China in Africa

The renewed engagement of China with African states and China’s growing assertiveness on the global stage have spurred a debate on potential neo-colonialism of Africa.

The Chinese African policy, as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) foreign policy of the “Going Global Strategy”, poses some serious questions about the role of China as an emerging power and its impacts on the current international system order.

Traditionally, China’s presence in Africa has been viewed through three different strands of thought: as a development partner, an economic competitor or as a colonizer.

China’s African Policy is founded on a mix of historical narratives, win-win relationships and South-South Solidarity discourse, undergirded by the Chinese Communist Party’s fierce adherence to the advancement of its core national interests under the national rhetoric of “Great Rejuvenation”.

Sino-African relations are not new and have been figured prominently in the Chinese foreign policy discourse as a continuous pattern of South-South development cooperation and the shared identity with African people on the account of imperialism, and socio-economic developmental struggles.

Building on this seemingly shared identity, the CCP has constructed its African approach upon the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” which emphasizes mutual respect for states’ sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference, equality and mutual benefits, and peaceful coexistence with comprehensive financial incentives in the form of development assistance, trade and investments, and limited military cooperation as well as peacekeeping operations. Such holistic approach to African relations has elevated China as a major player in shifting the global balance of power.

Since President Xi Jinping has taken office in 2012, the CCP has pursued more aggressive policies abroad which legitimately raised questions about China’s role in the international system as a revisionist or status quo power. To understand China’s growing assertiveness in Africa, it is essential to grasp the linkages between its national and international policy strategies.

The motivations behind Chinese investment in Africa have been driven by three motivations. Firstly, with its leadership legitimacy resting upon the fragile pillars of economic performance, Africa’s abundance of natural resources in terms of oil and minerals represent an absolute priority for China’s continued economic growth. Secondly, Africa represents an expanding market to which China can export its cheap manufactured goods and represent long-term financial investment. And third, China’s development aid assistance to Africa represents an effort to enhance its soft power and influence abroad by providing an alternative development model to the Western powers and securing support of African states within international institutions.

Is the China strategy for Africa a case of neo-colonialism through asymmetric economic relations and inequitable trade and investment between the parties? China has effectively used trade to co-opt African elites and governments into abiding to and advancing Chinese mercantilist interests and for the protection of Chinese businesses at the expense of African people’s social and environmental concerns.

Another neo-colonialist argument draws upon the parallels between Chinese economic activities within African states and past activities of Western colonial powers. The combination of trade, financial investment, and aid to facilitate export of raw materials to China as resembling the extractive and exploitive colonial systems of the Old Powers. Chinese economic pragmatism dogma coupled with low concerns for welfare of African population and human rights abuses, and its closeness to political elites do raise some legitimate questions upon the neo-colonialist nature of Sino-African relations.

Africa’s staggering need for infrastructure with an estimated $100 billion dollar per year for the next decade to seal Africa’s infrastructure gap. Under these circumstances, pragmatic, quick and generous Chinese foreign direct investments have been gladly welcomed by various African governments. These infrastructural development projects will contribute to improved regional economic integration of the African continent through transports connecting states and enabling swift exchange of goods and labor.

China’s alternative model of development and its combination of investment, aid and trade has been argued to provide African states with the ability to choose their own path for development and hence, increasing their independence in face of exploiting Western powers.

Viewing China as only a predatory neo-colonial state will only generate unproductive relations and undermine African states’ interests in the long-term. Some have attributed the labelling of China as a neo-colonialist state due to Western anxiety over China’s growing global affluence. This is actually a great and convincing argument. Hence, arguably, it is valid to consider that the labelling of China as a neo-colonialist or imperialist power is symptomatic of a shift in global balance of power, and hence the growing uncertainty by Western powers on how to engage or contain China.

One feature of colonialism that China lacks in Africa is cultural hegemony where language, culture and bureaucratic institutions remain highly influenced by previous Western colonial powers. China’s growing influence on the African continent seems inevitable and it is safe to advance that China will always play by the geopolitical game of maximizing its own national interests, defying other states. Call it neo-colonialism or not, China’s influence in Africa and other parts of the world will continue to grow. In a zero-sum reality, this means that democratic Western powers’ influence will diminish over time. In the end of the day, it is all about money and power, and many countries around the world have had enough of old exploiters such as the U.S., Great Britain, France and other old colonial powers, and are willing to go down a different direction. China offers an alternative to the predatory Western colonial powers and many countries have decided to try that new path. This is in particular evident in Africa.

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