Economic Imperialism in Africa

The continent of Africa has been officially independent from colonial rule since the late 20th century. Years of violence and turmoil have resulted in a politically unstable continent, rife with alleged corruption despite a plethora of natural resources. Africa has exemplified the “Resource Curse” in recent years, a theory that states that countries which are rich in natural resources will fail to develop a powerful state infrastructure because of reliance on profit derived from the natural resource market. Compared to many countries in Africa, China has developed as a powerful state, with one of the fastest-growing GDPs in the world and a thriving manufacturing sector. Because of their position near the top of the global economy, China is constantly making efforts to expand its influence, specifically by fostering stronger relationships with many of the most economically prominent African nations. China has asserted its influence in such a way that countries in Africa face a powerful pressure to acquiesce to the Chinese agenda.

One of the methods through which China has attempted to expand influence across the continent is investment and involvement in regional development. One of these endeavors has affected a body called the African Union. The African Union (AU) is an international organization consisting of 55 member states, which meets annually in order to “achieve unity” and “promote peace” on the continent, according to the AU charter. The African Union flagship committee is called the Executive Council, and is primarily tasked with making decisions regarding foreign trade. In 2012, the African Union opened up a new headquarters building in Addis Ababa, which cost around $200 million. The entire bill was paid by the Chinese government, which used its own resources and contributed most of the labor force (about 1,080 out of 1,200 total workers). With the implicit support of the Executive Council, China became Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009 and has increased trade with Africa “over 100-fold” in the last 27 years. In 2014, China ran a $21 billion trade surplus in Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, most African exports to China are raw materials, but most Chinese exports to Africa are manufactured goods. In official government rhetoric, the Chinese premier and foreign minister have the same message: “no-strings attached” investment. This means that, at least according to the government, China expects no political support in return for the investment. It remains to be seen in the long term whether the Chinese rhetoric will match political reality, but at least in the short term, there is no shortage of money flowing into Africa under the guise of cooperation without implicit political ramifications.

China does not only invest in coordinated African Union projects, but also has a powerful presence in individual nations. In mid-2017, China established its first military base on the continent, constructing what is described as a logistics base in Djibouti. This base is used primarily for resupplying naval vessels, but despite this, the Defense Minister of Djibouti and the Deputy Chinese Naval Commander attended the commissioning ceremony. The base was opened during the same week that the sole aircraft carrier of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy made its first voyage to a port off mainland China, after sailing through the Straits of Taiwan, which separates Taiwan from mainland China. To see the significance of the location of an aircraft carrier, one must look no further than the U.S. Navy, which recently sent 3 carrier strike groups to the waters off the coast of North Korea, in anticipation of the President’s upcoming trip to Asia. An aircraft carrier never travels alone, and an entire carrier strike group in the U.S. Navy is typically composed of between 7 and 10 ships. For the PLA Navy (which only owns only one aircraft carrier), this represents a deliberate and purposeful show of force.  The new military base in Djibouti is not simply a resupplying port, but indicates the Chinese willingness to use its influence for military advances in Africa. It is not just military in which China has expanded. In 2002, the Chinese government began to support a private TV corporation called StarTimes which offers low cost television across Sub-Saharan Africa. If this is an effort to garner support for the Chinese government from the general African population in accordance with government statements, the strategy has mixed results: the majority of Africans now view the Chinese government favorably. In the long-term, this means that citizens of African countries may be more amenable to Chinese political goals which they might not have supported without a previously established positive outlook regarding the Chinese government. The infrastructure development and military increase makes it appear as though Africa and China have a healthy and beneficial relationship. However, the Chinese government has demonstrated a complete apathy towards the African people in several ways.

Despite the positive rhetoric from both Africa and China regarding their economic relationship, China has continued to undermine humanitarian aid efforts in Africa and has displayed apathy for anything outside of their immediate national interest. Particularly now, as several countries in Africa are experiencing a historic starvation crisis, it seems as though a truly beneficial relationship for these African countries would entail humanitarian aid. However, the extent to which China has tried to help resolve this crisis is not nearly on par with expenditures on other, more politically important projects. This disregard for humanitarian issues is most prominently seen domestically. China has been known in the past for illegally harvesting organs from executed (and living) political prisoners and covering up the activities when faced with scrutiny from the UN. The government claimed in 2015 that it had ended this controversial practice, but despite this, a CNN report in 2016 uncovered evidence to the contrary. Even though the government has denied organ harvesting, statistic indicate something else. The Communist Party reports only 10,000 legal organ transplants per year, but the largest hospitals in China report over 60,000 transplants. Experts surmise that the deficit is covered by organs taken from political prisoners. This contradiction between publicly displayed sentiment and on-the-ground reality is starkly apparent in Africa as well. According to Human Rights Watch, China has taken efforts to cover up its human rights record in Africa by threatening countries with decreased aid if they release certain statements. The same report details how China will consistently use its increased influence in Africa to “preempt” negative reports from the continent and to coerce nations to speak well of China’s human rights efforts in international organizations such as the Human Rights Council. China’s influence in these countries is so powerful that countries are willing to support the Chinese agenda in exchange for more money. These are the results of a study conducted by AidData, which found that there is a statistically significant and positive correlation between aid received from China and the voting record of African countries in the UN. In other words, in general, the more investment money that an African country receives from China, the more likely that country is to vote in favor of Chinese policies in the UN. Furthermore, China is seeking to gain more allies without regard to the humanitarian record of the government in charge. In 2008, there was a draft resolution presented to the UN Security Council which called for the UN to actively engage in stopping government violence against civilians in Zimbabwe. This draft, S/2008/447, failed because of a Chinese veto. The President of Zimbabwe during this time, Robert Mugabe, was facing international sanctions and calls to face trial for crimes against humanity, but despite this, China not only protected his regime in the UN, but also sought to strengthen their own relationship with Zimbabwe by awarding Mugabe the Confucius Peace Prize. It is extremely likely, based on past Chinese actions in other African nations, that this award was given based partially on the potential political benefits. China is using its investments to gain influence and push its own agenda, and African nations will pay for these investments in the long run.

It is difficult to predict how these countries will cover the costs, but they might look to other countries which have partnered with China in the past. In South America, the Venezuelan economy is struggling. After 2000, China ramped up its investments in the country in an apparent effort to expand global markets and gain influence in the region, lending a total of $63 billion to the country between 2007 and 2014. In 2007, the Venezuelan oil sector was producing 3,233,000 barrels per day. Even though oil represents 95% of the Venezuelan economy, Hugo Chavez did not invest properly in infrastructure, and when the oil market began to struggle in 2016, Venezuela had no way to increase production and avoid economic catastrophe. In fact, Venezuelan oil production fell to only 2,410,000 barrels per day in 2014, a 25.5% reduction from 2007. Instead of acting in accordance with the “no strings attached” investment policy, the Chinese government has called for a 55% increase in oil shipments from Venezuela to China in 2017. Unless the status quo is altered soon, the resource-rich economies in Africa are in danger of falling into the same investment trap as Venezuela. Venezuela has very little international support to begin with, but thanks to their relationship with China, other countries are even less likely to aid in rehabilitation efforts, which means that Venezuela is stuck in a cycle of increasing debt.

China has greatly expanded its influence in Africa to the point that China is able to push its policy agenda in the international community and multilaterally with pan-African support. Countries in Africa are tied to the Chinese government in irreversible ways, and they are engaged in the type of trade (strictly raw materials for strictly manufactured goods) not seen since the days of mercantilism. Aside from the human rights implications of the Chinese involvement, African countries are losing some of their state sovereignty in international relations. Instead of being able to express national opinions, countries are being coerced into following China and supporting China’s actions internationally. As China seeks to expand its military profile overseas, Africa appears to be a prime destination for an increased military presence. African countries have accepted gifts from China and have accepted exorbitant amounts of investment money, setting themselves up to become even more reliant on China in the future. China has stopped short of occupying African countries, but based on the level of integration that many African economies have with China, it seems as though a Chinese imperialist effort is well underway.

Andrew FarnsworthComment