If Francis Dalton were alive today, he would be revelling in the I-told-you-so of the new millennium. Cousin and colleague of the better-known Charles Darwin, Dalton proposed in 1873 that Britain should proactively pursue a strategic geopolitical shift: "Africa for the Chinese".
His idea was simple: Promote Chinese settlements in Africa so as to outbreed its indigenous inhabitants. In a few years, he suggested, the continent might "be tenanted by industrious, order-loving Chinese", who possessed a "remarkable aptitude for a high material civilisation", and a capacity to compete successfully with strangers in any environment.
Over a century later, the boom of China in Africa is proving to be one of the most striking developments of 21st century geopolitics. It is manifested not in the population demographics that Dalton originally envisioned, but in the macroeconomic spheres that shape global power dynamics today: Trade, aid and investment.
Exact figures on Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) are difficult to come by, but many estimates show that China's FDI in Africa has increased at least 100-fold over the past decade. During this time, according to leading credit rating agency Fitch Ratings, the Export-Import Bank of China surpassed the World Bank to become the largest provider of loans to sub-Saharan African countries. In 2009, China overtook the US as the continent's largest trading partner.
Francis Chigunta, an economist at the University of Zambia and special assistant on political affairs for former President Rupiah Banda, believes that "China is one of the major factors in the transformation of Africa's economy from a slow-growth region to one of the fastest-growing regions in the world".
Sino-African relations are unfolding against the backdrop of China's increasing dominance in the global economy, whose traditional heavyweights – namely, the US and Europe – have been hit hard by financial crises. The South African Institute of International Affairs points out that while the expansion of China-Africa trade in recent years is striking, it merely mirrors the general growth trend in China's foreign trade around the world.
But while China's influence might be expanding rapidly across the board, its relations with Africa in particular have triggered contention on the global landscape. During a visit to Zambia in 2011, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made headlines when, shortly after urging closer scrutiny of Chinese investments in the region, she proceeded to warn African countries against what she termed a "new colonialism" characterised by reckless exploitation of Africa's resources.
Ironically, it is precisely the shared experience of "old" colonialism that birthed the roots and guiding principles of Sino-African relations. Following a century of political instability that included subjugation to European powers, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, at a time when many African countries were undergoing an intensified struggle for independence.
To this day, Sino-African rules of engagement are rooted in the spirit of that time, when self-determination was the prominent political aspiration of African and Asian countries. In the areas of trade and investment, this spirit is reflected in China's strong emphasis on mutual benefit and respect, non-aggression and non-interference. Unlike Western countries, whose investments in African countries are saddled with colonial baggage and often accompanied by political conditions, China maintains an explicit detachment from the internal affairs of other countries – focusing only on concrete financial opportunities.
Francisco Langa, head of commercial policy in Mozambique's ministry of commerce, observes that unlike traditional donors. "China is only interested in economic relationships, not in playing or friendships". While this approach can be culturally alienating, he sees it as positive for the country's development and points to evidence of tangible benefit for Mozambique, mostly in the form of infrastructure.
China's strictly-business approach to African countries has served it well. While maintaining its decades-long closeness with the Khartoum-based Sudanese government, China was quick to forge strong diplomatic ties with Khartoum's nemesis, oil-rich South Sudan, following its secession last year. In April 2012, China and South Sudan agreed on a $8-billion loan for development. If similar deals with other resource-rich countries are anything to go by – loans to Angola in exchange for oil; to Gabon in exchange for manganese exploration; or to DRC in exchange for cobalt – it is likely that China will benefit handsomely once South Sudan's oil starts flowing again.
'Fair and responsible'
An expedient evolution of allegiance was also observed in Libya, where China had an extensive presence in the country under Gaddafi's rule, with projects valued at an estimated $18-billion. Libyan crude accounted for only 3% of Chinese oil imports, but the three top state-owned oil companies from China had engineering projects under way that could have expanded this share.
As the Nato-backed conflict escalated, China lost significant economic ground in Libya. While Western oil firms were arriving in the country mid-revolution to begin operations in collaboration with the rebels, more than 10 000 Chinese workers were fleeing. But a few months later, China was engaged in discussions with the rebels; and in June 2012, new Libyan Foreign Minister Ben Khayil met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where they pledged to boost co-operation on Libya's reconstruction – with Khayil praising China's "fair and responsible stance" to date.
This praise is a far cry from what is often reported about China's involvement in Africa. Many criticisms have been levelled regarding its lack of transparency in dealings with African countries, and labour rights violations. There is truth to this: details of China's agreements with African countries are almost impossible to access, and incidents of mistreatment of workers by Chinese companies have been reported in several countries across the region, including Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
However, these challenges are neither new nor unique to China's particular presence. Hejoo Kim, research analyst at Stellenbosch University's Centre for Chinese Studies, emphasises that "the most important thing is the host countries' willingness to protect its own labour force. Unfortunately, in many cases, African host governments lack the power or, at times, the will."
It could be argued that many of the criticisms directed at China are in fact reflective of the deeper culture of exploitation of the continent's resources by all major global economies. Kim points out that "very often China's engagement is labelled negatively by media while they overlook other investors' malpractices". The vested interests of colonial powers, around which global economic structures have been built, are founded on exploitative dynamics that often pass for legitimate simply because they are more deeply rooted.
In a June 2011 interview with Rwandan newspaper the New Times, Chinese Ambassador Shu Zhan states that "there is some kind of double standards when it comes to issues of accepting technology … China produces very good traditional medicine to treat malaria. But the World Health Organisation (WHO) refuses to accept it".
Because local health officials are accustomed to complying with the WHO's approval system – which, he says, favours European countries – African countries' access to Chinese expertise in the field of health is restrained. Chigunta explains that "the tendency is to govern Africa through partnerships, so states themselves do not have full control over their own programmes". African governments are pulled between multiple vested interests not only from their own local elite, but also from external donors.
Deepening China-Africa relations have made this tug-of-war especially precarious, because the interests of China are fundamentally at odds with those of Western donors, whose hegemony is threatened by China's expanding dominance – although they are also benefiting from its economic growth. Africa is caught in the middle of this complex power struggle. "There is no difference between China and the West in terms of what motivates them to be involved in Africa – mineral resources and fuel," says Chigunta. "China is simply doing it through financial and economic muscle. The West uses military muscle."
The tension between these competing powers is escalating as, in an attempt to overcome their economic and energy crises, developed countries look more towards Africa's unexplored mineral and energy resources. In addition to long-time energy giants such as Angola, Nigeria and Libya – all of which have close ties with China – recent colossal discoveries of oil and gas along the East African coast have upped the stakes in the renewed scramble for Africa.
In an April 2011 interview with Iranian news site Press TV, Paul Craig Roberts, a renowned American journalist and former assistant secretary of the US Treasury, asserted that Nato support for the Libyan rebellion had one main goal: "to eliminate China from the Mediterranean. They are looking to Africa as a future energy source. The US is countering this by organising the United States African Command [Africom], which Gaddafi refused to join."
Scramble for Africa
The recent rapid expansion of Africom over the past year, especially in resource-rich countries in Central and Eastern Africa and the turbulent Sahara desert, appears to support this interpretation. Nick Turse, an American journalist and author who has been investigating Africom, writes on TomDispatch.com that "with the Obama administration clearly engaged in a twenty-first century scramble for Africa, the possibility of successive waves of overlapping blowback grows exponentially…keep your eye on Africa. The US military is going to make news there for years to come."
It is possible that one of the most significant consequences of flourishing Sino-African relations might be to position the continent as the battleground for US-China oil wars. If so, the potential impact of the geopolitical shift resulting from China's relations with African countries and the Brics bloc becomes much murkier. Intentions to establish a Brics bank or to unseat the dollar as global trade currency, both of which have been endorsed by South Africa, would certainly de-polarise the global macro-economic landscape. At the same time, they will intensify tensions between the West and China, thus increasing the likelihood of conflict.
Interestingly, it is the opposite scenario that appears to be generating unease among African politicians: the possibility that rather than fighting over Africa, the West and China could join hands to form an unshakeable hegemony. Already, whispers of potential cooperation exist. The Washington DC-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies issued a report in November 2011 laying out the opportunities and challenges for possible China-US collaboration on health in Africa.
David Shinn, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and former US ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, spoke in the report of the need to "minimise the concerns of some African leaders, who fear that the United States and China may try to gang up on them for their own purposes".
He reiterated this sentiment in his testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, adding that "there is a tendency in many African countries to want to play China off against the United States in order to obtain an advantage".
It is this reactive approach to growth, without an emphasis on self-reliance, that ultimately lies at the heart of Africa's problems.
Heart of the problem
China's glitzy gift to the African Union, a $200-million building that was unveiled in January 2012, provoked unexpected criticism for being symptomatic of continued African dependence on external powers, despite the continent's wealth of resources. Rwandan president Paul Kagame stressed that until African countries "strengthen ourselves so that we can deal with our problems and speak with one voice in defence of our rights", no foreign involvement in the continent – be it from the West or China – will lead to long-term benefit for Africans.
Chigunta concurs, stating that while the characterisation of Africa and China as partners may arguably have some truth if viewed in comparison to traditional donor dynamics, the partnership remains akin to that of a horse and a rider. "Africa has historically been the horse," he says.
"The Western rider was very brutal, always beating the horse, whereas the Chinese rider is more subtle, is giving carrots, to get the horse to take him to where the resources are."
Either way, at the end of the day, Africa gets a raw deal.