Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Angola have been shaped by the PRC’s involvement in Angolan anti-colonial movements and the protracted post-independence civil war, but cooperation between the two countries hit a high note during postwar reconstruction. During the period of armed struggle for independence from Portugal (1961–74) and in the early years of the Angolan civil war (1975–2002), China provided varying forms of support to competing groups vying for political control. These included the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Seeking to counter Soviet influence in the Third World and perhaps recognising affinities between UNITA’s guerrilla tactics and Mao’s rural-based revolution, China for a time favoured UNITA over the MPLA. However, by the late 1970s, the MPLA, claiming to represent the government of Angola, began talks with Chinese counterparts, and in 1983 the two countries officially established diplomatic relations.
Perhaps due to the inconsistency of bilateral relations during the civil war, it took China another two decades to powerfully reassert itself as an ally of the Angolan state. In 2002, the death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi heralded the official end to the civil war. In need of financing for postwar reconstruction, the MPLA, under the leadership of President José Eduardo dos Santos, initially sought support from Western donors. However, by the end of the war, donors who had once been interested in promoting peace in Africa had shifted focus to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angola was also unable or unwilling to meet the conditionalities that would have accompanied funding from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The Angolan government therefore turned to China. In 2003, a framework agreement was signed between the Angolan Ministry of Finance and the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, under which lines of credit worth 4.5 billion USD would be released from Chinese policy banks for funding the National Reconstruction Programme. Repayment of these loans was to be guaranteed through regular shipments of oil from Angola to China. In 2004, the Angolan government received an additional source of financing from China International Fund (CIF), a private company based in Hong Kong that is thought to have close connections to members of both the Chinese and Angolan governments. CIF provided several billion dollars in oil-backed loans for infrastructure construction and established a joint venture with the Angolan state-owned oil and gas company Sonangol to conduct exploration and trade in the petroleum sector.
The following decade saw a flurry of public infrastructure construction to fulfill both the immediate needs of postwar reconstruction and the development goals of the Angolan state. As oil production increased and oil prices rose, the country experienced double digit economic growth. Drawing a contrast against relations with Western countries, in 2006 President dos Santos described bilateral relations with China as ‘pragmatic’ and devoid of ‘political conditions’. This ‘pragmatic partnership’ between China and Angola facilitated the entry of both Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private entrepreneurs into the booming Angolan market. Chinese media had been reporting for several years on Angola as an important oil producer full of ‘golden opportunities’ for Chinese businesses. Moreover, as a condition of the Export–Import Bank of China, the majority of construction and civil engineering projects funded by the concessional loans would have to be awarded to Chinese firms on a list of approved SOEs, and at least half of equipment and supplies would be procured in China. By 2010, then Chinese ambassador to Angola Zhang Bolun reported that there were over 50 state-owned and 400 private Chinese companies ‘involved in Angola’s national reconstruction’. Pressure to quickly complete projects like the reconstruction of roads, water supply, and other basic infrastructure served as justification for employing thousands of Chinese technicians to do the work. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of Chinese citizens reported to be working in Angola grew from less than 5,000 to more than 250,000.
The prominence of ‘resources for infrastructure’ exchanges in the relations between China and Angola gave rise to the term the ‘Angola model’, a widely used, though disputed, concept which implies that Chinese loan agreements with oil-rich Angola have served as a template for engaging with African countries and the broader developing world. However, recent political and economic events have shifted the terms of the relationship. From mid-2014 to early 2016, the price of oil—which in 2012 accounted for 46% of Angola’s GDP and 96% of its exports—plummeted by 70%. Facing a crisis during which food was rationed and foreign currency became impossible to access, the Angolan government requested a freeze on repayment of its debt to China, which had by 2016 grown to an estimated 25 billion USD. At the same time, it began to reach out to other lenders, like the World Bank. In 2017, for the first time in 38 years, Angola elected a new president, João Lourenço, who launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign targeting MPLA elites like the children of former president dos Santos, thus dismantling some of the personalistic structures that had supported China–Angola relations in the past. Angolan officials voiced interest in attracting investment and loans from countries other than China, which in 2017 held nearly 70% of Angola’s 32.7-billion-USD external debt. In 2018, Angola negotiated an unprecedented 3.7-billion-USD credit facility with the IMF; this reportedly included a commitment to stop taking oil-backed loans from China.
In September 2018, Angolan President João Lourenço attended the Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), at which a memorandum of understanding (MoU) related to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was signed between Angola and China. Returning to Beijing only one month later, Lourenço was the first African leader to make an invited state visit to China after the FOCAC meeting. Angolan and Chinese officials have described a ‘new phase’ of China–Angola relations, in which emphasis has shifted from postwar reconstruction to ‘economic development’. Chinese representatives express a desire for greater ‘efficiency’ in the implementation of Chinese-financed projects in Angola, with an aim to support ‘more sustainable’ development in the country. At the same time, the Angolan government has attempted to attract Chinese investment in priority sectors like agriculture, fisheries, tourism, and industry—part of a broader effort to diversify the economy and avoid overreliance on oil. An unprecedented privatisation programme is currently underway in Angola, with the aim of attracting foreign investment in formerly public entities.Chinese initiatives to support education and technical training in Angola have become more prominent in recent years. In 2018, the Chinese government agreed to donate 28 million USD to set up an Integrated Technology Training Centre (CINFOTEC) in Huambo Province, and construction began in February 2021. In August 2020, it was reported that Huawei had signed an MoU with the Angolan Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support training in information and communication technologies. The Chinese telecom company announced plans to build a technology park in Luanda worth 60 million USD by the end of 2021.
Economic relations between Angola and China have historically been heavily influenced by bilateral agreements and lending arrangements from Chinese policy banks. These structures, which have facilitated financial, commodity, and labour flows, resist neat compartmentalisation into distinct categories of aid, trade, and investment. However, trade and investment activities that fall outside of the scope of oil-backed loans have been encouraged by both governments in recent years.
Trade: China’s initial lending agreements with Angola might best be understood as a type of financing designed to facilitate trade. Since 2007, Angola has consistently ranked as China’s largest trading partner on the African continent. However, this position is largely determined by Angolan oil exports to China. Angola has become the second largest source of oil imported to China, after Saudi Arabia, and in 2019, 68% of Angolan crude exports reportedly went to China. According to Chinese government sources, in 2019 Chinese exports to Angola amounted to around 2 billion USD, while Chinese imports from Angola were valued at over 23 billion USD. This positive trade balance for Angola belies a relationship in which petroleum dominates Angolan exports to China, while China exports value-added products to Angola—a discrepancy that can perhaps only be addressed through development of Angolan industrial capacity.
Investment: While loans from Chinese policy banks should not be considered investment per se, they have expedited the Angolan government’s public investment programme and facilitated investment by Chinese companies. SOEs that came to Angola to fulfill government contracts financed by Chinese credit lines have taken up additional projects in the country or expanded into other sectors. Many private Chinese companies, pushed to go abroad due to domestic market competition, set up businesses in Angola importing construction materials or other commodities related to postwar reconstruction. China is currently the leading source of proposals for foreign private investment in Angola. Reports from the Catholic University of Angola have specifically singled out Guangde International Group, owner of a shopping centre for furniture produced in Angola and factories for lead batteries, for investing over 230 million USD, contributing to job creation, national production, and exports from non-mineral sectors. They also cited Jiangzhou Agriculture for its significant agricultural investment in Huambo.
Aid: China’s foreign aid to Angola has taken the forms of construction of low-cost housing, construction of schools and hospitals, deployment of medical teams, humanitarian aid, training workshops, and debt relief. Some recent Chinese aid projects include an international relations institute and an agricultural demonstration center, both delivered in 2019, and a vocational training center which was established in February 2021.
Other Finance: According to the calculation of SAIS-CARI, Angola has received more loans from China than any other African country, totalling 43.2 billion USD in 2019, including from China’s policy and commercial banks. While these loans are often confused with Chinese ‘aid’, many of them do not fall into the Chinese government’s official categories of aid nor the ‘official development assistance’ (ODA) defined by OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC). Some of the loans, such as those from the China Development Bank (CDB), are commercial in nature.
Chinese–Angolan engagements in the context of postwar reconstruction were consistently criticised for allegedly benefiting the Chinese state, companies, and individuals, as well as Angolan elites—specifically President dos Santos and his close associates—at the expense of broader Angolan society. Many facets of Chinese construction have been cited as evidence of this. For instance, the Luanda General Hospital, built by a Chinese SOE with funding from a Chinese government grant, began showing serious structural deficiencies and had to be evacuated only four years after it was built. Premature deterioration of roads and other public infrastructure built with Chinese funding and construction companies may have been partly attributable to poor management and/or corruption on the part of Angolan institutions and individuals, but Chinese actors were nonetheless viewed as complicit partners if not cynical opportunists.
The massive influx of Chinese workers to Angola during national reconstruction triggered concerns about job creation for local labourers as well as some Chinese nationals’ movement from construction into other sectors, where they would compete with Angolan workers and entrepreneurs. Although no evidence to support this claim was ever produced, Chinese men living and working on construction sites were rumoured to be convict labourers. Also, voices in Angolan civil society expressed alarm at the sight of Chinese hawkers competing against impoverished Angolan women street vendors. In the initial years of postwar reconstruction, Chinese companies were found to engage in exploitative and sometimes illegal labour practices in their treatment of Angolan employees. However, over the past ten years, Chinese firms may have significantly improved their labour practices, employing more local workers and providing pay and benefits that could contribute to poverty alleviation.
The benefit of some Chinese projects to Angolan citizens has also been debated, with the colossal Kilamba Kiaxi housing project attracting particular attention in international media due to its scale and perceived unsuitability to the local context. Projects funded by China International Fund (CIF), such as the new Luanda International Airport, have been scrutinised for their opacity and for the alleged corruption of associated high-profile individuals. Large projects involving Chinese contractors and funding have also been criticised for expropriating land from local residents or for their ecological impacts.Debt sustainability remains a significant point of contention in bilateral relations. China has been involved in negotiations to restructure Angolan debt in the face of impacts from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying fall in oil prices.
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Cover Photo: Angola. Credit (CC): Oscar Megia.