“Children who work in the mines are often drugged, in order to suppress hunger.” It sounds like Victorian-era Britain, but the scene is a cobalt mining operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reported in the New Yorker two years ago. This is a violent reminder that, despite decades of political independence, Africa once again finds itself the target of a big-power scramble for its wealth.
The continent possesses a vast supply of resources: 30 percent of the world’s mineral supplies and roughly 10 percent of its gas and oil. That 320 embassies were built between 2010 and 2016 is an indication of the new scramble for what Belgian King Leopold II in the nineteenth century described as “a slice of this magnificent African cake”.
Yet this time the Europeans aren’t at the forefront—China is now the preeminent foreign economic power on the continent, responsible for almost a third of all infrastructure projects. Between 2000 and 2019, China invested US$153 billion in large-scale port, railway, dam, airport and even light manufacturing projects.
The Chinese government has three main aims. The first is to secure resources. The second is to displace Western powers as part of its broader project to undermine US dominance in global trade. The third is the desire to build a network of political allies.
One of the largest projects was the $4.5 billion Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, to encourage more efficient trade with the countries of the eastern peninsula known as the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia has received more Chinese financing than any African state other than Angola. Investments have included the new African Union headquarters, the light-rail system in the capital Addis Ababa, a swathe of industrial parks attracting Chinese textile companies and manufacturers, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Port of Doraleh, in neighbouring Djibouti, hosts China’s only international military base. Author Lee Wengraf argues in her book Extracting Profit that the naval base is more about securing assets in Ethiopia than an attempt to rival the US military presence in the region. The port is key to accessing East African markets and maintaining shipping lanes through to the Suez Canal.
In response to the increased Chinese presence, the US has denounced Beijing for preying on impoverished countries and has increased diplomatic efforts across the continent. At the end of last year, President Joe Biden hosted the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, promising US$55 billion in development assistance and talked about bringing the African Union into the G20. Vice President Kamala Harris is the latest high-ranking official to visit African leaders. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and First Lady Jill Biden have also visited.
The previous Democratic administration of Barack Obama had been positive towards China’s move into Africa. “I want everyone playing in Africa. The more the merrier ... A lot of people are pleased that China is involved in Africa”, the former president said in 2013. But Biden has departed from Obama’s approach. This reorientation is part of a broader US shift to containing China across the world.
Western commentary now repeats US claims of Chinese “debt-trap diplomacy”. Treasury Secretary Yellen, during her recent trip, called China a “barrier” to debt restructuring on the continent. The implication is that China is playing a nefarious role, much like the colonial powers of old, while the US and its Western allies have more benign, or even generous, intentions. They can spare us the sanctimony. If China is trapping nations through debt, it certainly would have learned how to do so from the Western playbook.
While Africa’s economic underdevelopment can be attributed to European colonialism, in the post-colonial period the United States, with the help of its European allies, ensured that most African states remained economically backward and dependent on foreign aid. Following waves of national revolutions in Africa, post-colonial governments inherited structurally weak economies, and relied on state-led development. For a period, the continent’s economies grew in line with much of the rest of the world.
The US, concerned about the influence of the Soviet Union and access to key commodities, undermined and helped to overthrow governments, such as those of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Patrice Lumumba in the Congo because they were deemed unaccommodating to US interests. Washington then ensured that pro-Western autocrats remained in power for decades to come.
The US also mobilised its enormous economic power, through financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to dominate the continent. As the world economy went into crisis in the 1970s, African states turned to Western financiers for money. Wengraf argues that these institutions used this as an opportunity to “transform economies of the Global South into ones based on ‘export-led’ strategies—those set up to best serve the market needs of global capital.
To secure loans, African states “were required to implement institutional reforms, such as cuts in welfare expenditures, more flexible labor market laws, and privatization”, Marxist economist David Harvey noted in his 2005 book A Brief History of Neoliberalism. “Thus was ‘structural adjustment’ invented.”
The structural adjustments were catastrophic. Debts increased along with poverty and maternal mortality rates at the same time as the IMF was pushing for cuts to social spending on healthcare and education. In 1970, 48 percent of sub-Saharan Africans lived on one dollar a day; by 1995 this had increased to 60 percent. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, 90 percent of the world’s poor will be African. That’s a Western legacy, not a Chinese one.
For those acquainted with the results of Western intervention in the Global South, China’s activities might initially seem to be cause for less concern, or even be welcomed. For example, Fred M’membe, presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of Zambia, argues in the Zambian Monthly Socialist: “This Chinese new approach to modernisation offers us a chance to truly free ourselves from centuries of exploitation, domination and humiliation”.
China’s approach to debt does appear to be more flexible. Campaign body Debt Justice reports that China has been the largest suspender of debt repayments in recent years. China is also lauded for accepting futures on key exports as payments for current infrastructure projects, an approach that appears to benefit cash-strapped countries such as Angola and Ghana. Yet the payments still have to be made, resulting in revenue declines for Angola and Ghana and forcing them to implement austerity to gain debt restructuring. Additionally, China has not suspended debts that incur interest, only zero-interest loans.
Take for example the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway network, a project to connect Kenya to Tanzania via Uganda. Billions had been invested, but the Chinese government ultimately pulled out, leaving the project half constructed and Kenya in serious debt. Or take Ethiopia. Weiwei Chen, a researcher at the University of London, argues, in a recent piece for the Conversation, that China’s manufacturing investment in the country was motivated by the “low water, electricity and wage costs, a large and young labour force and favourable access to the US and EU markets”.
The sheer scale of the infrastructure projects is one thing that seems to make China different. It is giving some people hope that the investments will finally provide the boost Africa needs to become more economically self-sufficient; to escape the immiseration of centuries of ruthless capitalist exploitation.
But strategically built infrastructure to support Chinese trade and resource control will not solve Africa’s woes. As an example, the World Bank estimates US$100 billion is needed just to ensure universal internet access across the continent. At the end of the day, the Chinese government is in Africa to produce profits, secure resources and build alliances, not out of some general concern for underdeveloped nations.
A new imperial race is heating up across the world, and in many regions we can see examples of it. We need to be clear about what is driving the new scramble for Africa and find ways to show solidarity with those who oppose imperialist aggression, whether Chinese or Western.