Investment from China across the world has skyrocketed since the Middle Kingdom became a power. It has ploughed billions to plant bamboo shoots of Chinese influence in struggling economies on many different continents. But its most plentiful harvests abroad are undoubtedly in Africa.
There are estimated to be over a million Chinese residents in Africa. Many are working on large-scale infrastructure projects financed by the Chinese state, but there is also a huge number of Chinese expatriates who have built thriving businesses and lives there. China recently even opened it’s first military base on the continent, in Djibouti, although it stressed that it was purely to support humanitarian and peacekeeping action, as well as support naval presences along the busy shipping lanes of the Horn of Africa .
Trade between Africa and China expanded at an incredible rate as the latter’s economy began to boom. The trade between the two is relatively simple; China needs vast supplies of natural resources and African nations need to build up their economies with huge loans and infrastructure projects. China has desperately sought mineral resources; however, as the demand for this has slowed, the demand for energy and food resources has not. Chinese banks dole out huge loans at incredible rates to government and trains experts, but its biggest contribution has been in construction. Across the continent, Chinese firms have built railways, roads, airports, schools, hospitals–even giant shopping malls.
Yet China’s involvement in Africa relies on a policy that makes their involvement radically different to that of previous superpowers; noninterference. There have often been shades of colonialism, alleged land grabs; there is certainly a degree of misunderstanding about the relationship. The nature of Chinese involvement is not concerned with the spread of liberal democracy as well as trade links – its investment is directed from the state downwards, much as the economy is structured in China. China is happy to play along with local ways of doing business that Western businesses would find unacceptable – such as paying bribes – but has always made a point of respecting the sovereignty of its partner nations, allowing governments to carry out whatever actions it so chooses and spend Chinese money however it sees fit. This has allowed many of China’s partners to take a rather dictatorial slant in their wielding of power, and has made for some rather unsavoury business. Since Chinese cooperation is unconditional, rather than based on principles of good governance – as Western aid often is – and loans often provided directly to the state, African leaders are permitted to act out the very worst caricatures of African government.
China has seen opportunity where others have seen problems. In the spaces between traditional colonial powers and the US, China has tested and built a model of relations that suits it in particular. It is based almost entirely on a use of soft power which is remarkable in its effectiveness, both diplomatically and economically. There is, of course, beginning to be some backlash against China. There has been a clash in Zambia and tensions with the new Egyptian leadership.As distasteful as the West may find China’s permissive behaviour in Africa, the wildly high payoffs mean Beijing will likely stick to noninterference in all but the most egregious and unacceptable cases – and its shoots will continue to grow anew.