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The Sky is the Limit: Aviation and Africa-China Relations

Photo via Ethiopian Airlines

By Lukas Fiala

When Angolan President João Lourenço returned from China over the last week, he made a few noteworthy announcements. However, Lourenço’s apparent desire to have China finance an air force base in Angola stood out.

It is too early to predict the outcome of such plans. Yet, as we wait for more information on the potential China-financed air force base, it’s worthwhile to consider why civilian aviation — and its possible link to military use cases — might well emerge as one key area of cooperation in the “new era” of Africa-China relations.

The opportunity to cooperate on aviation is obvious for African countries and China. With Africa’s commercial jet fleet projected to double over the next 20 years in the context of a sustained growth in air traffic, the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Action Plan (2022-2024) encourages “Chinese enterprises to invest in African ports, airports, and airlines,” and to open “more flights and shipping services connecting China and Africa” (paragraph 3.2.5).

Given that African airports have historically had strong connections to former colonial powers and lacked intra-continental links, it’s apparent why regional governments are keen to diversify cooperation with new partners and destinations within Africa and beyond. In addition, pioneering African carriers such as Ethiopian Airlines have long been important political symbols with connections to Pan-Africanism as well as national economic development.

The contemporary implications for global politics are not far-fetched. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopian Airlines did not suspend flights to China and later opened a cold-chain air freight connection to Shenzhen to transport vaccines.

Furthermore, from China’s aviation industry’s perspective, African carriers may present potential future clients. With COMAC’s C-919 single-aisle narrow-body aircraft conducting its first test flight in 2017 and delivery underway, COMAC is on the lookout for new markets with the ability to undercut international competitors on price. Of course, COMAC and the C-919 are far from dislodging the near duopoly of Airbus and Boeing, but while COMAC lacks market share, it certainly does not lack ambition.

A good example is the Air Silk Road (ASR) and the associated Air Silk Road Alliance, which includes COMAC and other industry players in China. While the ASR is a product of a complex set of conditions in China, including inter-provincial competition between Henan and neighboring provinces, its rhetoric has been refashioned to suit the Belt and Road Initiative’s emphasis on infrastructure development.

According to the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China’s leading state-owned military aeronautics firm, the ASR aims to “provide integrated aviation solutions to countries along the Belt and Road, including aviation-related products, infrastructure, operation,” among other things.

For instance, Angola’s Luanda International Airport, constructed by the AVIC subsidiary China Aviation Technology International Engineering Company (CATIEC), has become part of the ASR.

It remains to be seen whether Angola’s proposal for a China-financed air force base will be realized and whether it will be connected to the airport in Luanda. However, the synergies between China’s existing engagement in this sector and the potential for military use are hard to overlook. Aviation is poised to play a vital role in connecting the continent and China in increasingly meaningful ways.

Lukas Fiala is the project head of China Foresight at LSE IDEAS.

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