China in Africa: A “New Colonialism”?

In contrast with Hillary Clinton’s recent warnings of China’s “new colonialism”, the Stimson Center argues that China’s interests in Africa “should not be seen as categorically harmful”.

First, China has begun to realize the difficulties of maintaining a policy of non-interference as it becomes a major actor in Africa. Nearly a million Chinese involved in Chinese business and development projects live in Africa. The Chinese population has, since 2005, been the target of politically-motivated violence in countries like Ethiopia and Nigeria by rebel groups who protest their governments’ business with their regimes. When civil unrest in Libya began this March, China parked its warship in the Mediterranean to evacuate the 35,000 Chinese living in Libya, demonstrating its commitment to the security of Chinese people in Africa. Furthermore, in the last decade, China has gone from supplying 100 peacekeepers to the UN in Africa to being the largest supplier of peacekeepers in Africa among the permanent five members of the Security Council.[6] As China’s investment in Africa increases, so does its self-interest in supporting good governance and regional security.

Second, China’s slowly increasing attention to international norms suggests that increasing its soft power in Africa has become part of its strategy. Even the most skeptical lobbyists like International Rivers have remarked that China appears to have begun crafting environmental standards for its projects, having recently withdrawn support for a hydropower dam in Gabon that threatened the forests of a nearby national park.[7] In 2008, Eximbank published new standards for environmental impact assessment, finally recognizing land rights and resettlement as concerns for new projects.[8] While practice and policy may still differ (and China’s characteristic lack of transparency makes it difficult to judge), the rhetorical shift may be an indicator that China has decided environmental awareness is better for business. Finally, while Chinese influence has probably not caused any improvement in African governance, evidence at least shows that the decline in governance that was predicted by many has not occurred. Of 16 African countries with Chinese influence that were scored on corruption and regulatory quality, only one country (Mauritania, where China’s involvement is limited) showed negative movement between 2002 and 2009. Governance even improved in resource-rich, China-dominated Nigeria.[9]


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