Collectively, the nations of Africa rank lowest in the world in terms of infrastructure, urbanization, health, security, and quality of life. African aid from most countries is limited to charity programs that provide desperately needed basic necessities to impoverished Africans but accomplish little in terms of addressing the sources of such poverty. However, at least one country is bucking this trend. Chinese annual investments on the African continent have risen from $ 100 million US dollars in 2003 to over $10 billion US dollars in 2012. For those who aren’t counting, that is a nearly hundred fold increase in investment. I use “investment” because the Chinese are not being charitable; they are trading infrastructure projects to African nations in exchange for access to resource deposits. Chinese experts and contractors are being sent into African nations in considerable numbers in order to manage and design projects while the bulk of the construction work is completed by Africans. Many of these projects are small; wells, clinics, irrigation systems, and road extensions are common. There are a number of larger projects such as a $500 million hydroelectric dam in Guinea or the billion dollar Harare-Bulawayo railway in Zimbabwe. In Angola, Chinese contractors are finishing up a $3 billion city that is designed to house and provide modern amenities for up to 500,000 Angolans.
In stark contrast to the cash grants or sets of military hardware that are all too common payments from western nations, Chinese programs are visible, employ thousands of African workers, and are providing permanent increases in standards of living. These potent combinations have endeared the Chinese in the minds of many African citizens. In fact, China enjoys a 70 to 80 percent approval rating amongst the citizens of most African nations. More importantly, increasing numbers of Africans are saying that they consider China’s growing military and economic power as a positive thing.
Now, why should this matter to us? After the World War II, many combatant nations had been shattered by six years of near-constant warfare. The United States invested enormous physical, financial, and intellectual resources towards rebuilding European and Japanese infrastructure and industry. This investment had three major results. The first is that was a wealthier global economy that provided the United States with markets in which to sell manufactured goods that the Europeans and Japanese would have been otherwise unable to afford. Second, our involvement with these nations helped solidify both their governments and their people as staunch supporters of American economic and military power. Finally, by flooding these nations with American goods, American specialists, and American soldiers, we effectively exported our culture around the world. The product of these three inputs was an American superpower that endures to this day.
The African continent represents over one billion people spread across 30 million square kilometers of territory. Its resources, both human and natural, are vast and virtually untapped when compared with the rest of the world. Now China is developing them. Unlike the United States, which fixed a broken Europe, the Chinese are building Africa from scratch. They are not rebuilding things that the African nations have lost but are, instead, introducing them to modernization that they have never had. Chinese companies are filling African stores with Chinese products, whose labels are written in Mandarin and are advertised by Chinese slogans and celebrities. Meanwhile, Beijing is promoting rhetoric of cooperation and mutual support between China and its new African friends. On top of all of that, the African people like the Chinese. This is so critical. It is not enough to simply sign a military alliance with some dictator. The Chinese are winning the support and affection of populations who they plan on transforming into new rising powers.
We followed the same course of action in building our economic, political, and military relations with Europe and Japan. Those relationships have played a key role in sustaining the American position as the world superpower for the past 60 years. Now, our relationships with our allies are deteriorating and the American hegemony, while strong for the moment, is waning. You don’t need to be a Rhodes Scholar to see where China’s reasoning lies.