The Rise of A Chinese Empire – China and the African Continent

Published on 26 June 2020 at 22:08

As the age of liberation grows ever more prominent, it has become increasingly difficult for economic powers to plant their exploitative footholds within less economically powerful countries with the means of colonisation and/or excessive political intervention. The beginning of the 1960s marked a sudden surge in outbursts within Africa which would eventually lead to the liberation of several countries within the continent from their European colonizers, subsequently converting them into independent states. These conversions persisted throughout the decade and continued well into the 1970s until they were brought to a halt by the Republic of Zimbabwe on 18th April 1980, when the African country was granted its independence by Great Britain.


The colony-colonizer relationship hoisted itself upon two fundamental standpoints: 1) To control and directly influence the economic development of the colonized territory, and in doing so, 2) Ensuring to prevent the imposition of protective tariffs on domestic products which would allow the colonized territory’s local economy to prosper. Since the dawn of the decolonization of Africa, the world has overseen the gradual depletion of the British Empire’s territorial discretion. Unfortunately, this has not been to say that the principal standpoints of colonialism were never again seen to be exercised within the continent. Following its gradual departure from the African continent, the British Empire had, unbeknownst to itself, left in its stead a position reserved solely for the continent’s modern-day exploiters: The People’s Republic of China, or, as we may soon come to know it, the Chinese Empire.


Arthur Kroeber described China as a “transitional post-communist economy”. Through its transition from a “centrally planned economy” to one that is greatly influenced by foreign markets, China has subtly but surely expanded its markets across the globe, particularly Africa, in which it strategically mimics certain British imperialist behavior in order to achieve both its economic and diplomatic objectives.


To Control and Directly Influence Economic Development


Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary (2001-2006), is quoted to have highlighted the similarities between China’s tactics in Africa during the 21st century to what the British Empire had been practicing during the 19th century by building infrastructure and opening mines. He announced, “welcome to the new colonists”, in frustration towards the Chinese government “refusing meetings with their British counterparts” regarding joint partnerships in projects involving the African continent. China, over the past few decades, has gradually tightened its economic fist around Africa, building supposedly beneficial infrastructural projects, perhaps as façades to mask its imperialistic expansion throughout the continent and its exploitation of the continent’s natural resources.


China has (and still continues to) actively expended large sums of its budget into initiating the setting up of various infrastructure projects throughout Africa, the first of which started around the introduction of one of its earliest projects in the continent, the “Tazara Railway”; a 1,860 kilometer direct link between Tanzania and Zambia which China built and financed between the years 1970-1975. By 2009, China had conducted a series of infrastructure projects within 35 African countries, taking full advantage of the political tensions that arose from post-colonial rule challenges within the continent. In 2004, Sino-African relations within Angola strengthened following the agreement of a China Ex-Im Bank line of credit to allow the government to repair the country’s infrastructure that was crippled by the effects of the Angolan 27-year civil war which ended in 2002. China is now Angola’s largest oil-exporter market. In 2005, Nigeria received its first loan from China through the China Ex-Im bank to support the construction of the power stations Papalanto, Omotosho, and Geregu in the regions of Ogun, Ondo, and Kogi. In 2016, Nigeria signed $80 billion in provisional contracts with 38 Chinese companies to refine the country’s oil and gas infrastructure. On 10th-12th October 2000, China held the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting. Today, 52 African nations, in addition to the commission of the African Union, are members of FOCAC. 


In Sudan, an African country greatly disadvantaged by economic sanctions imposed by the United Sates in October 1997 and lifted two decades after on 6th October 2017, China has planted a significantly impactful economic foothold. From both nations’ perspectives, this was seen as replacing one economic power with another. This Sino-African relationship traces back to 30th June 1989, the day in which occurred Sudan’s seizure by the National Islamic Front Party (NIF), an authoritarian regime led by President Omar Al-Bashir, who remained in rule up until recently overthrown on 11th April 2019, following a series of mass protests across the country. Political and social conflict under the early stages of the regime resulted in over two million deaths and, according to Daniel Large in his article on “China’s Sudan Engagement”, the internal displacement of more than four million people and half a million refugees.


The internally conflicted “oil-rich state” excited China’s economic interests, initiating relations based on what Large described as, “the political facilitation of an economics-in-command model spearheaded by oil investment”. Eventually, Sudan had risen to the role of star player in the match of Sino-African relations as it became China’s 6th largest oil supplier by 2007, and remains as China’s third largest trade partner in Africa. By 2014, “Sinopec”, a Chinese Petroleum and Chemical Corporation, was active in 16 African countries including Sudan. The list also includes Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Tunisia.


In the heart of exploitation, the Chinese moulded their strategies in order to suit the apparent nature of domestic or political instability within a particular African nation. The most common of strategies adopted is that of lending of arms to aid domestic and internal political wars, for which China is often criticised. This strategy allows China to use African countries as “economic satellites” by aiding the structural damage of a country in return for natural resources, only to then subsequently appear and offer infrastructural aid in return for more resources -  although it is not always the case that the Chinese would offer infrastructural aid as a direct response to structural damage which they contributed to causing.


China has been documented to have supplied arms to the Ethiopian-Eritrean border conflict, a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea which took course between 6th May 1998 – 9th July 2018. Similarly, it supplied arms to aid the suppression of rebels revolting in Darfur, a region in the west of Sudan, leading to a genocide of the region for which former president Omar Al-Bashir is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court. The Chinese have also been involved in training troops in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as training commando units in the West African nation, Guinea. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute ( SIPRI) report of 2010 found that China was the “foremost exporter of arms to Africa”.


 In contradiction to China’s claim to create relations with African nations based on a so-called “economics-in-command” strategy, it appears that its intent is not confined to being “spearheaded by oil investment”, but rather is additionally driven by a strive for “consolidation and expansion of its ties and presence in the continent”, as outlined by Professor of International Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies (SIGS) at the University of South Florida, Earl Conteh-Morgan.


Similarly to the late British Empire, China has constructed airports, roads, railways, mines, hospitals, convention centers, and media, health, agriculture, and education sectors in Africa. But perhaps even more similar to the British conquest in Africa is China’s electrification of the continent. Following the end of the Second World War and the emergence of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act (1940), large dams and hydro-electric projects became a central part of British development programmes in Africa; these acted in improving its economy and securing the empire’s overpowering influence in the continent. Between the years 2010-2015, China expended $13 billion to Africa’s power sector. In the span of 5 years, power generation in Sub-Saharan Africa rose from 95 Gigawatts (GW) to 115 GW, 30% of which was brought about by Chinese contractors. 4.2 GW in West Africa, 5.5 GW in East Africa, 1.3 GW in Central Africa, and 5.5 GW in Southern Africa were added by Chinese projects alone; hydropower being the main energy source.



The Belt and Road Initiative


“The Belt and Road initiative” was unveiled by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013, essentially upholding the characteristics of a 21st century Silk Road. Today, China has secured more than $340 billion from projects along the Belt and Road. Nations along the Belt and Road include 38 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, 34 countries in Europe and Central Asia, 25 countries in East Asia and the Pacific, 17 countries in the Middle-East and North Africa, 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 6 countries in South-East Asia.


China’s exceptional market expansion poses the following inevitable question: Could this be the rise of a new empire? Or perhaps better yet -  are we already living in the midst of one?



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