China's Non-Interference Principle and the Military Coups in Africa - SOAS China Institute

//China’s Non-Interference Principle and the Military Coups in Africa

China’s Non-Interference Principle and the Military Coups in Africa: A Clash With the African Union?

China - Africa Leaders Round Table at the conclusion of the 15th BRICS SUMMIT in Johannesburg. – Photo credit: GCIS (South Africa) / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Sizo Nkala and Khensani Ntlemo | 28 February 2024

One of the cornerstones of the Sino-African relationship, which has grown in leaps and bounds since 2000, has been the two sides’ mutual emphasis on the non-interference principle. China has distinguished itself from western countries’ interaction with Africa by insisting on unconditional cooperation with African states regardless of their political and economic systems. The only condition, which African leaders have had no qualms with, was that their governments must respect Beijing’s One China policy. Except for the Kingdom of Eswatini, all African states have fallen into line with the policy. China’s relations with countries like Angola, Sudan, and Zimbabwe which are widely regarded as pariahs in the West served to reinforce its commitment to the non-interference principle and respect for sovereignty. China even used its permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to veto international interventions in Sudan and Zimbabwe whose governments were accused of violating human rights. These actions cemented its reputation in the continent as a genuine alternative partner to the meddlesome West. However, the recent wave of military coups encompassing West and Central Africa places the Sino-African bond over the non-interference principle in an awkward situation.


Since 2020, Africa has witnessed a new wave of military coups (9 cases) affecting mostly the West and Central African regions. The military has taken over the reins of power in Mali twice in August 2020 and May 2021, Chad in April 2021, Guinea in September 2021, Sudan in October 2021, Burkina Faso also twice in January and September 2022, Niger in July 2023, and in Gabon in August 2023. Coup attempts were thwarted in Sierra Leone in November 2023 and in Guinea Bissau twice in February 2022 and November 2023. Save for Chad, all the states ruled by the military have been suspended by the African Union (AU). These countries have also been suspended by their regional economic communities (RECs). Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger have been suspended from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Gabon was axed from the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Sudan renounced its membership in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The coup wave has given rise to 7 AU- and relevant REC-designated pariah states free of western instigation. But China enjoys strong relations with these countries which it cannot easily abandon.


At the time of the first and second waves of military coups across Africa in the 1960s and 1990s respectively, China’s presence in Africa was relatively negligible. However, the third wave which began in 2020 unfolded in the context of intensified relations between China and Africa including the coup-affected countries where China has significant economic interests. Between 2000 and 2019 these countries received a total of US$12.3 billion in loan commitments from China. Sudan was the biggest borrower having secured a total of US$6.17 billion in loans from China followed by Guinea with US$2.1 billion. Burkina Faso had the lowest amount of loans from China having secured only US$77 million. The Asian giant also maintains robust trade relations with the 7 countries as it exported goods worth US$6.94 billion to them and imported goods worth US$10.98 billion in 2022. Gabon and Guinea are China’s biggest trade partners with trade values reaching almost US$4.6 billion and US$6.8 billion respectively. Further, China also boasts considerable investment stocks in the coup-affected countries. Niger and Sudan host US$1.4 billion and US$1.1 billion of Chinese FDI stock respectively while Guinea is home to US$959 million of Chinese investments. Except for Burkina Faso which restored diplomatic relations with China in 2018, all the countries have joined China’s flagship foreign economic policy initiative – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – through which China has generously funded major infrastructure projects in Global South countries.

Photo credit: Paul Kagame / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The coup-affected countries have received their fair share of Chinese BRI projects. Guinea has become a key source of bauxite – a sedimentary rock with high aluminium concentration – for China which supports its aluminium industry. Chinese enterprises won contracts to build a major highway that will connect Guinea-Conakry and Guinea-Bissau. China Baowu Steel Group signed a resources-for-infrastructure deal which would see it exploit Guinea’s iron ore reserves in exchange for laying down a 600km railway line between the site of the mining project and the ports. These projects were signed after the 2021 coup indicating that the Chinese government had no qualms working with the Guinean junta. Just four months before former President Ali Bongo was ousted by a military putsch, China and Guinea upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership which is the highest level of a bilateral relationship between China and any African country. Gabon is the source of 22 percent of China’s manganese ore imports. Chinese companies manage over half of Gabon’s commercial logging sector. Beijing regarded Gabon as its gateway to the Central African region.


China is the second largest investor in Niger after France. The China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) have reportedly invested US$4.6 billion and US$480 million in the oil and nuclear sectors respectively. The CNPC constructed a 2000km pipeline from Niger to its coastal neighbour, Benin. The company also built the SORAZ oil refinery which has a capacity of 20 000 barrels per day. In Chad, the CNPC is effectively in control of the country’s oil sector. The CNNC has embarked on several uranium exploitation projects. Mali has also seen a fair share of Chinese investments. These include China’s Ganfeng Lithium Co’s acquisition of a 50 percent stake in the Goulamina mine and the Bamako-Conakry and Bamako-Dakar railway lines valued at US$8 billion and US$1.48 billion respectively. Chinese investors have also been circling in on Burkina Faso since the country cut its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and acknowledged the One China policy in 2018. Burkina Faso secured a US$94 million funding for the laying of a 650km fibre optic cables to improve the country’s internet infrastructure. Chinese companies have also helped themselves to some of Burkina Faso’s rich gold deposits which have seen the country become the fourth largest gold producer in Africa. Chad and Sudan also host massive investments from China. The latter has built multibillion-dollar oil pipelines and refineries in the two oil-rich states. Chinese companies have also won numerous contracts to build public infrastructure such as roads, dams, rail, and communication cables particularly in Sudan.


It is not surprising that China’s statements on the coups that took place in the seven countries have been largely meek. The Chinese government has typically avoided condemning the coup leaders, opting rather to call for the peaceful resolution of differences and the restoration of order and pledging support for the positions of the AU and the regional bodies. Only in the case of Guinea did the Chinese government issue an unusually forceful statement opposing the coup leaders. China has even gone further to oppose the imposition of African-backed UNSC sanctions on Mali in January 2022 arguing that the UN must not interfere in the internal affairs of member states. This position reneged on its commitment to always pursue a common position with African countries in platforms like the UNSC. Thus, while China’s non-interference principle used to frustrate the West, it is now frustrating the AU and the regional economic communities (RECs). The continental body has been making efforts to entrench democratic norms by taking an uncharacteristically strong stance against unconstitutional changes of government but China, with all the leverage it has, will not lift a finger to help. China’s continued cooperation with the pariah states in the Sahel region has enabled them to withstand the sanctions imposed on them by their regional bodies and the AU and also granted them much-needed international legitimacy. Grateful for the support from Beijing, it will not be surprising if these military regimes open up their extractive sectors to Chinese enterprises on generous terms. Africa is learning that China’s non-interference principle is little more than an elixir that China uses to facilitate economic cooperation. Will African leaders be brave enough to bring this up at the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)? Only time will tell.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg (CACS). He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His research interests are China-Africa relations in the technology, media and economic spheres, African political-economy, immigration, and global politics.

Khensani Sarah Ntlemo is a researcher at CACS. She holds an Honours degree in Industrial Sociology and a BA in Humanities from the University of Johannesburg. She is currently enrolled for a Masters Degree at UJ. Her study is situated within the broad field of the Sociology of work and work restructuring.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.