Chinese Imperialism: A Knife in the Back of Sustainable Development

Finn Beckett-Hester
By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

Bismarck remarked after the Berlin Conference of 1885 that “he who controls Africa will control Europe”. This chauvinistic war cry came to define the 19th and 20th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, with European powers waging battle for imperial control over African nations. The flag bearer of this hypermasculine discourse, however, is decentralising from Europe: imperialism has assumed a new form. Military invasion has ceased to be the predominant method of post-colonial nation subjugation; now, economic might is the main tool of the imperialist project – this process defined by former Ghanaian president and intellectual Kwame Nkrumah as neo-colonialism (Nkrumah, 1970). The revival of China as an increasingly globalised power has brought a new player to the table of traditionally Western-centric imperialism.

China has historically adopted a humanitarian mission in Africa; the construction of the TAZARA Railway in East Africa played a key role in the process of decolonisation of Tanzania and Zambia, linking the port of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia, to reduce its reliance on the colonial state of Rhodesia and to jump start the process of modernisation after an era of colonial plunder by the British Empire (Monson, 2006: 115). From a critical angle this was at worst using humanitarian infrastructure projects as diplomatic leverage to legitimise the Chinese Communist Party. Arguably, humanitarian principles that guided Chinese intervention in Africa under Mao may still be evident in the 21st Century to some extent. One example of this is the $4 billion 756km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway project which began operation on the 1st January 2018, which undoubtedly helps both parties. Eritrean independence from Ethiopia, in 1991, had left Ethiopia a landlocked nation: a status detrimental to economic development (Collier, 2007). Now with a land route to Djibouti, Ethiopia gains access to a port for trade, stimulating economic integration and geographic mobility within both nations. However, this example should not paint China as a panacea for African underdevelopment, as modern Chinese infrastructure projects ultimately serve to benefit their funder. To exemplify this, China simultaneously opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in July 2017, with a stated mission to provide humanitarian, counterterrorism and anti-piracy support. Whilst these are avowedly virtuous goals, the base is the culmination of years of diplomacy with and investment in Djibouti that has given China a foothold in East Africa and the Indian Ocean, from which it can protect its assets and facilitate Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Contemporary Chinese imperialism began in 2013 with Xi Jinping’s expansionist domestic and foreign policy, known as the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative (SREB): a policy of unprecedented government-sponsored infrastructure development and investment in Europe, Asia and Africa, involving more than 70 countries. This comprises the Maritime Silk Road, referring to sea routes, and the ‘Belt’, referring to overland corridors to link the regions of Central and South Asia closely with China, including trade links with Europe. China’s goals are intrinsically political; in the first instance, they are also international. In recasting Beijing’s relations with Central Asia as part of the SREB, Beijing has enticed governments in these countries into a consistent dialogue through which China can influence intranational decision-making. This resultant power imbalance has led to regional integration with the purpose of consolidating Beijing’s security and influence with political and economic implications to the benefit of China’s grand strategic interests (Reeves, 2018). Internally, the intensive industrial development of the north-western Xinjiang region has the premise of dispelling the growing Uyghur separatist sentiment to create a more politically and culturally homogenised China (Dave & Kobayashi, 2018: 268).

To further expand Chinese geopolitical influence as part of the SREB, China under Xi has adopted a unique international investment strategy which involves investing in unstable regions, typically with despotic leaders and nations with limited institutional capacity to implement an effective rule of law, that posit huge investment risks that Western countries have shied away from. By turning a blind eye to despotic regimes, China is able to gain diplomatic ground in Africa and South Asia, which is crucial as China currently lacks a blue-water navy, crucial to challenge regional US and European hegemony. This makes Madagascar very appealing to China’s global ambitions – and therefore next in the firing line of Chinese imperialism. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a very low Human Development Index: 161st out of 189 nations (UNDP, 2018: 117). Agriculture, fishing and forestry account for 30% of GDP, with 80% of the population employed in the resource extraction sector. Furthermore, development is greatly hampered by the country’s vulnerability to climate change and extreme weather events such as cyclones and drought (USAID, 2018).

On September 5th of this year, China signed the largest fishing deal in Madagascar’s history – a $2.7 billion, 10 year contract which would give 330 Chinese fishing vessels access to Madagascan waters. The deal was signed unilaterally by the Agence Malgasy de Développement Économique et de Promotion d’Entreprises (AMDP) (a non-governmental body, with no governmental mandate) without any reference to key stakeholders, the Fisheries Ministry or National Office for the Environment. Even former President Hery Rajaonarimampianina claimed no knowledge of this deal despite being present when it was signed. Hence, the deal itself lacks transparency and is saturated with massive power imbalances per its neo-colonial nature: in other words, a deal that is malleable to Chinese interest. The deal has no specification on how the $2.7 billion would be spent, where the ships would be docked or where the fishing would be done. The nebulous secrecy of the deal demonstrates China’s authoritarian approach to international relations and development. This has detrimental effects on democracy and on UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 – Peace and Justice (UN, 2015: 25):

16.6 Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels

16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels

Fish stocks in Madagascar are already faced with over-exploitation and loss of sharks, a staple part of Madagascan diet (McNeish, 2015). Thus, the commercial fishing industry is detrimental to the subsistence of many of the Madagascan people, with over 42% of the population being declared as undernourished (Food Security Portal, 2016). Chinese trawlers have some of the most devastating impacts of any nation, and like many Chinese industries are heavily subsidised by central government. Reports by the European Union have found that the majority of Chinese fishing goes unreported, amounting to around 2.5 million tonnes of catch per year around Africa alone (Blomeyer, et al., 2012: 21). This is despite Chinese fishing law emphasising the protection of the marine environment from overfishing and pollution. This makes it clear that the Chinese government is favouring its other objectives of providing sufficient amount of fish for human consumption and industry, and the enrichment of fisherman’s lives through a sustainable income, with the added effect of increasing China’s exports and therefore the ability to generate foreign reserves (Zhang, 2015: 13).  For a country with an undeveloped social security system and a very heavy reliance on the fishing sector, further depletion of fish stock for the Chinese market will only serve to exacerbate these issues with large swathes of the population likely falling into greater destitution. Ultimately, Chinese fishing praxis contravenes Sustainable Development Goal 14 – Life Below Water (UN, 2015:23), specifically:

14.2 By 2020, sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration in order to achieve healthy and productive oceans

Madagascar’s waters are home to a significant level of marine biodiversity (USAID,2017 :2). If previous Chinese fishing projects are anything to go by, environmental impacts will likely be devastating: cases include the illegal fishing of over 300 tonnes of endangered species, including hammerhead sharks in Ecuador in August 2017 (Valencia, 2017); in Ghana, despite a ban on foreign trawlers since 2002, the practice of illegal hammerhead fishing continues. 90% of this activity is Chinese (Kaminski, 2018), demonstrating China’s blatant disregard for other nations’ sovereignty and the rule of law.

While China is not the sole challenger to global democratic principles (the hegemonic Western powers still play their part), Malagasy people are excluded from the decision-making process, putting their livelihoods at risk. China’s neo-colonial project must be opposed to achieve sustainable development. This requires the creation of strong, inclusive and responsive institutions to effectively uphold the rule of law and effective public services – an objective that the newly-constructed quasi-democracy in Madagascar has failed to achieve. Despite its declaration as a democracy in 2013 by the European Union (EUbusiness, 2013), Madagascar has elections riddled with vote-buying, a written constitution as of 2010 which is routinely ignored, and a national assembly with deep-rooted corruption and little public responsiveness with positions of power constructed on nepotist principles (Klaas, 2016). This demonstrates the wider need for the resolution of internal contradictions of democratic principles in global institutions. This move however should not come from Western-centric interventionism, as history dictates an exploitative power imbalance emerges between core and periphery (Nkrumah, 1970).

These vague commitments to democratic principles globally have a detrimental impact on the effectiveness of environmental governance and the ability of supranational institutions to keep countries that deviate from the sustainability project in check. A number of nations have clear commitments to environmental sustainability, whether nationally such as the United Kingdom’s 2008 Climate Change Act or internationally with the 2015 Paris Agreement. Some nations are in powerful geopolitical positions, most notably those in Europe and North America (although decreasingly less so). They have however failed markedly in providing a check to these developments, with no international condemnation and limited media coverage. China, despite all of its rhetoric on environmental sustainability (France-Presse, 2015), principally remains committed to the doctrine of “build now clean up later,” and has consequently been given a tacit remit to continue its destructive fishing practices. Furthermore, whilst China has yet to implement a blue-water navy which can challenge other regional powers, the expansion of influence into sovereign Madagascan waters will give China sway over governance and further impetus and resources through which China can further its imperial dream. Global fishing agreements (which don’t currently exist) with proper enforcement and penalties for violators are needed to ensure Sustainable Development Goals 14 and 16 especially. Furthermore, Western powers must be under no illusion about the democratic nature of Madagascar. The state must be treated for what it is: an undemocratic regime. An international framework would enable sanctions to be imposed upon countries that deal with such regimes, hopefully creating the economic conditions necessary for political and social transition to more democratic forms of governance.

Madagascar is just another example of how China is slowly usurping Europe and the USA’s role as colonial rulers of Africa.

Header Image: Photo by James Coleman on Unsplash

Suggested reading

Read more about landlocked countries here: Collier, P. (2007) The Bottom Billion, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 4L Landlocked with Bad Neighbours.

Read more about neo-colonialism here: Nkrumah, K (1970) Neo-colonialism: The last stage of Imperialism. London: Panaf.

For a brilliant explanation on Xi Jinping’s Silk Road project read: Miller, T. (2017) China’s Asian dream: empire Building along the new Silk Road. London: Zed Books.


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