Many fear that China’s investments and foreign aid to Africa are inconsistent with the generally accepted international norms of transparency and good governance. This concern is shared by many African leaders as well.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao responded to similar accusations during a visit to seven African countries in June 2006 when he noted that, “The cap of ‘new colonialism’ should never be put on China. China had suffered about 110 years of colonialism since the Opium War in 1840. The Chinese people understand the pains brought about by colonialism and know colonialism should be battled against. This is one of the reasons that we have long been supporting liberation and revival of the African nations.”
Chinese official Lu Shaye made the point even more emphatically: “Some Westerners said China’s cooperation with African countries is a practice of ‘colonialism,’ while the African people said the West is re-colonizing Africa. Let’s see what colonialism is—grabbing resources with violence, enslaving African people, seizing land and destroying African culture. China helps some African countries build roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. We buy African resources with equivalent exchanges. China never interferes with other countries’ internal affairs, or imposes China’s culture and values, but communicates with the African countries on an equal basis. We support the African countries solving their problems independently.”
To a large extent his definition of colonialism is accurate. He is also accurate in suggesting that African leaders are much more skeptical about the intentions of Western powers in Africa than they are about China’s.
However, the mutual accusations of “neo-colonialism” reflect a growing competition between China and the United States for African resources, especially oil. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent upheaval throughout the Middle East, both China and the United States became dependent on African oil as each sought to diversify its supply lines away from the Middle Eastern crude.
The economic rivalry between China and the United States is therefore evident in Africa just as their military competition plays out in the Pacific. A report by U.S. think tanks, including the RAND Corporation, the Heritage Foundation, and the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations urge strategies to weaken China’s influence in Africa.
The AFRICOM (African Defense Force) established in 2007 is a clear example of the United States’ readiness to respond to terrorist activities in Africa. But it could also reflect attempts to reinforce U.S. military preeminence in Africa ahead of any possible Chinese military buildup on the pretext of defending Chinese economic investment.
While this potential competition may be interpreted as a new form of colonialism, it may provide African leaders with the opportunity for pitting one power against the other to maximize economic benefits. Competition between China and the West offers opportunities for Africa, but what seems lacking is African leaders’ ability to take advantage of these opportunities by developing their negotiation strategies.
The Sino-African Future
Since the China-Africa Summit of 2004, China has accelerated its relationship with Africa. This new relationship reflects China’s version of globalization. The United States perceives China’s economic expansion in Africa as a serious concern primarily because of Africa’s huge oil resources and geopolitical location.
For Africa, China offers significant opportunities but also worries. Unless African countries find ways of negotiating the complex webs of international politics, the continent will once again become a theater for imperial competition by proxy.