Editor's Note: While America's attention has been focused elsewhere, China has been busy cultivating the African continent in a myriad of ways. Does this increased influence portend a shift in the international system? And if so, what does this mean for Western interests in Africa and internationally?
Slavery; colonialism; Apartheid; Cold War manipulation; IMF Structural Adjustment; corruption of governments by Western corporations; and resource wars fought by white mercenaries: if independent African nations of the Twenty First Century choose to seek new relationships with non-Western allies, then we should not be puzzled by this development. Nevertheless, Western commentators watch with increasing concern as China's growing political and economic influence makes it an attractive partner for African governments. With global issues now at the top of the agenda in interactions between the United States and China (Johnson 2009), the relationships crystallising between China and Africa have for some time been overlooked by the media and policymakers. Mainstream pundits who have discovered these developments often propagate a moral panic regarding China's nefarious intent, and issue warnings of existential threat to Western interests, as 'access to important raw materials and energy sources ... [is] "locked up" by Chinese firms' (Brookes & Shin 2006). Headlines such as, 'Why China is trying to colonise Africa' (Blair 2007), 'How China's taking over Africa, and why the West should be VERY worried' (Malone 2008), and 'China Tightens Grip on Africa' (2009), have appeared in conservative-leaning publications, and frame the debate as a Manichean struggle between the munificent West and an exploitative Chinese bogeyman.
I will argue that while Western hegemony in Africa is certainly being seriously challenged, necessarily conflating this with a negative result for Africa is based on an erroneously idealistic view of Western interaction with the continent. While critics attribute China's diplomatic success to it being 'the ally of choice for Africa's worst rulers' (Blair 2007), in fact part of China's attraction is 'more than 50 years of friendly, respectful, and supportive relations [with] African countries' (Gill & Reilly 2007). Recent criticism of Chinese activities in Africa is often accurate, and is important in helping constrain destructive behaviours, but China's conduct isnot worse than the West's historical and ongoing relationship with the continent, and will potentially be much more productive. China's changing relationship with Africa is also part of a wider structural shift in the international system, which will create new centres of power and wealth over the coming decades, and may increasingly fracture the cohesiveness of 'Western' interests. For the United States and its traditional allies to remain globally influential in the coming century, they must comprehend some of the lessons offered by Africa's changing disposition.
The Reality of 'the White Man's Burden'
Commentators' judgements of China often begin with assumptions that the West has unceasingly promoted democratic values and economic development in Africa, even if this has been overwhelmed by local obstacles. However, those familiar with African history are aware of the flaws in this narrative. Africa's first 35 years of independence were in the context of the Cold War. Even once decolonisation had commenced, America and its European allies opposed independence through NATO assistance for France and Portugal to fight colonial wars--in the latter case until the 1970s (Ohaegbulam 1992, p. 21); and orchestrated the downfall of independence leaders like the Congo's Patrice Lumumba (De Witte 2002). For Western governments the containment of communism justified channelling billions of dollars in development aid to repressive regimes, and welcoming their brutal treatment of internal left-wing opposition (Harsch 1993, p. 7). From racist white regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia; to despotic African rulers, like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Hastings Banda of Malawi, and Omar Bongo of Gabon; and fratricidal guerrilla groups like UNITA in Angola, and RENAMO in Mozambique; seeing the West as facilitating democracy in Cold War Africa necessitates historical amnesia.
By the 1980s the imposition of structural adjustment as part of aid and debt rescheduling packages was common, and despite the rhetoric of international financial agencies it had the widespread and painful impact of depressing people's incomes, living standards, health conditions and overall social circumstances. Prices for many basic consumer staples rose, unemployment levels increased, and governments cut spending, usually hitting vital social sectors like education and health the hardest (Harsch 1993, p. 15). Ironically, in cases where this induced political liberalisation, the demands of the pro-democracy movements, 'reflect, to a significant extent, a popular reaction against the socially painful effects of structural adjustment' (Harsch 1993, p. 12). Subsequently, while the 1990s created an opportunity to divert resources from the global arms race to tackling Africa's challenges, it is instead now seen as a period in which the United States disengaged from African Affairs, apart from occasional humanitarian disasters that could not be ignored (Kraxberger 2005, p. 48). The World Bank and the IMF were now empowered to alter African societies by linking aid to democratic reform (Goldsmith 2001, p. 413); though key critics like World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz have said that by reducing developing governments' economic autonomy, policy conditionalities actually undermine...