Resources & Climate

A “New Colonialism”?

in Program

By Lindsay Dolan – In a television interview in Zambia last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of a “new colonialism” in Africa, alluding to China’s increasing influence over Africa. Her comment is the latest reflection of Western skepticism surrounding the rise of China in Africa. Critics of China believe that its practice of tying its aid to Chinese businesses squanders development money and predict that China’s infusion of funds into Africa will leave it heavily indebted. In addition, China has proven willing to finance massive infrastructure projects that Western donors have refused to fund because they fail to meet environmental or humanitarian standards or because the ventures are too risky. Are these concerns on Africa’s behalf justified, or is the label “new colonialism” one that reflects American insecurity more than it reflects African interests?

China has heavily penetrated African markets over the past decade. While China does not release official aid figures and experts differ in their calculations, conservative estimates peg China’s official development assistance (ODA) alone at $3 billion. But most of China’s investment in Africa is intended to promote Chinese industry and therefore does not qualify as ODA. Chinese finance for African infrastructure, for example, jumped from $1 billion per year in 2000 to roughly $7 billion in 2006 (for comparison, US ODA to sub-Saharan Africa was $5.7 billion in 2008 and $9.5 in 2010, largely directed toward health and agriculture). Trade between China and Africa has increased tenfold over the last decade.

China’s foreign aid behavior, which finances large projects whose rents typically accrue to local elites, is reminiscent of Western aid preceding the policy conditionality era of the 1980s. Although the US previously participated in practices of tied aid, generally speaking, American aid has become much more selective in its choice of recipients and has begun to see successes as more African countries begin to “own” their development processes. As Clinton’s comment suggests, though, the presence of easily available Chinese aid threatens to reverse this trend.

High-profile projects and relationships provide evidence for the view that Chinese involvement may not promote long-term development. Chinese-supported infrastructure projects frequently ignore quality and environmental standards that Western donors now adhere to. The Chinese-backed Gibe II hydropower project in Ethiopia, for example, cost $500 million, but its tunnel collapsed ten days after its inauguration. China has now moved on to the Gibe III dam, which ignores numerous Ethiopian and international environmental laws and threatens to deprive Lake Turkana, the source of livelihood for half a million Ethiopians, of 85% of its annual inflow. Politically, skeptics criticize China’s willingness to continue to trade with and invest in the Sudanese regime. As recently as last week, China hosted President al-Bashir to confirm the two countries’ friendship after the partition of Sudan. In the last decade, China has explained its support for these regimes by adhering to a principled doctrine of non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, which avoids the appearance of supporting norms that would justify international intervention in the cases of Tibet or Taiwan.

But China’s investment in Africa should not be seen as categorically harmful. Some new trends complicate the stereotypical image of China in Africa and suggest that China may simply be at an earlier stage in discovering the best practices of development.

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. 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. In 2008, Eximbank published new standards for environmental impact assessment, finally recognizing land rights and resettlement as concerns for new projects. 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.

To be sure, China is a powerful global actor that must be monitored as it extends its influence in Africa and many of China’s critics genuinely wish to safeguard development successes in Africa. But as China becomes more deeply involved in Africa, it may develop greater interest in strong governance, environmental sustainability, and security. Additionally, China’s comparative advantage in infrastructural investments has the potential to complement American efforts to invest in public goods. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, African opinions of both Chinese and American influence are both overwhelmingly positive. The US should support Chinese investment in Africa in projects that contribute to local growth and security, and the number of projects that serve American, Chinese, and African interests is likely to increase. Yet the US still views China’s investment in Africa competitively rather than cooperatively. On March 1, Rep. Howard Berman (D – California) stated, “The more we slash our foreign assistance, the more we cede the playing field to China – which is more than happy to fill the vacuum in Africa, Latin America and Asia.” Taking a more complex view of China’s interests in Africa, while still bearing in mind the difficulties of working with such an opaque actor, will help to avoid the “new colonialism” Clinton references.


Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010): pp. 170-171.

Vivien Foster, William Butterfield, Chuan Chen, and Nataliya Pushak, “Building Bridges: China’s Growing Role as Infrastructure Financier for Sub-Saharan Africa,” Trends and Policy Options (5) (The World Bank, 2009): p. 3.

Jerker Hellstrom, “China’s Emerging Role in Africa: A Strategic Overview,” FOI Studies in African Security (2009).

For more on this, see Steven Radelet, Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries are Leading the Way (Washington, DC: Center for Global Development, 2010).

“Ethiopia’s Gibe III Dam: Sowing Hunger and Conflict,” International Rivers, January 2011.

“China’s Growing Role in African Peace and Security,” Saferworld (2011).

Peter Bosshard, “China’s Environmental Footprint in Africa,” Working Papers in African Studies, SAIS (2008).

Deborah Brautigam, “China, Africa, and the International Aid Architecture,” African Development Bank Group Working Papers Series 107 (April 2010), p. 37.

“Africa and its Emerging Partners,” African Economic Outlook (2010),

“Global Unease with Major World Powers,” Pew Global Attitudes Project (2007), ch. 3.

Ranking Member Howard L. Berman’s Opening Statement at Hearing, “Assessing U.S. Foreign Policy Priorities and Needs Amidst Economic Challenges,” March 1, 2011.


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