China’s Scramble for Africa

by | Jan 23, 2024 | Armed Forces, Blog Articles, China, Finance, Geopolitics, Politics, USA, War

Working in Africa through much of the past decade, I saw signs of Chinese imperialism everywhere. The investment company I ran, mostly funded by US and Canadian investors, would face off against CCP-backed entities in business dealings and financing transactions. This competition was effective at tipping the tables through government subsidized loans and briefcases of cash. Their agreements were often linked to political outcomes.

Africa has become center-stage of China’s global ambitions as a neo-colonial imperial power. Arguably, no other country has had more influence – at least in the post-colonial era – on the African continent than China, for better and for worse. Conversely, America has completely missed the target, and ceded the field, by focusing on enfeebling donations and misguided philanthropy rather than leading with market-based financing, commercial investment, and practical education that would counter China’s ideological and financial onslaught.

Communist China has been involved in Africa since decolonization and the independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The CCP was the main military supplier to the revolutionary Tanzanian government, and supported dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the dominant Maoist-Leninist party in Mozambique. China was the primary support for Joseph Kabila’s inept and kleptocratic twenty-year dictatorship in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a misnomer if there ever was one, the Congo remains an ungovernable and near stateless flashpoint of regional instability).

China’s involvement in Africa eventually migrated from fomenting revolutions to investing in critical infrastructure and lending to governments and the commercial sector. Chinese presence in African business and financial markets is now ubiquitous across much of the continent, to the point of cliché and neo-colonial stereotype. China has invested well over $300 billion in Africa in the past 15 years, and trade between China and Africa now approaches $200 billion annually. Today, there are upwards of one million Chinese estimated to be working in Africa for over 10,000 Chinese companies. In contrast, most of the perhaps thousands of Americans working in Africa are employed by governments or NGOs, not commercial enterprises. This is a regrettable loss, both for Africa and for America.

At the same time, China has also increased its military and security presence on the continent. Today, China has thousands of troops and military personnel deployed across several African countries. Private Chinese security companies have established entire industries protecting Chinese businessmen and VIPs, which can serve a paramilitary role in the event of unrest.

Chinese investment in Africa has been a double-edged sword. To be sure, Africa desperately needs the critical infrastructure that China has been on the forefront in developing. The benefits of better roads and rails, more reliable power, and affordable mobile telephony, accrue to many. However, Chinese investment has come laden with exorbitant hidden costs. Rather than furthering African independence, rising indebtedness threatens to throw African nations back into a state of colonial subservience. The millions of jobs created by these massive projects have been filled by imported Chinese labor, not local Africans. The result has been persistent domestic unemployment well above 50 percent in many nations. Agriculture and other commodities are exported to China rather than helping to reduce persistent food insecurity on the continent.

Chinese investment in Africa is an imperialistic endeavor. China seeks to ensure reliable supply lines of critical industrial and agricultural commodities at favorable prices, and to provide jobs for otherwise unemployable workers in China. Like the commodities of copper, coal and cobalt unearthed for industrial production in China, Chinese investment in Africa is extractive. To make matters worse, Chinese finished products are imported and forced on African markets, which undercuts domestic production and discourages local industry that cannot compete against Chinese subsidies. This is classic colonialism.

Systemically corrupt Chinese business practices undermine legitimate efforts towards greater accountability, transparency, and integrity according to the rule of law. Chinese investment and business activity in Africa is commonly accompanied by bribes, whether of cash or excessive gifts, and circular kickbacks to win contracts and tenders. Unlike US and European businesses operating in Africa, which are subject to vigorous enforcement of strict anti-corruption laws, China does not enforce anti-bribery or anti-corruption laws. There is an implicit understanding among African government and business leaders that the Chinese do business the old-fashioned way. Many reject it, but for others the temptation is too great.

Over the past decade, the US has somewhat belatedly attempted to respond to the Chinese salient in Africa. Whether the West’s renewed interest in Africa will be too little, too late, remains to be seen. African nations rightly have deep reservations about allowing the former colonial powers of Europe to return through the back door. And so far, the commitment of the US remains half-hearted at best, with more headlines than substance. In any event, Africa will be an important battleground in the ongoing geopolitical struggle with China for many years to come.

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