This article was written by Adam Tiffen, a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council in the U.S. who  currently works in sustainable development. Views expressed are his own. Article has been edited.

"To support its booming economic growth, China’s demand for natural resources has become insatiable. In exchange for locking up access to natural resources, China has authorized billions of dollars in loans to African governments. With an increasing number of these governments beholden to China, a new imperial empire is taking shape in Africa.

China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. In 2011, the volume of trade increased a staggering 33% from the previous year to USD 166 billion. This trade dependence works both ways; one third of China’s oil supplies come from Angola and Nigeria. Up to 20% of China's demand for cotton is met by trade with Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali. The Côte d’Ivoire supplies the vast majority of Chinas’ cocoa. Namibia is one of China’s main suppliers of Fish, and Kenya remains one of the main suppliers of Chinese Coffee.

In extractives, however, the trade imbalance is even starker. Across the continent, Chinese demand for iron ore, copper, and timber has led to trade agreements in which Chinese government-owned companies are granted rights to huge tracts of land for timber or exclusive access to copper and iron ore mines. In exchange, the Chinese government has authorized billions of dollars in loans to African governments. However, these loans often come with a catch: until this year, development work paid for by these funds were typically open only to tenders by Chinese companies.

Chinese government-backed construction companies are doing exceptionally well due to these policies. Rather than infusing local African economies with cash, stimulating growth, and increasing local capacity, the main benefit has been to Chinese enterprises. These companies, financed by their own government, systematically import cheap Chinese labor to staff their construction projects. As a result, for many African countries, the exchange of valuable natural resources for critically needed infrastructure has had limited impact on unemployment and little corresponding development of a vast African unskilled labor force. Today, there are an estimated 1 million Chinese living and working in Africa.

The truth is the Chinese approach in Africa is a new form of colonialism. Chinese interests in Africa are motivated solely for China’s benefit; by combining government action with corporate interests, the Chinese are locking up rights to billions of dollars of valuable commodities. African nations, facing political pressure to show some development progress, are induced to barter what are often their only significant sources of potential wealth for mediocre infrastructure that does little to develop their economies and is worth a tiny fraction of the total value of the resources they sign over to the Chinese. The lack of sustainability in this trading partnership creates an inevitable African dependence upon Chinese largess for future maintenance and rehabilitation of this infrastructure.

Corruption and graft, rampant throughout African politics, has also enabled Chinese government backed businesses to influence political decision makers in their economic favor. Needless to say, Chinese construction on the African continent is also undertaken with little regard for environmental and cultural sustainability. The resultant destruction of rainforests, unrestricted mining, and pollution of fresh water supplies will have a lasting negative impact on the economic and security situation.

China’s approach in Africa is a new form of economic colonialism. Chinese state-backed companies will continue to extract precious natural resources with little to no benefit derived by indigenous populations. China’s expanding economic influence will result in an increasing dependence that will dominate African economies and politics.  

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