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The Historic Roots of China-Africa Cooperation

The African continent is often seen as a land of paradoxes. Although it possesses many natural resources and extremely fertile land, many of its citizens remain underfed. Multiple Western development initiatives have tried to take on this challenge, but a majority of the African population still lives in poverty.

China in Africa (2014) |
China in Africa (2014) |

Because of this, a rising sentiment within the African populace has risen against Western development aid. China has been able to exploit such anti-Western leanings by implementing its own development project called “the belt and road initiative,” proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2014.

However, the growing Chinese presence in Africa is very controversial, and the real objectives of the belt and road initiative are increasingly being questioned. Some U.S. policymakers and others in academia even see the possibility of Chinese neocolonialism budding in Africa. Yet, the discussion on the role of China in Africa is not new. During the Cold War, U.S. agencies were already closely following Chinese activities in Africa, a region long considered to be strategically important to U.S. interests. It’s therefore interesting to examine how U.S. foreign policy toward China has been in the past, and how possible U.S. inaction may have led to the growing Chinese influence on the African continent.

When Foreign Service Officer Robert W. Drexler began working in the Africa and China section of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in 1963, he quickly learned how important Africa—as well as its strategic and abundant natural resources—was to different Cold War competitors. However, the Chinese proved to be especially good at cultivating the African people. Even then, U.S. officials recognized the potential threat Chinese activity in Africa posed to U.S. interests. Robert W. Drexler, however, talks about how the U.S. interest in Chinese actions in Africa flagged rather quickly because the U.S. had other issues to worry about, such as the Vietnam war.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Foreign Service Officer Robert W. Drexler discusses the atmosphere surrounding Chinese relations with Africa during the Cold-war period.

Apart from working for INR, Drexler also was a political officer in Malaysia, Colombia, and Hong Kong.

Robert W. Drexler’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 1, 1996.

Read Robert W. Drexler’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Sjorre Couvreur

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“Africa loomed very important at that time, it was a cockpit of the Cold War.”

Forum on China Africa Cooperation (2015) | GCIS
Forum on China Africa Cooperation (2015) | GCIS

Q: One thing before we move to ACDA: Watching China in Africa during this time. There was a lot of attention in Africa at this time. These were new countries coming up, and we knew the names of Sekou Toure and Kwame Nkrumah, etc., etc. Today Africa doesn’t raise much of a blip on our radar. And China was certainly a very new player in there, as was the Soviet Union. Did you find that you were up against people who were concerned that China was going to do a lot more in Africa at that time?

DREXLER: As you say, Africa loomed very important at that time, it was a cockpit of the Cold War. Also, there was a feeling that there were places in Africa that had mineral wealth, uranium, oil, that was important to us strategically or could be very important if it fell into Communist hands. So there was a great deal of concern about that, especially after Zhou En-lai’s trip. But the Chinese also became, or tried to be, champions of the non-aligned and the Bandung movement, to which the Africans were very receptive. And it involved, of course, the exclusion of the Soviets, as well as the Americans. So it was kind of a third force, and it had great resonance in Africa at that time. And the Chinese were very good at cultivating these people. So while American officials had an exaggerated view of the potential there for China to sow trouble for us, there was certainly grounds for some concern at that time. It was not wholly exaggerated. The Chinese had a small aid program, but it was sharply focused. They had excellent language training programs. It was taken for granted that when the Chinese Ambassador stepped off the plane no matter where in Africa, he spoke the local African language. I’m not talking about French, say, but the local language very well. And also the Chinese example of Maoism appealed to the Africans in a way that Soviet Communism did not. Like the new African nations, China was a poor country, victim of colonialism, in a way, pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, fighting off imperialism, so there was real resonance.

Q: There’s a racial thing there too, because the Soviets were white and the Chinese were not white

DREXLER: When I finally got a defector — the only one I told you I can remember, from the Chinese embassy in Africa — and I went to talk to him, I asked him, “What did you feel about the Africans?” He said “We looked down on them, we despised them racially.” But he said, “Naturally, of course, this was never made apparent to the Africans, but we had the strong Chinese racial prejudice against blacks.” But what you said before is true. They were colored, and the Chinese tried to capitalize on this.

Q: Did you find that as INR was so downplaying the long-range influence of the Chinese, where there were others in the government saying you don’t understand?

DREXLER: I think not. There was very little expertise on this subject, and it was not so difficult for us to get our more moderate views accepted by officials in Washington. And the interest in the Chinese in Africa flagged rather quickly, and of course in part it was because we had other things to worry about, especially Vietnam.


Harvard University
Joined the Foreign Service 1956
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—Political Officer 1961–1963
ACDA, Geneva—Counselor for arms control 1972–1975
Bogota, Colombia—Political Officer 1975–1978