'China-powered' African Agency and its Limits: The Case of the DRC 2007-2019

Does China provide African countries with ‘China-powered’ agency to challenge other external actors for their own political benefit? This was the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 2007 to 2009. A Chinese package deal – the Sicomines agreement – allowed the Congolese regime to exercise ‘China-powered’ agency, playing China and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) off against each other. During this period the DRC was able to secure a sizeable Chinese infrastructure loan and benefit from debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief initiative. However, the limits of the ‘China-powered’ leveraging strategy have since become apparent. During the 2010–2019 period China did not enable the Congolese regime to exercise such agency. The ‘switching’ allowed by the Sicomines agreement hinged on the fact that it was a large-scale financing arrangement negotiated at the top levels of government. After Sicomines, China’s approach to the DRC shifted. China retains strong strategic interests in the DRC and is still supportive of the Congolese regime, but in the years following Sicomines its strategy in the country has been one of cautious diplomacy, rather than one of bold statements and large development finance offers. This shows that while political actors in aid-dependent countries can indeed be endowed with ‘China-powered’ agency that they can use in relation to China and other external actors, it is a circumscribed kind of agency that hinges on China’s own strategic interests.