The Fact and Fiction of Sino-African Energy Relations

Erica S. Downs
Erica S. Downs Former Brookings Expert

June 1, 2007

The expanding footprint in Africa of China’s national oil companies (NOCs)1 lies at the heart of concerns of many policy-makers and pundits in the United States and Europe. China’s deepening engagement with Africa is viewed as an erosion of their own interests and influence on the continent.2 The conventional wisdom about China’s NOCs in Africa has two parts. It sees the companies prevailing in the competition to gain access to African oil as part of a highly-coordinated government strategy to ensure that China’s burgeoning demand for oil is satisfied. Moreover, it is alleged that this strategy does more than just secure oil for Chinese markets – it also undermines American and European efforts to maintain a level playing field for foreign investors, promote good governance and punish regimes that egregiously violate human rights.

This article examines a number of widely accepted “facts” about the growing involvement of China’s NOCs in Africa. While some of these have some validity, others simply do not. Contrary to public opinion, China’s NOCs are not “lock-ing up” the lion’s share of African oil as part of a centralized quest for energy. In addition, the extent to which the Chinese NOCs’ involvement in the African oil patch has contributed to the erosion of the “rules of the game” – established by Western governments and international fi nancial institutions for foreign invest- ment, foreign aid and human rights – may be exaggerated in some cases.Discerning fact from fi ction within the discourse about Sino-African energy relations is important in order to understand the activities of China’s NOCs in Africa as well as to inform policy-making in Washington, D.C. and other world capitals.