Over the last few years, China has assiduously pursued stronger economic and diplomatic relations with many Asian, African and Latin American countries. In part, this is fuelled by its extraordinary economic growth, which has led to a boom in domestic resource demand, and the search for profitable markets and investment outlets. China is also seeking diplomatic support in challenging the inequalities of ‘global’ governance. For better and worse, China's rise will lead to changes in the present structures and loci of power in an uneven world. This review article examines one set of China's ‘South–South’ interactions through an historical account of Sino–African relations from 1949 to the present day. It points to the complexity of interactions between diverse Chinese and African actors, a range of opportunities and problems, and the dangers of a defensive response from the West, if based on unreflexive and unsophisticated foreign policy analysis.