Angola: the American challenge and the Chinese reaction

Angola’s new foreign policy under João Lourenço (2017)

After the end of the Civil War (2002), José Eduardo dos Santos (JES) opted for a “low profile” foreign policy for Angola. Apart from the intensification of relations with China, which essentially had economic objectives, and muscular interventions in African border countries, generally when Angola’s internal security could be at stake, the former President of the Republic did not develop an active policy in the world, preferring it to forget about Angola’s existence.

JES’s non-foreign policy had two fundamental consequences. It took Angola out of the concerns of the major powers, preventing the country from being looked at greedily on the world stage, and in doing so, it allowed the “capture of the state” by private interests to take on unthinkable contours[1] . Angola has become a kind of private property for a few, in the face of the generalised indifference of the world and the glee of sophisticated profiteers.

João Lourenço effectively changed the compass of Angolan foreign policy, promoting what we will call a sovereigntist policy of variable geometry from 2017 onwards.  In other words, Lourenço wanted to put Angola on the world’s radar and the country assumed itself as a regional power, with a role to play in the peaceful stabilisation of Central and Southern Africa; also open to investment and committed to global affairs[2] .

This Laurentian perspective has meant a strong rapprochement with the United States, the Arab countries of the Gulf, but also maintaining relations with China and Russia, and economic realities now impose a stronger bond with India.

While Angola’s new active presidential diplomacy is clear and perceptible, the big question mark is the reaction of the other countries, particularly the major powers, such as the United States, which has an ambiguous history in relation to Angola, as well as China, which is used to playing a decisive role in Angola.

The United States and the Lobito Corridor

It seems that, initially, the United States didn’t understand João Lourenço’s moves. It was at the end of the Trump administration, which had no interest in Africa, there was still, albeit in degradation, an idea of cooperation between America and China, and Russia had not invaded Ukraine. Africa and Angola, in particular, were of no interest to the Americans, except for the traditional oil companies.

However, everything changed at the beginning of the 1920s. The world’s geostrategic situation once again placed Africa as a field of conflicting interests, both in terms of obtaining raw materials (an area in which China was far ahead and in which the US became interested in order to guarantee its strategic autonomy) and in counting support for the Ukrainian War and its aftermath. In this sense, with a new US ambassador in Angola, Tulinabo S. Mushingi, and Luanda’s persistent rapprochement with Washington, the Americans realised that they had a possible new and powerful ally in Angola.

As a result, Angola appeared to become one of the United States’ strongest allies in Africa. Symbols of this were João Lourenço’s trip to Washington for a meeting at the White House with President Joe Biden (December 2023)[3] , and the constant visits by US officials to Luanda (Antony Blinken, five US senators, Samantha Power, Lloyd Austin, among others).

Many projects were announced, most notably the famous Lobito Corridor, which has become the flagship of this intense Angola-US co-operation.

Without going into an in-depth description of this project, the main thing to remember is that it is a railway linking the African interior, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Angola itself, to the port of Lobito. Just recently, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) was announced, mobilising 4.9 billion dollars to date, presented as a significant step by the United States of America, the European Union and private partners to strengthen the commitment to sustainable development and regional integration, benefiting Angola, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo[4] . And at the recent G7 summit in Puglia, Italy, the leaders of the West’s most advanced economies reaffirmed their support for multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects across Africa in order to realise the continent’s economic potential and transformation, specifying the Lobito Corridor as a top priority[5] .

Many observers have claimed that this is a response to Chinese mining domination of Africa[6] . This is unlikely to be the case, since a large part of the minerals to be transported through the Corridor are in mines under Chinese control. Although, according to the Wilson Center, China currently controls only around 8 per cent of Africa’s mining sector, less than half of its Western competitors, this is still an increase from 6.7 per cent in 2018. And as far as the potential beneficiaries of the Lobito Corridor are concerned, what worries the US is China’s monopoly on mining in Africa’s copper belt (Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia) and its recent substantial investments in lithium production in Zimbabwe, which holds Africa’s largest lithium reserves. These investments allow China to dictate the global supply chain for renewable batteries and electric vehicles (EVs). In the DRC, the country with the world’s largest reserves of high-quality cobalt and copper, China currently owns 72 per cent of the cobalt and copper mines, including the Tenge Fungurume mine, which alone produces around 12 per cent of the world’s cobalt output. China’s mining operations in these three countries give Beijing a significant lead in the production of semiconductors and batteries, and therefore in the field of climate security technologies. This leaves the rest of the world increasingly dependent on Chinese innovation and industry to drive global energy transitions and tackle climate change. Furthermore, in the DRC, China owns at least 7 cobalt processing entities, but mainly sends raw minerals back to China for processing and manufacturing in order to meet global demand for critical minerals and finished products[7] .

Naturally, this data on China’s mining influence in the DRC and Zambia makes it clear that the Lobito Corridor will never be an American alternative to Chinese domination of Central African minerals. In fact, to be commercially successful, American transport will need the support of Chinese miners.

Well-placed sources tell us that the objective is less the transport of minerals and more the creation of an agro-industrial development area parallel to the corridor, whose products will be transported through it. It is in this objective that the American option for the Cart Group comes into play. At the aforementioned recent G7 summit, significant funding was announced for the Carrinho Group, which is considered to be a leading Angolan company in the agro-industrial sector, to develop the Lobito Corridor. Apparently, the Carrinho Group, a sort of “darling” company of the Americans, has the task of transforming Angola into a regional food hub, with investments aimed at building and acquiring infrastructure for storing food products[8] . The Carrinho Group has thus become a key part of the American strategy for Africa.

Even so, however, it should be noted that even in the current structure of the Corridor, there is a relevant Chinese company, Mota-Engil, which, although it has a Portuguese name, has the Chinese state as its reference shareholder. The truth is that China Communications Construction Co., Ltd. holds 32.41 per cent of the share capital, and the CEO of Mota-Engil himself, Carlos Mota Santos, has already admitted that CCCC is owned by the State of the People’s Republic of China[9] .

So, at the end of the day, the Lobito Corridor will never be a US project to counter China, but it will certainly have to be a Sino-American co-operative project if it is to succeed. Whether or not this is possible, we’ll see in the future.

The Chinese attitude

For years, while ensuring its exponential economic growth, China adopted a soft and discreet international diplomacy, not confronting but modelling, following the precepts of Deng Xiao Ping, who favoured an international approach known as “taoguang yanghui”, which emphasized the need to avoid polemics and the use of cooperative rhetoric. It is clear that with Xi Jiping, China has entered a new, more assertive phase on the international stage, known as the “warrior wolf”, which does not avoid confrontation, allowing China to occupy the place it recognizes as its own on the world stage.

In this context of assertiveness, contrary to what might have been expected in the past, China has reacted to the American rapprochement with Angola swiftly, above all by expeditiously reoccupying spaces that the Americans or their Western allies have not been able to occupy or where they have been sloppy.

From a political point of view, the Chinese reaction was visible during João Lourenço’s most recent trip to Beijing (March 2024). Although the official statements were of great friendship and success, the Chinese authorities made their disenchantment with João Lourenço known in certain reasonably public circles, contradicting the official narrative of the trip. It was a discreet game, unnoticeable to many, but it existed, demonstrating the Chinese will not “throw in the towel” in Angola.

And the reality is that China’s political will has subsequently asserted itself in China’s field of choice: the economy.

Three recent announcements affirm the renewed Chinese vigour in Angola.

Firstly, a Chinese group is going to build Angola’s first motorway, some 1,400 kilometers long, linking the south to the north of the country. The Chinese state-owned company China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) will build a 1,400 kilometer motorway linking the southern part of Angola with neighbouring Namibia to the northern part of Angola with the Democratic Republic of Congo. Construction is expected to begin at the end of 2025 or in 2026[10] .

This project shows China returning to large-scale infrastructure projects in Angola, something that was thought to be over. However, this is not the case.

Secondly, there is the Angolan government’s intention to terminate the contract with the company that won the tender to build the Soyo refinery, which has had difficulties obtaining funding. This is a consortium led by Quanten, which won an international public tender in 2021 for the construction of the Soyo refinery, made up of four companies, three of which are American (the consortium leader Quanten LLC, TGT INC and Aurum & Sharp LLC) and one Angolan (ATIS Nebest)[11] .

In this case, we have an American failure to secure financing, which leads to the cancellation of a contract, opening the door to China’s entry, because, remember, China had already been involved in the construction of the Soyo refinery during the time of José Eduardo dos Santos, and a Chinese company had come second in the international tender that awarded the contract to Quanten[12] . Now the door is open for the second-placed Chinese, the CMEC consortium made up of China Machinery Engineering Corp,[13] or other Chinese-led interested parties to move into Soyo.

It’s clear that here we are confronted with a typical American problem of our time, the excessive belief in the power of marketing and in financial engineering that is impractical in Africa. To quote the CEO of Mota-Engil, Carlos Mota Santos, the American problem is that “all North American or European investment, with one or two exceptions, is more opportunistic. They are property funds and vulture funds, I don’t see them investing in any industry.”[14]

Finally, we have a third sign of Western withdrawal, now from Siemens, and the opening of more doors to China in an area in which it also has expertise, that of surface metros (let’s remember that the recent fleet of the Porto metro in Portugal has already been equipped with Chinese trains).

Now it’s the case of the surface metro in Luanda. The Germans from Siemens Mobility have pulled out of the project based on a public-private partnership and the Angolan government intends to take on the construction costs itself with funding from China[15] .

It’s a big turnaround, and once again demonstrates the inability or unwillingness of Western companies to invest in Angola. First Quanten failed in Soyo, now Siemens in the Luanda metro. Angola is once again fully open and in need of China to ensure its development.

Slow United States and energetic China

What appears to be the case at the moment is that American and Western goodwill is not enough. The reality is simple. Angola needs money, as it did in 2002 for reconstruction, and once again China seems committed to taking the lead.

The United States seems to want to be with Angola, but when it comes to decisive moments it has no practical or operational solutions, getting lost in plans, projects, trips, financial engineering and announcements of intent. On the other hand, China seems to have realized that a new opportunity is opening up in Angola, and is apparently in a position to take advantage of this new opportunity.

The future will tell.

[1] Rui Verde, 2021, Angola at the Crossroads: Between Kleptocracy and Development, London

[2] See our previous report at


[4] João de Almeida,