Chinese ‘Sleeping Giant’ Has Awakened in Africa

Between the 1870s and 1900, Africa faced a vast tide of European military invasions and eventual colonization. By 1900, most of Africa was divided and under the control of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Portugal and Spain, who were competing for position within European power politics. One way to demonstrate national preeminence was through the acquisition of territories around the world. In Africa, not only did colonization enhance the prestige of each European country on the world stage, but it also satisfied their hunger for raw materials to power industrialization as well as providing a market for their manufactured goods.

But change was in the wind and the growing demand for political freedom led to independence of colony after colony. By 1966, all but six African countries were independent nation-states. Slowly, these remaining six achieved independence, with the last being South Africa in 1994.

However, a new colonial power may be emerging in Africa – not wielding weapons, but cash. China is investing billions of dollars in trade and economic assistance to improve and expand the continent’s infrastructure, thus slowly tying Africa’s future to its Chinese benefactors.

A recently published book, “China’s Second Continent,” by Howard W. French, addresses the issue of China’s intentions on the African continent. In his book, French points out that China is now Africa’s largest trading partner and it tempts African countries by offering loans, grants and development deals without the anticorruption strings demanded by the United States and Europe. Chinese investors are also seizing vast stretches of land at bargain prices creating giant agricultural farms and extracting the raw minerals and oil with which much of Africa is blessed. All in order to satisfy China’s insatiable appetite for what it needs to power its surging economy, which is now the world’s fastest-growing.

The issue is whether China’s economic influence in Africa will lead to political demands and control as it did during the European occupation.

China, as you would expect, denies that it has any political designs on Africa. A government policy paper, recently issued, stated affirmatively: “China adheres to the principles of not imposing any political conditions, not interfering in the internal affairs of recipient countries and fully respecting the right to independently choose their own path and models of development.”

But can we trust China to not make political demands of its client states in Africa as these states become increasingly economically dependent on China?

According to French, more than one million Chinese are now putting down permanent roots and building careers in Africa. French calls them the “glue” holding the improving African economics together. He sees this Chinese migration as a historically important development, “The creation of a massive diaspora of a trading and investment class of people of Chinese extraction … (will) tend to have a huge impact on the subsequent political socioeconomic climate of their destination country (Africa).”

Martyn Davies, the director of the China Africa Network at the University of Pretoria, views the Chinese boom as “a phenomenal success story for Africa” and sees it continuing indefinitely. “Africa is the source of at least one-third of the world’s commodities” – commodities China will need as its manufacturing economy and its geopolitical influence in the world continue to grow – “and once you’ve understood that, you understand China’s determination to build roads, ports and railroads all over Africa.”

The United States needs to pay close attention to this neo-colonization effort by China in Africa as China continues to challenge the U.S. hegemony in the Pacific, South China Sea and elsewhere.

In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte warned, “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world!”

Well! China has awakened!

Guest columnist Bonenberger is an attorney who lives and practices in Wheeling.