Friday, July 31, 2020

Guest Post – Investment in Africa: China vs “traditional partners” – Part 1

This guest post, the first of two, is by Dr. Thierry Pairault, research director at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). [1]

The highly active and multifarious presence of Chinese companies in Africa and the unrelenting reiteration of a perfectly crafted narrative, have all contributed to the feeling that former colonial powers and other developed countries have disengaged from Africa. Until recently, the lack of Western investment statistics in African countries to compare with China's own statistics and reports of China’s investment and financing (see my post on CARI blog China in Africa: Much Ado about Investment) had convinced Africans of this abandonment. However, in June 2019, Eurostat (the statistical office of the European Commission) published its most recent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) statistics, referenced in an earlier paper (Investissements en Afrique : La Chine et les « partenaires traditionnels »). On 20 March 2020, Eurostat updated these statistics on European direct investment abroad. In this note I will briefly compare these statistics with those produced by MOFCOM and the Chinese State Bureau of Statistics.

According to Eurostat, in 2018, if I eliminate the Netherlands (internationally known as a tax haven, hence whose FDI is not properly Dutch), France continues to have the largest stock of FDI in Africa (€46 billion). This primacy could very soon be breached by China, which ranks second with a stock lower by only 5 billion euros (€41 billion). The USA are still in third place (extrapolated from 2017 figures because 2018 statistics are still unavailable) ahead of the United Kingdom (€2 million less than China), Italy (€15 million less than China), Germany (€29 million less than China). Luxembourg and Cyprus operate systems similar to the Netherlands, albeit to a lesser degree.

China's expansion is, indeed, very striking, as shown in Table 1. However, it cannot be concluded that traditional partners no longer invest in Africa because Western investors, in order to maintain a given level of investment stock, must at the very least reinvest some of their profits, but also replenish obsolete capital. Indeed, what we are witnessing is NOT that traditional partners have abandoned Africa, but that Africa has gained a new and powerful partner - China.


To go further in the analysis, I undertook a suite of principal component analyses to better understand the structure of the data and to better appreciate the proximity [correlation or lack thereof] between observations. These analyses reported in the above-mentioned paper showed that China's behaviour was just as “capitalist” and “mercantile” as that of Western countries, especially European ones. However, the traditional partners do not favour all the African countries receiving their FDI in the same way... I selected 25 African countries that either had in 2017 FDI stock of at least 1% of the European investment stock or that held a stock of at least 1% of Chinese investment. The year 2017 has been selected here and not the year 2018 for which many statistics are still missing.

These 25 countries benefitted from a total of 96% of the European stock of FDI in Africa and 89% of the Chinese stock.  In other words, European investment was targeted at a smaller number of African countries as compared to Chinese investment. If I assume European investment to be purely economic, the question arises as to whether the greater dispersal of Chinese investment might also be expressing more political (for instance, building a client network for support within UN agencies) than economic objectives. As far as Western countries are concerned, I selected only those with an investment stock in Africa of more than ten billion euros (Germany, the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom) for comparison with China. The results are shown in Table 2, Map 1.

Table 2. – Recipient countries and main investor countries



In 2017, three countries climb to the top of the investor countries’ list with the most first, second and third places: China (with twenty places) followed by France (with nineteen places) and the United States (with fourteen places). China's advance is even clearer if I only take into account the number of recipient countries where it tops the list of investor countries (eleven), while France tops the list with eight and the United States with three. This growing Chinese preeminence is politically very important from an African political point of view; however, France and the United States remain the most important investors from an economic point of view. 

It should be noted, however, that a high ranking does not always mean more investment. For example, China is the leading investor in Namibia, but its investment stock there is very small – only a quarter of its investment stock in Algeria. In Algeria, however, China only ranks fourth. It should also be noted that China has taken over the position of a “traditional partner” which today is relegated to second or even third place (e.g., France, Italy, and the United Kingdom). 

Special mention should be made of Algeria, which has distanced itself from France (third-largest FDI stock) without being economically lured by China (fourth-largest stock); instead it has opened its doors to both the United States (second-largest stock) and Italy (first-largest stock) which hold a large share of the exploitation and distribution of its oil and gas resources. China's breakthrough is also still very limited in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. In fact, North Africa does not appear to be a privileged land for investments by Chinese companies – even in the case of Egypt, which is nevertheless endowed with a "Chinese" special economic zone, the only one in Africa that is reputed to function to the satisfaction of the parties [2].

A final point:  one must avoid any absolutist interpretation of both the Eurostat data and the findings they suggest. Generally speaking, available FDI statistics are not yet very reliable; they capture financial flows that may underestimate actual investment. Furthermore, if one has doubts about the quality and comprehensiveness of Eurostat's FDI statistics and those of UN Comtrade, similar doubts about the quality of those produced in China should also be entertained. For the former, the role of tax havens, as in the case of the Netherlands clearly skews their FDI figures. In the case of China, statistics do not tell us the amount of investment that goes through offshore financial centres (starting with Hong Kong) possibly en route to Africa.


[1] Dr. Thierry Pairault is research director at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and at the Center of Studies on Modern and Contemporary China at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS - School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences). Please see http://pairault.fr/sinaf/ for more information about his work.

[2] Wang Hongyi, « Zhong Fei gong jian chanye yuan de xianzhuang, wenti he duice » [Assessment, problems and measures for industrial parks established jointly by China and Africa], in Zhang Hongming et Wang Hongyi (dir.), Feizhou fazhan baogao n°19 (2016-2017): Feizhou gongye hua yu zhongguo zai feizhou chanye yuanqu jianshe [African Development Report, n° 19 (2016-2017) : The industrialisation of Africa and the establishment by China of industrial parks in Africa], Beijing, Shehui kexue chubanshe, 2017, p. 019-024.

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