Africa emerged in the area of peace and security, where the EU and China joined forces to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.[9] Furthermore, EU policymakers have approached African leaders and the African Union (AU) to launch a trilateral dialogue with China.[10]

As a major economic power and founding member of the EU, Germany plays a leading role in Europe’s foreign relations. As outlined in the strategy paper “Shaping Globalization—Expanding Partnerships—Sharing Responsibility,”[11]the German government is particularly eager to reach out to emerging countries. Hence, in addition to supporting the EU’s efforts to engage with China, Berlin has established its own diplomatic framework with China. Since 2011, Germany and China have been engaged in bilateral Sino-German government consultations, leading to the adoption of the China-Germany Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2014.

As a major investor and provider of development assistance, Germany has put particular emphasis on collaborating with China in Africa.  Both the German Federal Foreign Office (AA) and the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) have launched specific dialogues with China on Africa.  As part of a so-called development dialogue, the BMZ and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) exchange views on how Germany and China can act as development partners in Africa. Moreover, the German and the Chinese ministries of foreign affairs held a first China-Germany consultation on Africa this year.[12]

The U.S. Perspective

Unlike Europe, Africa occupies a rather marginal role in U.S. foreign policy.[13] At the same time, U.S. Africa policy did not undergo any meaningful changes in recent years. Since the 1990s, the Africa agenda of the U.S. has been remarkably bipartisan, with major initiatives continuing across both Republican and Democratic administrations. The most noticed developments in U.S. diplomacy regarding Africa have been the adoption of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa in 2012[14] and the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014. The summit, which was initiated by President Barack Obama (the first American president of African descent), illustrates the growing importance of Africa in world politics, as well as the relative decline of U.S. influence in the region. In particular, experts have stressed that the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and the U.S.-Africa Business Forum have been organized in reaction to China’s rise in Africa and the fact that China replaced the U.S. as a major economic player on the continent.[15]

While the U.S. has had a rather tardy response to China’s growing diplomatic and economic relations with Africa as compared to Europe, American policymakers have closely followed Chinese security interests in Africa. The establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), responsible for U.S. military operations and military relations with fifty-three African nations, shows that security is a top priority of the U.S. Africa policy. U.S. military presence in Africa is primarily directed toward countering terrorism and violent extremism. Although China is pursuing a foreign policy of non-interference, it is slowly expanding its security presence in Africa.[16] Since the Cold War, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained military contacts with several African countries. Moreover, China has increased its contribution to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and provides support the African Union and its African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Yet, the Chinese leadership has been careful not to formalize China’s military alliances with African countries and for a long time refrained from dispatching combat troops to peacekeeping operations.[17]Despite Beijing’s cautious approach to security cooperation with Africa, American policymakers are worried about China’s global military expansion. In particular, the intention of the current Chinese leadership to establish a first overseas military base in Djibouti has led to some apprehension on the U.S. side.

Despite concerns over China’s growing military presence in Africa, the U.S. is committed to avoiding a zero-sum game with China in Africa.[18] Leading American China experts have noted that, “Washington and Beijing are by no means in the same adversarial relationship with each other at the start of the twenty-first century as were the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the cold war era.”[19]The establishment of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) is a clear indication of the choice by U.S. policymakers to engage with China rather than to contain its growing global influence.[20] The strategy of the U.S. “Pivot to Asia,” put forward by the Obama administration, can serve as another example for U.S. engagement policy with China. The “pivot” terminology was introduced by Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to highlight a shift in U.S. diplomacy and to mark an elevation of Asia’s place in U.S. foreign policy.[21] As part of the “Pivot to Asia,” the U.S. did not only express its commitment to engage with a rising Asia, but also made efforts to improve relations with other partners in the region, especially China. According to Kurt Campbell, the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” was aimed at grounding U.S. China policy “within a larger, more incremental regional framework.”[22] Yet, from the Chinese perspective, the U.S. pivot was seen as a strategy to limit Chinese influence in Asia and to place the U.S. as a counter-force in the region. In order to dismiss this interpretation the U.S. government therefore started referring to an “Asia rebalance.”[23]

In the context of overall U.S. attempts to engage with China, there have also been first initiatives to cooperate with China in Africa. The U.S. State Department and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs are engaged in regular bilateral consultations on African affairs.[24] Initial Sino-American cooperation in Africa focuses primarily on two policy fields: health and security. In the area of health, the U.S. and China have joined forces to respond to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Together with the EU, the U.S. has also supported China’s involvement in the international anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden.

Limited Transatlantic Policy Coordination on China

A comparison between European and American responses to the expansion of Chinese influence in Africa reveals three major differences in how Europe and the U.S. are approaching China’s rise and adapting to the changing global order.

First, Europe and the U.S. pursue different geopolitical priorities. While Europe considers Africa as its neighborhood that deserves special attention, U.S. diplomatic considerations are primarily directed toward the Asia-Pacific region. The geographic disparity in European and U.S. foreign policy has also been reflected in American and European responses to China’s OBOR initiative. In terms of geographic coverage, the so-called “Economic Land Belt” of OBOR goes through the European continent, while the “Maritime Silk Road” stretches from China to the Indian Ocean, including East Africa. As OBOR directly impacts on Europe’s neighborhood, there have been intense discussions among European policymakers and experts on how to respond to this new Chinese grand strategy. By contrast, OBOR has been largely absent from the U.S. policy discourse.

Second, the U.S. primarily approaches China’s rise from a military and security perspective. By contrast, Europe—with only limited military power—pays more attention to China’s economic presence in Africa. The South China Sea dispute clearly shows that the United States views China through America’s position as the long-dominant political and military power in Asia and the Pacific,”[25] while Europe’s presence in the region has been rather marginal.

Finally, although both Europe and the U.S. follow a policy of engagement with China, they have a different understanding of engagement and how to respond to emerging powers. U.S. foreign policy experts see engagement as a way of “shaping China’s choices.”[26] Europe, by contrast, seems to be more aware of its relative decline in the world and its limited influence over China. European policymakers appear to be more willing to make space for emerging powers in international fora and to accommodate Chinese demands by engaging in joint negotiations on international rules and norms. The establishment of the AIIB has exposed the difference between the U.S. and European engagement strategy toward China. While the U.S. sees the AIIB as a competitor to existing international institutions like the World Bank, Europe has supported China’s proposal for creating a new international development bank. Many European countries have even joined the new institution as founding members.

The major disparities between the European and U.S. foreign policy can explain why transatlantic policy coordination on China has remained rather limited. A recent study by Brookings has pointed out that “as Europe and the United States both contemplate the implications of a much more powerful China, they have yet to realize close strategic coordination.”[27] Moreover, it stresses that “the absence of sustained efforts to reconcile and (ideally) to integrate U.S. and EU strategies reflect the differing interests and policy preoccupations of the United States and Europe.”[28] The lack of transatlantic coordination is particularly visible in the case of China’s growing engagement in Africa.

Transatlantic Relations in a New Age of Uncertainty

Recent political events in Europe, the U.S., and China have indicated that we are entering a new age of uncertainty. The future of the EU is a first major element of global uncertainty. The Brexit vote has plunged Europe into a major crisis. It is the first time that a country is leaving the EU and this unprecedented process is likely to take some time. During the Brexit negotiations, the EU is expected to adopt a more inward-looking approach and be less active on the global stage. Under the leadership of High Representative Federica Mogherini, the EU recently formulated a new “Global Strategy,”[29] outlining priorities and goals of its foreign policy. Moreover, a new EU strategy on China was adopted.[30] Yet, these two important foreign policy initiatives have received only limited attention outside of Brussels, as they were overshadowed by concerns related to Brexit.

Similar to Europe, the U.S. is currently also going through a phase of uncertainty after the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the new U.S. president.  During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump announced that he would diminish American global engagement and even abandon U.S. commitments to security alliances such as NATO. It is therefore likely that future U.S. foreign policy under Trump will be characterized by isolationism and protectionism.

Apart from Europe and the U.S., China’s role in the world also remains uncertain. As pointed out by a major American scholar of Chinese affairs, China’s evolution will have “consequences—for better and for worse—for the whole world.”[31] Moreover, he warns that, “we should not anticipate that developments in China will be linear-straight-line projections of the present” and “one should always expect the unexpected in China.”[32] This uncertainty is further strengthened by the contradicting signals sent by China’s current leadership. On one hand, it states that its primary concern is China’s domestic situation and the so-called “New Normal,” referring to a slowdown in the trend rate of growth. On the other hand, Chinese leaders are becoming more vocal and self-confident on the international stage, pointing toward a more offensive Chinese foreign policy.[33]

Considering these major elements of uncertainty, what is the future of the transatlantic partnership in a multipolar world? In order to prevent the prediction of former German Minister for Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer, according to whom the new world order will equal to “the end of the West,”[34] a strong transatlantic partnership is more vital than ever. So far, transatlantic relations have been an element of stability in international politics. Hence, there seems little doubt that the different transatlantic policy exchanges will continue even in the midst of the uncertainties over Brexit and the new Trump administration. China should be on top of the transatlantic policy agenda, as close coordination between U.S. and EU response to China’s rise is essential to shape the contours of an emerging multipolar world order. American and European policymakers should establish a specific transatlantic dialogue on China in order to prevent diverging assessments, as seen in the case of the AIIB. Both the U.S. and Europe share interests in a prosperous and stable Africa.[35] Hence, they should exchange views on China’s engagement on the continent, as well as explore cooperation in the area of investments and security. Considering the fact that the EU is currently in a weak position, Germany should take a more prominent role in Europe’s foreign policy. Thus, close policy coordination between Germany and U.S. on China could serve as a testing ground for a broader transatlantic dialogue on China. Given Germany’s extensive relations with China and its recent proposal for a “Marshall Plan for Africa,”[36] Germany is also well situated to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on China’s involvement in Africa.


 Dr. Anna Stahl was a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow from October to December 2016. Previously, she was a Research Fellow at the EU-China Research Centre at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. She holds a PhD in political science from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Brussels, Belgium.


[1] Chinese Government, “Vision and Actions on Jointly Building the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” Beijing, 28 March 2015.

[2] David Dollar, “China’s Engagement with Africa: From Natural Resources to Human Resources,” The Brookings Institution John L. Thornton China Center Monograph Series, Number 7 (July 2016).

[3] Note: The EU (including all 28 member states) represents Africa’s largest trading partner.

[4] Chinese State Council, “White Paper on China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation,” Beijing, 29 August 2013.

[5] European Commission, EU Strategy for Africa: Towards a Euro-African pact to accelerate Africa’s development, COM(2005) 489 final, Brussels, 12 October 2005; Council of the EU, Council Conclusions on an EU Strategy for Africa, Brussels, 22 November 2005.

[6] Council of the EU, The Africa-EU Strategic Partnership: A Joint Africa-EU Strategy, 16344/07 (Presse 2091), Lisbon, 9 December 2007.

[7] European Commission, “EU – China: Closer partners, growing responsibilities,” COM(2006) 631 final, Brussels, 24 October 2006.

[8] Anna K. Stahl, EU-China-Africa Trilateral Relations in a Multipolar World: Hic Sunt Dracones (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

[9] Anna K. Stahl,  “Contrasting Rhetoric and Converging Security Interests of the European Union and China in Africa,” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs Vol. 40, No. 4 (2011), pp.147-173.

[10] European Commission, The EU, Africa and China: Towards trilateral dialogue and cooperation, COM(2008)654final, Brussels, 17 October 2008; Council of the EU, Council Conclusions on trilateral dialogue and cooperation between the European Union, China and Africa, Brussels, 10 November 2008; Anna K. Stahl, “Trilateral Development Cooperation between the European Union, China and Africa: What Prospects for South Africa?” CCS Discussion Paper 4/2012 (Stellenbosch: Centre for Chinese Studies, 2012).

[11] German Government,“Shaping Globalization – Expanding Partnerships – Sharing Responsibility: A Strategy Paper by the German Government,” Berlin: Federal Foreign Office, 2012, online:


[13] D. H. Shinn, “Extended Ground for U.S.-China Competition? Comparing China’s and the U.S.’ Engagement with Africa,” China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies Vol. 02, No. 01 (January 2016), pp. 35-55.

[14] U.S. Government, “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” Washington, DC: The White House, 14 June 2012, online:

[15] N. Cook, A. Arieff, L. Ploch Blanchard, B. R. Williams, “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: Frequently Asked Questions and Background,” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 31 July 2014, CRS Report R43655.

[16] D. H. Shinn and J. Eisenman, China and Africa: A Century of Engagement (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), pp.371-373.

[17] Ibid., p. 372

[18] D. H. Shinn, “Extended Ground for U.S.-China Competition? Comparing China’s and the U.S.’ Engagement with Africa,” China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies Vol. 02, No. 01 (January 2016), pp. 35-55.

[19] D. M. Lampton, Same Bed Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations 1989-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), p.375

[20] T. J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2015).

[21] K. M. Campbell, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia (New York: Twelve, Hachette Book Group, 2016).

[22] Ibid., p. 232

[23] T. J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), p. 247-251.

[24] Yun Sun, “US-China cooperation on Africa security,” The Brookings Institution, Africa in Focus, 1 November 2016, online:

[25] P. Le Corre and J. Pollack, “China’s Global Rise: Can the EU and the U.S. Pursue a Coordinated Strategy?” The Brookings Institution Geoeconomics and Global Issues, Paper 1 (October 2016), p. 22.

[26] T. J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2015).

[27] P. Le Corre and J. Pollack, “China’s Global Rise: Can the EU and the U.S. Pursue a Coordinated Strategy?” The Brookings Institution Geoeconomics and Global Issues, Paper 1 (October 2016), p. 22.

[28] Ibid.

[29] High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy,  Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe, A Global Stratgy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, Brussels, June 2016.

[30] European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council, Elements for a new EU strategy on China, Brussels, 22 June 2016, JOIN(2016) 30 final.

[31] D. Shambaugh, China’s Future? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016), p. xvii.

[32] Ibid.

[33] T. J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2015). p. 243.

[34] J. Fischer, “Das Ende des Westens,Süddeutsche Zeitung, 12 December 2016.

[35] A. Huliaras and K. Magliveras, “In Search of a Policy: EU and US Reactions to the Growing Chinese Presence in Africa,” European Foreign Affairs Review Vol. 13, No. 3 (2008), pp. 399–420.

[36] “Germany says time for African ‘Marshall Plan’,” Reuters, 11 November 2016, online:

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.