EU leaders have recently started internal discussions about the framework to shape relations with Sub-Saharan African countries in the post-Cotonou period. The process is set against the background of increasing contestation over the African continent, most prominently with China. This article argues that for the EU to properly address this competition, it needs to conceptualize it as unfolding not only on the material but also on the ideational level. Contrary to common belief, China is not an amoral actor in Africa, but rather the source of a complex and historically-rooted alternative view on the global system and development cooperation, a view that might be appealing to disenchanted African audiences. Building upon the conceptual framework of ‘strategic narrative’, this article systematically deconstructs the EU and Chinese narratives towards Africa into their core components at the system, identity, relationship and issue level. Empirically, the article is based upon a qualitative analysis of core policy documents on Africa covering the period 2000-2015. By contributing to a better understanding and contextualization of the divergent views and claims espoused by the two narratives, this article lays the foundation for a broader research agenda aimed at grasping the normative competition faced by the EU in Africa.