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China’s Security Concerns in Africa: another imperialistic ‘mise en valeur’

When I read Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness, what came to my mind was the hypocrisy of imperialism which has plagued Africa under the guise of development – what French imperialists termed ‘mise en valeur’.

Africa has long been the scene of wanton, indiscriminate exploitation of human and natural resources for Western industries and a dumping ground for junk goods. This was done under the pretext of helping develop Africa. China was a late arrival, but has repositioned itself skilfully at the centre of the exploitation game played by European countries since the 19th century.

Between the 1870s and 1900s, Africa was a victim of European imperialist aggression, military invasion and eventual conquest. African societies resisted the imposition of foreign domination, but by the dawn of the 20th century, most of Africa had been colonised. This ruthless imperialistic aggression paved the way for European powers to loot Africa’s raw materials to feed industries back home.

The European imperialist adventure was fuelled by social, economic and political factors. It took off after the end of the slave trade and the expansion of the European capitalist Industrial Revolution. The demands of capitalist industrialisation for raw materials, guaranteed markets and profitable investment outlets, drove Europe’s scramble for Africa and the eventual partition of a conquered continent. The primary motivation for the European intrusion was a selfish economic endeavour to develop Africa. The ambition of the European countries was never to salvage Africa from its socio-economic developmental deficiency, but to loot Africa of its resources.

Power struggles between Britain, France, Germany and other European nations added to their ambition to acquire territories in Africa.

As a result of industrialisation, major social problems emerged in Europe – unemployment, poverty, homelessness, displacement from rural areas. These problems emerged partly because not everyone could find employment in the new capitalist industries. In response, European powers sought to establish settler colonies in Africa to export ‘surplus population’.

The interplay of these factors led to frenzied attempts by European commercial, military, and political agents to establish stakes in different parts of the continent. They engaged in inter-imperialist commercial competition, made exclusive claims to particular territories, imposed tariffs on other European traders, and laid claim to exclusive control of waterways and commercial routes.

Another form of economic imperialism emerged in the 1990s under the disguise of globalisation.1 It was like hemlock meant to kill Africa’s tottering economy.

China has made rapid, profitable investments throughout the continent. It has started to provide development assistance in some areas as part of efforts to extend security to its overseas population and investments. Historically, China has provided shadowy military assistance in the form of arms and training for African countries. Chinese arms and assistance helped in the fight against colonial powers, for example in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Algeria and Angola. During the 1960s, under Mao Zedong, China was a frontline combatant in global ideological battles, supporting liberation movements in Africa. The aim was to create a sphere of influence in those African countries.2

With China’s rapid economic growth and high demand for raw materials, Beijing has given increased focus to Africa. As with the European powers, the Chinese imperialistic presence has been aimed at milking Africa dry of resources. The Chinese are everywhere in Africa: in unsustainable agriculture, mining, fishing, construction, commerce, tourism. The list is inexhaustible. Chinese investors have made billion-dollar deals with African governments to mine natural resources. Chinese immigrants have moved into cities, towns and villages. China’s increased presence in Africa can be looked at as part of a wider effort to ‘create a paradigm of globalisation that favours China’.3

Some see China as a genuine partner to Africa in its development, others believe its engagement is exploitative, driven primarily by China’s interest in Africa’s resources. In fact, the nature of Sino-African relations is ambiguous and difficult to define as purely rapacious or reciprocally advantageous.

While China exploits Africa’s natural resources to feed its industrial output, it also exports cheap — often shoddy — manufactured goods to Africa. As a result, local companies become less competitive and increasingly dependent on China.

Recent research has also shown the Chinese presence in Africa has failed to bring significant skill developments, adequate technological transfer or any measurable upgrade of African productivity levels. Most Chinese projects in Africa are manned by skilled labour ferried in from China at a cost to African employment. The Chinese presence in South Africa may have cost the country 75,000 jobs from 2000 to 2011. In Nigeria, the influx of cheap Chinese imports has caused 80% of textile companies to close.4

Recently, China has become more tactful in its approach to Africa trying to counter perceptions that its presence brings only one-sided benefits.

China’s deep economic involvement is pushing it towards an increased military presence in Africa. China is overcoming any discomfort over overseas bases as its forces are drawn into protecting Beijing’s African interests. China’s economic expansion in Africa is leading it to strategically position itself as a military superpower. If an enemy were to target Chinese interests in Africa, it would strike at its economic epicentre. Thus, China is seeking to head off crises with preventive diplomacy and deference. The Chinese military presence in Africa is mostly meant to protect its nationals abroad. The recent deaths of three Chinese business executives when Islamist militants attacked a hotel in Mali are said to have increased pressure on President Xi Jinping to find a response.5

The fact that China obtains about 5% of its oil imports from South Sudan has pushed China to contribute 700 troops to protect its economic interests there under the guise of the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission. China’s political influence in Africa is inescapable due to its investments and huge emigrant population. Since some parts of the continent are in conflict zones, the Chinese cannot risk their investments and people. Chinese imperialistic strides in Africa are just continuing the legacy that European countries started in the 19th century.

1 Henry Veltmeyer, Development and Globalization Imperialism, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Vol. XXVI, No.1, 2005, http://estudiosdeldesarrollo.net/administracion/docentes/documentos_personales/1274417017Development_Globalization_Imperialism.pdf (accessed on 14 September 2016)

2 David H. Shinn, The Impact of China’s Growing influence in Africa, International Policy Digest, 12 July 2011, http://intpolicydigest.org/author/david-h-shinn/

3 Fantu Cheru and Cyril Obi (Eds). The rise of China and India in Africa: Challenges, opportunities and critical interventions, The Nordic African Institute, Zed Books, www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:285922/FULLTEXT01.pdf (accessed on 24 September 2016)

4 Miria Pigato and Wenxia Tang, China and Africa: Expanding Economic Ties in an Evolving Global Context, March 2015, http://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/Event/Africa/Investing%20in%20Africa%20Forum/2015/investing-in-africa-forum-china-and-africa-expanding-economic-ties-in-an-evolving-global-context.pdf (accessed on 14 September 2016)

5 Murray Scot Tanner and James Bellacqua, China’s Response to Terrorism, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, June 2016, http://origin.www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/Chinas%20Response%20to%20Terrorism_CNA061616.pdf (accessed on 13 September 2016)

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ’ to be published in November 2016, which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China cooperation in the security field in Africa. These articles provide insight into stakeholders’ views and recommendations as China evolves from an economic to a security player in Africa.

IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – stttijn