In the last two decades Africa has experienced an influx of Chinese investment in Africa, yet many raise questions as to whether China's new found interest in the region is a new form of neo-imperialism. This article will be investigating whether China's expansion into Africa, specifically African oil markets, should be one that we are concerned about. Or whether it is one that Africans and the rest of the world should be welcoming.
A scramble for resources is defined as the actions of an emerging or already dominant state in the pursuit for more growth seeking out the accumulation of resources from other states and regions. Examples that can attest to this are the dominant structures created by Portugal and Spain in the pursuit of more land and resources seeking out the Americas. Another example would include England during the industrialisation era of the 1800s increasing influence in Africa. Within the system of capitalism and the pursuit of hegemony, such a system may only survive under perpetual growth. This growth can only be well supported by a stream of resources. The current emerging superpower is China, China's actions are not new yet the world seems bemused.
At one point, China was an extremely poor state with a massive population. In the 1970s, through a series of liberalisation reforms China began to see an economic turnaround. This put China on track to becoming one of the fastest growing economies. Like India, to maintain and expand on this newfound growth requires resources. China may have established itself as the initial destination for cheap labour, today China is now in the position to seek out other markets with cheaper labour such as Lesotho. Key resources for growth include labour, oil, minerals such as platinum or copper.
Currently, China's increasing growth, wealth and population require greater demands for oil. More than 25% of oil produced in Africa is imported by China, this stresses the importance of Africa as a strategic zone for Chinese growth.
Current Chinese Strategy
There are concerns that current Chinese investment strategy may result in conflict in Africa, which would eventually result in market failure. China's growth indicates a new challenge to the global competition of resources for the already existing hegemony – the USA.
To ensure a fuller appreciation of the presence of China in the region one needs to understand the relationship that China has with many African states. China is viewed in the developing world as a better 'evil' than that of the West. Notably, China has taken a non-interfering role in Africa when it comes to investments. Whereas the West has infamously taken on a paternalistic role when investing or providing aid in the region and prescribing regime changes in order to provide aid. Critics state that this is problematic as this results in China providing predatory loans such as in the case of the Sri Lankan Hambanthota Harbour. China offered a loan to the Sri Lankan government, upon failure to pay, China technically owns the harbour.
China's current strategy consists of creating off-take agreements, which often result in China providing and developing infrastructure in exchange for minerals. The infrastructure building is almost always done with the exclusive labour from Chinese contractors. Or in some instances, providing 'gifts' to governments to establish allyship. This is demonstrated in Kenya or even after China built the bugged AU headquarters. China is essentially aiming to establish a monopoly through these off-take agreements. Concerns of such a monopoly have already been raised when in 2010 China withheld rare earth minerals from Japan.
The Current Predicament in Africa
Currently most leaders and ruling parties have failed to deliver on promises of prosperity have now taken on a new route, the usage of populism and resource nationalism. This is notably seen in South Africa and Zimbabwe. There have been promises that through this nationalisation the benefits will eventually trickle down to all people. The usage of Chinese monopolistic activities and the failing infrastructure from African states can result in an overall market failure for access to key resources such as oil. Other states such as the USA and other developing stated would find difficulty in maintaining the current free market that exists in the access to resources.
In off-take agreements, China has a tendency of delivering on agreements slowly. And such agreements are never transparent. Issues emerged when the DRC gave China access to mines in exchange for a 200km road in a country that spans 4 000km.
Africa is not the only region with such crucial resources, however, it is the only region with a high concentration of such resources. Africa is a strategic zone for any hegemony or emerging state. Attesting to this is when the USA waived sanctions to Rhodesia in the 70s to maintain access to chromium. Western companies have previously failed to create resource nationalism in Africa due to infrastructure and the select concentration of resources.
Given the nature of loan practices, governments are not required to disclose loan agreements to the broader public and voter bases. John Hopkins University research put total African debt owed to China at more that $143bn (R2.26 trillion) in 2018.
Conclusion: Should we be concerned with China's influence in Africa?
The short answer is maybe. The position of Africa being a battle ground of hegemonies is not new, often international relations happens to Africa. The new interest from China in the region cannot be tackled by instituting policy against China. Given that there is rapid industrialisation in Asia, there is greater demand for minerals to build technology. This situation will only worsen. What Chinese involvement indicates is that there is a greater need for political and social infrastructure in Africa. A region being used as a tool of growth through exploitation should not be normalised. Should Africa continue down this path, it plants the seeds for another China to emerge later down the line. Just as many other states have done in the past.
The current predicament is not unfamiliar for African states. It is the legacy of colonialism, despite the oppressing hand changing its rhetoric, it still is an oppressing force. The solution is not a new 'woke' colonial overhead, rather African states should use China new positioning as a cautionary tale for the future of Africa. African states should view this as a cautionary phenomenon that may change the trajectory of African development, a reality where African progress is determined by external forces. The reality is that Africa is not at a point in our development where we are unable to dictate terms in our interactions with stronger states.
Rather than relying on an anarchical world system, African states should look to strengthening the systems and institutions that already exist as they are a key element in the development of Africa. To ensure effective liberalisation and accountable systems, this requires greater integration with state, institution and judicial systems. Integration would consist of a system where states, alongside their voter base, are accountable to the legal systems of institutional judicial systems which would aid in providing good governance and rule of law. There are existing institutions that would aid in strengthening Africa, such as the African Free Trade Agreement, SADC, ECOWAS, should these bodies integrate better and create a platform where African states are stronger and are not subject to the imperial rule of other states.