Policy Paper
CLASH OF SYSTEMS: African Perceptions of the European Union and China Engagement

African policymakers’ perceptions of the competition between Europe and China in Africa
The Clash of Systems

Nairobi, 22 June 2022 

Over the past fifteen years, China has successfully positioned itself as a major trading partner and investor in Africa, displacing Europe as the most important partner in large infrastructure projects and the exploitation of raw materials. This competition by China puts European trade, investment and development policies in Africa to a rocky test. In order to better understand the different strategies of Europe and China and how they are perceived in Africa and further develop recommendations for European and Africa policymakers, the Global Partnership Hub of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation commissioned a Kenyan private think tank, Inter Region Economic Network (IREN), to conduct an independent study and key informant survey involving African policymakers. The results of the online survey have now been presented in a study entitled "The Clash of Systems - African Perception of the European Union and China Engagement".

“The African survey participants hold up a mirror to European policy on Africa and expose Europe’s sometimes still paternalistic and romantic view of Africa. Europe's belief in the superiority of its own values contrasts with the pragmatic view of Africans on the performance and behaviour of the two partners (the EU and China)," says Stefan Schott, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in East Africa Project Director. "To put it simply: A road that is completed after a short construction period by the Chinese is also a value in the perception of Africans and more concrete than some European projects to promote democracy, human rights or sustainability."

The survey participants rated China highly especially with regards to quick decision-making. China received a massive approval rating of 75.2% over the European Union at only 55.8%. China was highly rated on timely completion of projects at 81.1% compared to 69.4% for the European Union. Though both China and the EU were perceived as meddlesome in the internal affairs of African partners, China was perceived to be less so at 50.1% compared to the EU at 64.4%. However, China was seen to have fewer scruples with regards to employing corruption as a tool of trade. The survey results showed that 55.2% of the policymakers believe that China uses corruption as a tool compared to 32.5% who think the same of the EU.

The EU, however, retains dominance in many aspects of cooperation where respondents perceive the EU as having an advantage. These include the following:  quality of the products or services delivered, working conditions, employing local workers and creating jobs for Africans, upholding environmental standards and better treatment of Africans. The scores were as follows:

  • According to the perception results, the EU is strongest on delivery of high-quality products and services, with 93.5% of policymakers perceive the EU as delivering high-quality products and services compared to 67.9% for China 
  • This is followed by job creation and employment of local workers in which the EU scored 84.8% against China’s 71.7% 
  • The EU also scored highly in upholding environmental standards at 82.5% compared to 58.5% for China 
  • The EU was also perceived as performing better in providing better working conditions at 70.5% compared to China’s 55.7% 
  • 61.3% of the policymakers also perceived the EU favourably in terms of its treatment of Africans as equal partners compared to 51.4% for China.


“While the EU outperforms China on most performance indicators, China continues to gain ground in Africa. This apparent paradox is easy to explain: obviously, the aspects of cooperation where China is strong are of particular relevance to the African partners,” explains James Shikwati, Founder and CEO of IREN. "In particular, China is focusing on large, material projects, while Europe in Africa is focusing on smaller and often more abstract projects."

China has a commanding competitive advantage when it comes to large construction projects in Africa. Chinese state-owned companies have significantly changed the terrain of the continent with rails, roads, bridges, ports, dams and skyscrapers. This is also reflected in the survey of African policymakers. The statement “China supports the development of infrastructure in Africa” was supported by 85.5% of the respondents. This is an emphatic approval compared to Europe’s 64.2 percent.

The study recommends that in order to be able to compete with the centrally controlled China, the EU with its 27 member states and the complicated decision-making processes  has a structural disadvantage. Against this background, the study recommends streamlining and accelerating the decision-making processes in the EU.

The study further recommends that Europeans must redefine their outdated and paternalistic approach to Africa. Africa should no longer be perceived as a recipient of aid, but as a continent of future opportunities.

For the African policymakers, the following are key observations and recommendations emerging from the study:

  • Policy and partnership options: Africa has options. With multiple suitors, influencers and distributed geopolitical centres of gravity, Africa can optimise on its policy and partner options. Africa states can and should leverage this advantage to optimise the continent’s trade, investment and development co-operation potential
  • Risky trade-offs: While embracing and building on the momentum for development that China has injected into the continent, African policymakers must be careful not to sacrifice the long-term good of the continent for short-term benefits. Of particular concern is the kind of trade, investment and development co-operation contracts procured and the quality of especially the large infrastructural projects undertaken. Policymakers must be cautious about the pitfalls of “bling” projects.
  • Risk of debt traps: African policymakers must learn from the experience from elsewhere to avoid getting irretrievably enmeshed in debt traps. 
  • Digital security and data protection: In the era of increasing digitalisation and surveillance capitalism, the African states must put a premium on digital security and data protection. This is critical because these emerging digital megatrends shape the new frontier for global competition, development and security.

The study "The Clash of Systems - African Perception of the European Union and China Engagement" is now available on the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom website.