Network-Building and Human Capital investments at the intersection of China-Africa and China Middle East Relations

Lina Benabdallah, Wake Forest University

In July 2019, a collation of twenty-two countries signed a letter calling on China to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms… [and] refrain from the arbitrary detention and restrictions on freedom of movement of Uighurs, and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang.”[1] Eighteen EU states signed the letter, along with Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Notably missing from the EU group co-signatory of the letter are Greece and Italy, both involved in China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its Maritime segment (MSRI). Later that month, another coalition of thirty-seven states sent a letter to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights in support of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) policies in Xinjiang. The signatories of the letter endorsing the Chinese government grew to fifty ambassadors, mostly from the Global South and predominantly from Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East, and for the most part, Belt and Road Initiative participants. Given that EU members such as Italy and Greece did not partake in signing the letter condemning China’s policies in Xinjiang and that predominantly-Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East found it appropriate to endorse China in a letter to the UN offices, it seems necessary to probe the impact of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its maritime segment, the Maritime Silk Road (MSRI), on shifting and reshaping geopolitical borders in the world. This paper will focus on the main trends and characteristics of China’s cooperation with Africa and the Middle East via BRI and MSRI.

Despite the energy sector being vital to China’s going out strategy and for the realization of BRI projects, there are other important dimensions to China’s cooperation with Africa and the Middle East. Whether it is with states which already enjoy strong ties to China or states with weaker links, one of Beijing’s most valuable investments is not necessarily in crude oil supplies or infrastructure projects but is in human capital investments and network-building with elites, public servants, military officials, journalists, and so on. Beijing believes that investing in strong connections is vital for the long-term success of its investments in these regions. With such a diverse portfolio of investments, Africa and the Middle East represent important partnerships for China in terms of energy sources, political and national interests, soft power operations, and as regions where Beijing can take a rule-setting/norm-making role globally.

Economic Interests

In 2017, China surpassed the US as the world’s top importer of crude oil, importing US$ 238.7 billion worth of crude oil in 2019 (making it 22.6% of the overall global crude oil imports in the year).[2] Over half of China’s total crude oil imports come from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).[3]

Ongoing infrastructure construction and BRI projects contribute to China’s accelerating rate of crude oil imports. This has been accompanied by spiking growth in the numbers of contracts and deals between Chinese companies and Gulf States. For instance, it is estimated that there are now “over 4,200 Chinese companies operating in the UAE—up from a mere 18 in 2005—and approximately 300,000 Chinese citizens living in Dubai alone.”[4]

Blanchard (2020, 163) finds interesting divergences between Africa and the Middle East in terms of the impact of joining the Silk route on trade levels with China over the past five years. China’s total trade volume with Africa was USD $157.09 billion in 2018, making an increase from USD $109.83 billion in 2013. During the same period of time, trade volumes with the Middle East went down from USD $263.81 billion to USD $252.28 billion.[5] Blanchard also calculated the difference in trade volumes between China and Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI) participating and non-participating countries.[6] In Africa, the difference is stark, with MSRI countries registering a significant increase in trade volume with China going from USD $85.95 billion in 2013 to USD $131.02 in 2018. For non-MSRI trade volumes with China declined from USD $77.95 billion in 2013 to USD $71.37 billion in 2018. Participating in the Silk Route stands to increase trade volumes with China regardless of geographical region.

Political Interests

Beijing aims to develop close relations with the predominantly Muslim states of the Middle East for several reasons. Evidence of intensified cooperation between Arab League states and China can be seen in the July 2018 eight-page long Declaration of Action on China-Arab States Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. The declaration offers a broad overview of all the areas of cooperation expected to widen through the BRI projects. These include “Cyber Silk Road projects,” “airborne Silk Road” a “space-based Belt and Road information corridor.”[7] China’s interest in the region’s stability stems from two principal concerns: a domestic preoccupation with its Muslim populations in Xinjiang, and a regional focus on maintaining stability in the region for the sake of the BRI.

China’s north-western autonomous region of Xinjiang is home to 12 million Muslim Chinese (predominantly ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz). In 2014 the Chinese government started the ‘Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism’ in the territory of Xinjiang. Reports by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and human rights organizations indicate that as much as 10% of Xinjiang’s total population has been subjected to ‘re-education’ in various detention centers. A Human Rights Watch report from September 2018 details the treatment of Chinese Muslims both inside the mass detention centers and beyond (there is widespread state use of high-tech and biometric surveillance across Xinjiang).[8] As part of this campaign, China has cooperated with Syrian authorities and intelligence agencies to monitor and gather information about Chinese Muslims potentially joining militant ranks in the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, as well as Jabhat Fateh al Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front), ISIL and other groups. These fears reportedly led Chinese authorities to hold monthly high-level meetings with Syrian intelligence.[9]

Since the launch of the BRI in 2013, maintaining stability in volatile regions directly concerned with BRI investments has become a core concern for Xi. These factors all reinforce the need for maintaining strong relations with Arab state leaders. They are linked to China’s overlapping national and regional security interests, which have the effect of putting the Muslim populations in western China at the heart of its security policy.

China’s interactions with African countries do not reveal similar national security priorities. Whereas China’s soft power suffers owing to the issue of Uyghur treatment, its African engagement gives it the chance to highlight its active contribution to global peace and security.[10]

In comparison to the Middle East, China’s security footprint in Africa is becoming increasingly more visible. Issues pertaining to security and counterterrorism in the Middle East have a political urgency for China and present many challenges for the future of BRI projects, but in Africa the area of peace and security is more a range of opportunities. China has established a strong and increasingly visible military engagement on the African continent.[11] This includes peacekeepers and police units deployed in several countries, military equipment pledged to help the AU’s Standby Force, joint drills and high-level military officer exchanges.[12] China’s first overseas military base was inaugurated in Djibouti in 2017. One of the base’s main advantages is its strategic location, which ensures the security of China’s maritime lines of communication and shipping routes across the Suez Canal and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb – a key link between the Middle East and Africa. The base is also strategic in facilitating China’s capacity for rapid response deployments in regional security crises (especially in light of the 2011 evacuations from Libya) and for peacekeeping troop deployments as part of UN operations.[13] Yet, China’s security approach in Africa goes beyond the military and intelligence sharing realm and is overall viewed from a development-for-security perspective.[14] This development-security nexus approach, where Chinese investments and infrastructure projects contribute to stability by creating economic growth, job opportunities, and improving living conditions, is more relevant to China-Africa cooperation than China-Middle East.

Forum Diplomacy

Forum diplomacy, the convening of regional groupings for formal cooperation, is a defining characteristic to China’s approach to Global South states. Ever since the first meeting of FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation) in 2000, Beijing has expanded its forum diplomacy to other regions. FOCAC has now had seven triennial meetings alternating between being hosted in Beijing and an African capital city. In 2004, shortly after FOCAC’s launching, China and Arab states decided to formalize their cooperation under the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). CASCF had originally included the Arab League’s 22 members but since 2011, Syria has been suspended from the Arab League. To date, there have been eight CASCF meetings taking place every two years. The next one will be hosted in Jordan in 2020. In 2015, forum diplomacy expanded beyond Africa and the Middle East when China-CLAC was established as a cooperation platform between China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

FOCAC is both the pioneer in China’s forum diplomacy and the forum which is elevated to a heads-of-states level more frequently. CASCF, on the other hand, is typically a ministerial-level meeting and does not get as much global media coverage as FOCAC does. China’s Forum diplomacy more broadly sparked a trend of rising and traditional powers either establishing or reviving Forum-like cooperation platforms with Africa. Japan, India, South Korea, the U.S. and the UK all held some form of forum-diplomacy with Africa in the last decade. This indicates how successful Beijing’s forum diplomacy has been.

First, Forum meetings give Beijing an opportunity to control the narrative and create a space where non-Western ideals and ideas on development, human rights, peace, governance, etc. are produced and exchanged. Building the space to show solid friendship relations between Chinese and African or Arab government leaders is important to China. By the time FOCAC or CASCF meetings take place, all agenda points have been ironed out and agreed upon in advance. The forum itself is not the space for negotiations. It is a space to celebrate the successful negotiations process, to show through photo-ops of handshakes and red carpet that China has strong friendly ties to the Global South, and to showcase China’s economic development success story. Delegations are taken on tours to visit not only Chinese megacities but also companies and enterprises that contributed to their development.

Second, Forum diplomacy is a multilateral platform that allows Beijing to make grandiose announcements (for instance a financial package of $60 billion USD during FOCAC 2018 and $20 billion during CASCF 2018) without having to be transparent about what each country stands to gain from these initiatives. The opacity around the exact terms of the deals is useful to China’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. Domestically, the CCP has always been cautious about the reverberations of grievances from Chinese citizens taking to social media platforms their criticism that Beijing is spending foreign aid money on outside nations when many rural areas within China could use the boost. By the same token, competition within African states for China’s funding would not be in the interest of China if there was transparency around which countries stand to benefit the most or if the competition escalates. Indeed, lumpsum announcements, like during FOCAC, smooth out the fact that some coastal countries (especially in East Africa) are the destination of most of Chinese FDI, especially since the Belt and Road Initiative.

Third, forum diplomacy is advantageous from an optics perspective because it displays Beijing’s skills at consensus-building. Having delegations from all across the African continent for FOCAC or from the Arab States for CASCF spend a few days concerting, brainstorming, and debating economic and security issues of high priority to them gives Beijing the opportunity to be a key player in these important conversations. The Forum diplomacy legitimizes Beijing’s central role in negotiations about investments, (re)construction projects, and even security matters in the Global South. Over time, forum diplomacy adds confidence and assertiveness to China’s foreign policy making and reinforces China’s leadership role.

Relationality and network-building

Very few states manage their foreign policy conduct with pragmatism as the CCP does. Through careful investments in relationship building and people-centered diplomacy, the CCP had navigated some very delicate diplomatic situations. For example, Beijing managed to maintain strong relations with the Sudan while at the same time winning reconstruction projects in South Sudan. Beijing pledged $15 million USD in humanitarian aid to Palestine and is a very close partner to Algeria and Pakistan all while benefitting from strong cooperation (especially in technology and armament) with Israel. China also has very strong ties to the UAE through very high-stake financial cooperation while not shying away from undercutting DP World (Dubai Ports) in Djibouti. Beijing also managed to entertain serious allegations from UN agencies about its treatment and detention of Chinese Muslims and destruction of Islamic cultural heritage all while enjoying close relationships with predominantly Muslim governments in the Middle East or Africa. What gives China this much flexibility and leeway in its foreign policy conduct?

A combination of the CCP’s image management skills, its economic statecraft in the Global South, and its ability to control information about its investments and policy behavior all contribute to China’s practical foreign policy approach. But perhaps the most central mechanism is its human capital investments and networking-based foreign policy conduct. I argue that “guanxi” (which loosely translates as “connections”) is a central feature in China’s foreign policy conduct. Maintaining, strengthening, and multiplying guanxi with elites, diplomats, businesspeople, academics, journalists, and so on is China’s most valuable investment in the Global South.[15] To illustrate, in 2016, CASCF pledged to invite 100 experts from think tanks and scholars for exchange visits with Chinese institutions. It also pledged sponsoring 1000 trainings for young Arab leaders and inviting 1500 leaders of political parties to visit China. In addition, CASCF promised to allocate 10,000 scholarships and 10000 training opportunities for Arab states and organize visits for 10,000 Chinese and Arab artists. Similarly, the seventh FOCAC meeting the seventh FOCAC meeting pledged 50,000 training opportunities and 2,000 exchange scholarships for African students, and several hundred training opportunities for journalists. Such kind of human capital investment is what enables China to activate its economic statecraft, its cultural influence and affluent assistance to translate into actual domination as a global actor in the Global South.

China’s people-centered foreign policy and human-capital investments are central to its approach in Africa and the Middle East. A notable difference in China’s human capital investments and people-centered diplomacy in the Middle East when compared to Africa lies in China’s cultural diplomacy and soft power measures being more widely present in Africa than in the Middle East. So far, there are only six Confucius Institutes in the Gulf and Middle East: one in Bahrain, one in Lebanon, two in the United Arab Emirates and two Jordan.[16] In contrast, Kenya alone is home to four Confucius Institutes and two Confucius Classrooms, while South Africa has five of each. This again shows that cultural diplomacy ties between China and African states are deeper and more elaborate. Similarly, we find that Mandarin Chinese is taught in far more schools (high schools or college levels) in Africa than it is in the Middle East. Chinese media have a much stronger presence in the African continent (for instance, CGTN international headquarters are located in Nairobi and regularly diffuse Africa-centered content).[17] It seems plausible that there would be a much higher rate of positive perceptions of China by local populations in African countries than in the Middle East because there is much more cultural exposure to Chinese language, cultural practices, and history in African countries.


China’s relations with both Africa and the Middle East are shaped by its strategic investments in people-to-people relations, party-to-party ties, network-building among government officials, and routinized forum diplomacy. The impact of BRI and MSRI projects on the politics and state of relations between signatory states and China is important for understanding a host of things about China and the international order. Joining BRI/MSRI projects will increasingly shape the course of global politics by opening the possibility of ordering Chinese foreign policy priorities according to where states and cities fall on the maritime and land segments of the BRI and the extent to which different components of the BRI overlap. We can expect to see, moving forward, China’s foreign policy priorities categorized not only along the lines of geographical divides (Middle East or Africa) but along the lines of whether a given state is part of the BRI, or Maritime Silk Road, or the Ice Silk Road (arctic).





[1] Letter addressed to the President of the Human Rights Council, July 2019

[2] Workman, Daniel. 2020. “China’s Top Trading Partners” World’s Top Exports

[3] Ibid

[4] Fulton, Jonathan. 2020. “Domestic Politics as Fuel for China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative: The Case of the Gulf Monarchies,” Journal of Contemporary China, 29(122): 175-190, P. 181.

[5] Blanchard, Jean-Marc. 2020. “Problematic Prognostications about China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI): Lessons from Africa and the Middle East,” Journal of Contemporary China, 29 (122): 159-174, P. 163.

[6] For a holistic take on China’s engagement with Red Sea states, see Alsudairi, Mohammed. (2020). “The People’s Republic in the Red Sea: A Holistic Analysis of China’s Discursive and Material Footprint in the Region”.

[7] For reference, the latest FOCAC declaration does not expand on the BRI projects in as much detail as CASCF.

[8] Human Rights Watch, ‘Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims’, 9 September 2018,

[9] Hibrawi, Reema. 2017. “Amid continued instability, why are states investing in Syria?” Atlantic Council, Syria Source Blog, 14 June,

[10] Alden, Chris. 2014. “Seeking Security in Africa: China’s Evolving Approach to the African Peace and Security Architecture,” NOREF (Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre) Report, March,

[11] See Benabdallah, Lina. 2018. “China–Africa military ties have deepened: Here are 4 things to know,” The Washington Post, 6 July 2018,

[12] Benabdallah, Lina. 2020. Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations. Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press DOI: 10.3998/mpub.10194365.

[13] Zerba, Shaio. 2014. “China’s Libya evacuation operation: A new diplomatic imperative – overseas citizen protection’, Journal of Contemporary China, 23 (90):1093–1112.

[14] Benabdallah, Lina and Daniel Large. 2018. ‘China and African Security’ New Directions in Africa–China Studies, pp 312-325

[15] Benabdallah, Lina. 2020. Shaping the Future of Power.

[16] Hanban, ‘About Confucius Institute/Classroom’,

[17] For more on China-Africa media relations see Wasserman, Herman and Madrid-Morales, Daniel. 2018. “How influential are Chinese media in Africa? An audience analysis in Kenya and South Africa,” International Journal of Communication, 12: (2212– 2231).