The New Imperial Scramble for Africa: How China and the US Compete Over Africa’s Resources and Labor

It’s official. As of last winter the United States of America is now the second largest economy in the world. The top position, perhaps inevitably, has not been snatched by old Europe or even a resurgent Russia, but by the industrial behemoth known as China.

This is great news for nationalists in Beijing, but a slap in the face for their American counterparts on the other side of the pacific. While various Republicans will likely blame their President for the US being toppled from the top position, a real sense of the ongoing clash between American/Chinese interests can be found on another continent altogether: Africa.

What’s marked African politics in recent years is the growing competitiveness of the far-off Chinese with a seemingly omnipresent US imperialism. And the latter is well armed. Despite previous claims to only operate a single base out of Djibouti, the United States African Command (AFRICOM) currently fields a presence in over forty nations, showing that talk of a “new scramble” for Africa, albeit it this time with the old imperial powers of Europe taking second place, may be well founded.

But what might this mean in concrete terms? A brief glance at AFRICOM’s mission statement seems innocuous enough. Citing its role in the “operations, exercises, and security cooperation on the African continent” AFRICOM subsequently lauds its apparent objective to defeat “transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.”

In more candid moments, however, US brass have been somewhat direct about their long-term priorities. The late Vice Admiral Robert Moeller, an original pioneer of current US military interests on the continent, went down on record in 2008 for admitting AFRICOM was really about securing “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market.”

A year before, another American official, one Dr. J. Peter Pham, as an advisor to the State Department, linked AFRICOM objectives to “protecting access to hydrocarbons and other strategic resources which Africa has in abundance.” What is revealing about this comment is that “other interested third parties” were cited as being a direct threat to US interests on the continent, with Russia, India and China coming in for special mention.

Yet what influence might China have in Africa, and has the downgrading of the US economy further inflamed a clash of interests?

China overtook the US as Africa’s most prolific trading partner back in 2009. Trade between the continent and Beijing stood at over one hundred and twenty billion dollars as of 2010, with China holding influence over the economies of multiple states, not to mention the African Union (AU). In this instance the Asian-African ties are starkly clear, with the AU’s two hundred million dollar headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, having been funded entirely through Chinese donors.

Such involvement is relatively new, however. Although the Chinese had shown sporadic interest in Africa with the souring of relations with the USSR from the 1950s onwards, this embryonic relationship was cut short in the 1980s following the post-Maoist government’s decision to focus largely on domestic development.

Although this period is often associated with the birth of neoliberalism and the cracking open of the Chinese economy under Deng Xiaoping, it’s also the case that the right-ward shift in Chinese politics towards the end of the Mao epoch prompted a realignment towards the United States. As such, the emphasis on the Third World, perhaps most emphatically espoused by the eventually disgraced Lin Biao, petered towards the end of the 1970s. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 1990s that Beijing made its first overtures in South Africa, with the Dilokong chrome mines being the target of choice.

Subsequent investment flows were relatively small, however, with a lack of infrastructure development serving to frustrate growing Chinese demands for raw materials, particularly metals, to fuel their own domestic manufacturing base.

This conundrum was swiftly overcome. Aid from China leapt to $10 billion dollars between 2009 and 2012, with Beijing upping the scale of outgoing loans to various African nations precisely for infrastructure development. As early as 2008, Africa commanded an impressive 9.8 percent of China’s total foreign direct investment (FDI), a sizeable figure and an apparently clear indication of Beijing’s drive to do serious business with African leaders.

The Nigerian-based Initiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA) maintains that, as of 2012, a grand total of $14.7 billion dollars in Chinese FDI had manifested in Africa; a sixty percent leap from 2009. Since last year this figure has grown to exceed $40 billion dollars.

Yet questions have necessarily arisen as to what such statistics might mean in the long-run, particularly in relation to Chinese objectives and, by association, those of older contenders such as Europe and the United States. Much of what has manifested from China’s presence involve typical extractivist industries that, while bountiful, raise questions as to what long-term political priorities may be in play.

“We have to be realistic about what the Chinese want out of Africa,” said David Van Wyk, Lead Researcher with the Bench Marks Foundation, itself a corporate responsibility NGO operating out of South Africa. “If you look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, Belgium colonized the place but they never built a road from the capital to the copper rich areas. Then the Chinese came and built those roads. Likewise if you look at Angola, as in the southern tip, the South African Army bombed the sh*t out of the area (during the Border Wars) and destroyed all the roads and towns. But if you look at it now the Chinese have re-built the area. But that’s the deal with the Chinese; they say ‘we’ll reconstruct your country if you supply us with the raw materials for our economy.'”

It’s here that some believe Chinese involvement in Africa differs from traditional western overtures. According to a 2014 IPPA report, China has never sought to impose “political conditions” on African governments prior to engaging in either trade arrangements or investment overtures.

The IPPA subsequently argue that some African nations see China as a more benign alternative to more infamous economic players such as the International Monetary Fund. As of 2009 China had already cancelled almost four billion dollars worth of its global debt; a sizeable benefit to African states. What’s more, China’s achievement of several Millennium Development Goals is, for the IPPA, interpreted by various nations as constituting a successful economic model to emulate.

The Rights Chimera

If there are differences in investment approaches between east and west then a key controversy may lie within the field of human rights. Yun Sun, a non-resident fellow with the Africa Growth Initiative, maintains that differing interpretations of human rights law are not only in evidence, but may actually impact upon any attempts at Chinese/Western co-operation.

“While China does not allow political issues such as democratic or authoritarian systems to interfere with its pragmatic ties with African countries, the U.S. has strong value-oriented policies that prevent Washington from engaging regimes with poor human rights records”, Sun argued in a blog post for the Brookings Institution. “On the technical level, China views development and foreign aid as practical policy instruments to promote political friendship and economic cooperation, while the U.S. attaches clearly stated goals, stringent conditions, and strict criteria to its development programs.” She added, “In reality, these vast differences significantly limit the potential for U.S.-China cooperation.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was claiming that, as early as 2007, Beijing was antagonizing western powers by dealing with governments with less than ideal attitudes towards human rights. Despite impressing local political leaders with equitable loans and abundant aid, China was setting a dubious precedent by allegedly failing to make human rights a consistent part of its African policy.

When it comes to the rights of indigenous workers there may be something to this. A 2012 article in The Guardian described the abuse of native Zimbabwean workers at the hands of Chinese managers. The article, authored by David Smith, himself operating out of Harare, recounted a particularly infamous incident where an indigenous worker complained to Chinese management of ill-treatment, only to be physically assaulted and fired.

“The problem with the Chinese in some areas is that they don’t really respect local labor law,” David Van Wyk of the South African Bench Marks corporate responsibility NGO explained to Toward Freedom. “Like anyone else they want to take advantage of cheap labor, which has inevitably led to some incidents; in Zambia, for instance, Chinese management have been killed for not paying wages and being dismissive of workers’ rights altogether.”

One such episode in 2012 saw the death of a Chinese manager, Wu Shengzai, when a dispute over pay with indigenous miners turned violent. One year prior, the Zambian government acquitted two Chinese managers of attempted murder after the pair had allegedly fired upon protesting workers.

It was around this time that Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed that local miners were being compelled to labor in shifts of up to 18 hours in duration. HRW’s repot detailed horrific conditions in Chinese-run copper mines, citing “inadequate ventilation that can lead to serious lung diseases” alongside a “failure to replace workers’ damaged protective equipment” and “routine threats to fire workers who refuse to work in unsafe places.”

Zambia itself may be of particular interest to the Chinese due to a weak or non-functional workers’ movement; organized workers can potentially turn away investment overtures elsewhere.

“In South Africa you won’t find any Chinese workers as they are afraid of the native trade unions,” claims Van Wyk. “If you go to Zambia though, you get plane loads of Chinese guys operating the mines, not just as management but also as labor.”

Yet another argument is that western powers themselves do not display any real consistency when it comes to adherence to human rights treaties. Long-term US/UK allies such as Saudi Arabia, Colombia and Bahrain have horrific human rights records that, if the previous viewpoints are to be taken seriously, imply a level of hypocrisy on the part of governments apparently outraged by Chinese indifference.

The west talks all this stuff about human rights but their corporations on the ground in Africa behave terribly,” added Van Wyk. “Many western companies in South Africa, for instance, still employ ex-apartheid security, [and] there have been incidents in the Congo where peasants have been shot for trespassing close to private mining operations that are in receipt of foreign investment. The western involvement in Africa is very violent, and very militarized in nature, which often leads to the circumvention of human rights altogether.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo is a case in point. The corporate body currently known as Anglo Gold Ashanti (AGA) has a controversial relationship with this nation, having taken an interest since the late nineties when still operating under the name of Ashanti Goldfields. Following a merger with Anglo Gold Ltd in 2003, AGA came in for special mention in a Human Rights Watch expose on mining operations that led to some startling revelations.

Although AGA is allegedly exempt from certain standards as exemplified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) by basing itself in South Africa – a non-OECD state – the corporation’s sizeable presence on both the London and New York Stock Exchanges make it a target for western investment, and as such, of importance to western politics.

However, in their 2005 report, “The Curse of Gold”, HRW claim that AGA made a series of deals with one party to the then recently terminated Congolese civil war, the Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (FNI). Due to the central government’s tenuous hold over prospective mineral deposits in Ituri, the FNI were allegedly the power to negotiate with, despite, according to HRW, having an “atrocious record of human rights crimes” and the fact that they “continued to carry out serious and widespread abuses even as they entered discussions with AngloGold Ashanti representatives.”

Indeed, according to HRW, the initial contact between AGA and their new partners had taken place “just weeks after FNI combatants carried out a killing spree in September 2004 to areas east of Mongbwalu…brutally killing scores of civilians.”

Over the preceding period between 2002 and 2003, a UN panel of researchers linked the Congo conflict to the exploitation of natural resources by various foreign conglomerates, with human rights abuses coming in for specific mention. Although refuting such allegations and ultimately being acquitted, HRW believes AGA’s predecessor, Ashanti Goldfields, had previously attempted deals in Mongbwalu with another party to the war, the Union of Congolese Patriots(UPC).

Again according to HRW, the UPC had only “won control of Mongbwalu and surrounding areas” after a sustained conflict “that killed some 800 civilians, many of them slaughtered on the basis of their ethnicity.”

With the UPC subsequently driven from the area by the FNI in 2003, AGA received permission from their new benefactors to start exploratory drilling operations. Around this period, FNI combatants are believed to have carried out numerous atrocities against several villages, in some instances, according to HRW, leaving “their victims dead in the streets with their arms tied, sticks in their rectums, and body parts cut off.”

With the strengthening of ties between AGA and the FNI throughout 2004, the latter group are reputed to have continued their repressive policies, with incidents of forced labor becoming rampant. While it would be difficult to uncover whether AGA benefited directly from such practices, with just the once instance outlined here, some may find it hard to believe that western economic involvement in Africa is conditional upon the proper observance of human rights law.

Rising Tensions

Late last year the Quebec-based Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG) was already reporting on a renewal of American/Chinese competition on the continent. The US, it was alleged, was attempting to “buy some goodwill” through an influx of $33 billion dollars in new investments, in the process aiding NATO ally France with some $10 million dollars worth of aid for “counterterrorism operations” in west Africa.

The CRG maintain that at a US/African summit in August 2014, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Eritrea, Chad, Egypt, Sierra Leone and Liberia all stood absent from the proceedings. Of those nations just listed, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Egypt in particular stand in receipt of sizeable Chinese investments, in addition to having lost some political esteem in the eyes of western powers.

A 2014 RAND study shed further light on the situation. Although claiming that, at least for the time being, the US and China are not “strategic rivals” over African affairs, the study admits this could change in the near future with a wider influx of investment from both powers. Yet this study again raises the spectre of China’s apparent ambivalence in relation to human rights, citing Beijing’s role in helping “nondemocratic regimes cling to power” alongside “economically unviable decisions” and “official corruption.”

A possible flashpoint lies with Sudan, as China’s apparently benevolent attitude towards Khartoum is overshadowed by the EU and US’s concern over both the preceding conflict in Darfur and the emergence of South Sudan as an independent power. A recent report from the Jamestown Foundation lauded China as playing a decisive role in Sudanese oil exports, and took up a predictable narrative in relation to Beijing’s dismissal of human rights concerns. The report claims that Sudan plays host to a multitude of former People’s Liberation Army soldiers and Chinese weapons, resulting in the allegation that China may be “associated, though indirectly, with the atrocities in Darfur.”

Another view aired by the Centre for Global Research, drawing material from the news outlet, Russia Today, provides needed context. For the CGR, western hostility to Sudan stems to some degree from Sudan’s warm ties with China, as well as US support for South Sudanese independence in 2011. The CRG argues that economic gains, rather than other factors, have persistently taken priority in the region, with the US objective of “pushing out the Chinese and taking over.”

The above perspectives represent two contending views – one loosely pro-western and the other more critical – of competition between the US and China. But what is striking is that while the pro-western narrative often makes mention of human rights concerns, an overriding love for human rights is notably absent from the global US agenda.

Whether this involves long-term ally Saudi Arabia, the UK’s new favourite of Bahrain, or the more extreme case of Anglo Gold Ashanti in the DRC, human rights are seemingly now employed as a means toward political rhetoric, rather than a serious policy in themselves. AFRICOM’s own role, particularly in relation to the NATO bombing campaign against Libya in 2011, used human rights-orientated rhetoric to justify military action. The end result was not only Libya’s currently fractured state, but the mass ethnic cleansing of Tawerghans in a human rights travesty of its very own. While Chinese policy in Africa is hardly benign or just, it differs from the sledgehammer approach Africans have come to expect from other powers, notably the US.

“From all my travels in Africa, I see Chinese development workers and so on, but I don’t see guns on the grounds. The Chinese presence is often more constructive, where as the presence of American military units is very destabilizing,” argues Van Wyk. In countries with an AFRICOM presence there’s a big backlash, as people don’t take kindly to the presence of foreign soldiers. America wants to conquer Africa through the barrel of the gun and that’s a huge mistake. They’re going to regret it.”


Dan Read is a freelance journalist with a BA in journalism and an MA in human rights. He is based in Britain.Twitter: @DanRead2