U.S-China Inter-Imperial Rivalry in Africa

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing at the BRICS Africa Outreach and BRICS Plus Outreach, in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 27, 2018.

In a contribution to the debate on imperialism in Africa, Lee Wengraf argues that there is an urgency for left analysis on the centrality of the sharpening inter-imperial rivalry on the continent. Chinese imperialism in Africa is not identical to that of the U.S but it has been able to take advantage of the door kicked open by neoliberal deregulation and privatization promoted by the West. Wengraf argues that African ruling classes do not merely play a ‘lieutenant’ or ‘comprador’ role in a global order dominated by the West but seek to facilitate capital accumulation for their own ruling classes, a project which is both independent of yet constrained by the major imperial powers. She argues that we must turn towards the resistance of African working classes which demand our solidarity, regardless of which imperial players are involved.

By Lee Wengraf

In the debate on imperialism at roape.net over the past year, contributors have taken up key questions on the relative flows of value and power between the Global North and South. Considerable attention is given in the exchange between John Smith and David Harvey to the question of the ‘draining of wealth’ between these regions of the world. In assessing the current landscape of global imperialism, Smith correctly describes the rapid transformation of the Chinese economy of recent years when he writes, ‘China is much more than merely a very large, fast-growing “emerging nation”’, with global conditions characterized by ‘China’s growing challenge to imperialist domination’ . Yet despite those comments, Smith reduces Harvey’s conclusions about the critical role played by China as privileging the role of ‘geography’ in his analysis:

Yet, in his reply to my critique, Harvey elevates geography above all else, lumping China, whose per capita GDP in 2017 was situated between Thailand and the Dominican Republic, along with South Korea, Taiwan and imperialist Japan into a distinct East Asian ‘power block [sic] in the global economy.’ Given the moribund state of the Japanese economy, whose GDP has grown by an average of less than 1% per annum since 1990, and cognizant of Japan’s explosive economic, political and military rivalry with China, to ask whether this ‘bloc’ is now draining wealth from capitalist Europe and North America is to ask the wrong question.

Harvey, in my reading, is not merely approaching the question of China’s role as simply a matter of geography but rather, more broadly speaking, of the centrality of ‘the East’ in a new phase of capitalist development and a reshaping of the global economy. It is difficult to see, given the explosive developments in China’s economy and its global strategic aims, how asking whether this ‘“bloc” is now draining wealth from capitalist Europe and North America’ is asking the wrong question.

That being said, both Smith’s and Harvey’s contributions sideline the central dynamic critical to contemporary imperialism: that of a sharp inter-imperial rivalry that dominates the globe today. This missing element in the debate has been highlighted brilliantly by Esteban Mora’s contributions on roape.net, when he argues that we should not only be looking for a connection between ‘drained’ countries and countries who ‘drain’, but rather a relationship of mutual profiting between an international capitalist class. Interestingly, Mora criticizes dependency theories which underpin the debate and argues that they cannot capture the totality of relationships in the international market, nor the actual operations of imperialism.

For Marxists, the dynamics of imperialism are not merely driven by the need for access to resources and markets, although undoubtedly this drive plays a role. More fundamentally, these dynamics are an expression of the competitive drive to control those resources over and against imperial rivals. Inextricably tied to those strategic objectives is the importance of political stability or, if necessary, the reliance on military might to back up their interests. As V.I. Lenin wrote a century ago in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, the economic competition at the heart of capitalism typically launches nation-states on a collision course, relying on a host of tactics, from ‘free trade’ agreements to outright war; the growing trade war between the U.S. and China is one of the most recent expressions of this rivalry. As Andy Higginbottom points out in his contribution to the ROAPE exchange, ‘China is not yet “way ahead” of Western imperialism, but is rapidly catching up and does threaten to soon begin to overtake them. Right now, there is a whole industry of China watchers, but the point is in what context and against what competition does China rise?’

Those imperial tensions are on full display in sub-Saharan Africa today, where the U.S. and China, but also the European Union nations, the Gulf states and other global powers such as Russia and India are in fierce competition to seize the opportunities presented by ‘Africa rising’s’ new boom. The terrain of the ‘new scramble’ for Africa of the twenty-first century is one of widening networks of investment, resource extraction and militarization across the continent. Foreign multinationals, in partnership with African ruling classes, have greatly accelerated a new rush for raw materials and markets, one remarkably reminiscent of the colonial scramble for Africa of the late nineteenth century and, as both Smith and Harvey point out, the super-exploitation of the continent’s working classes. And today’s ‘scramble’ – not unlike its predecessor – has thrown the world’s imperial powers into an ever-sharpening competition worldwide. Above all, today’s conflict is most pronounced between the inter-imperial rivalry between China and the U.S., a global conflict gaining traction across the African continent.

For both China and the U.S., new heights of investment, trade and loans on the continent in the twenty-first century (click here to see recent trends) are expressions of the strategic drive to bind allegiances with African states and secure economic preeminence, that is, access to resources and markets. According to EY data, Africa’s share of global FDI has been rising and increased to 11.4% in 2015, and capital investment logistics, transport and retail rose by 32%. Growth in in the early part of this century was heralded in the business presses as ‘Africa rising,’ yet the commodities crash in the middle of this decade brought on a sharp slowdown in the middle of the decade, followed by a slow recovery. GDP on the continent averaged 1.3% in 2016 and 2.4% in 2017, with projections of 3.1% in 2018, and 3.6% in 2019 (click here to see the World Bank report ). According to the World Bank, gross domestic product (GDP) growth in sub-Saharan Africa has been highly uneven, concentrated in the continent’s largest economies of Nigeria, South Africa and Angola.

The U.S. enthusiastically leapt on the investment bandwagon in Africa with a significant turn towards African oil in the first decade of this century. During this time, African oil exports to the U.S. surpassed those from the Middle East. Although oil extraction in Africa on the part of U.S. corporations is nothing new – Exxon Mobil boasts of its presence on the continent for over a century – the recent surge reflected a qualitatively deeper ‘involvement.’ U.S. oil imports have changed significantly in the past few years with the ‘shale revolution’ and the dramatic growth of its domestic oil industry, especially in Texas. By the middle of the second decade, African exports to the U.S. were a fraction of what they had been just years earlier.

In his contribution to the debate on imperialism, Smith gives center stage to the question of the flows of investment and value between the Global North and South. Smith is correct to argue that wealth and profit is extracted from the Global South through multiple channels, both licit and otherwise. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, illicit capital flows – through transfer mispricing and other tax schemes – play significant roles. Smith writes, ‘As for Sub-Saharan Africa, … [net resource transfers] from this continent to imperialist countries (or tax havens licensed by them) between 1980 to 2012 totaled $792bn, that illicit transfers from Africa to imperialist countries as a proportion of GDP are higher than from any other region, and that capital flight from sub-Saharan Africa is growing by more than 20 percent per annum, faster than anywhere else in the world.’

Taking a step back allows us to see the historical processes behind these conditions: the current dynamic of the extraction of profit from Africa is an expression of both the inheritance of highly lopsided colonial economies – geared towards primary-commodity exports – and massive regulatory weaknesses also inherited from the pre-independence period (I have written elsewhere on roape.net about Walter Rodney’s 1972 historical account of these processes, click here). Neoliberal restructuring – driven by Western international financial institutions and states – exacerbated these historic weaknesses and set the stage for the recovery of global profitability from the period of recession of the 1970s. Above all, neoliberalism cemented the imperial domination of the U.S. over its rivals, through favorable trade and investment terms and an assault on African – and the Global South’s – working classes. As Harvey has written extensively, the neoliberal order has unleashed a struggle for imperial domination by the major powers paired with a race to the bottom for the world’s working classes. It is this competitive dynamic that frames global relations and has facilitated the current ‘new scramble for Africa’ and the unprecedented boom on the continent. As elsewhere, the sharp rivalry in Africa – expressed in this ‘new scramble’ for resources and investments – is by no means only about the West.

As a relatively late competitor on this terrain, China has been able to take advantage of the era of neoliberal assault in sub-Saharan Africa to spur massive economic growth and help boost its own position as the U.S.’s dominant global rival. Most significantly, China’s immense growth has propelled a major drive for raw materials to support its booming industrialization. China’s economy is heavily reliant on African exports, and in 2009, China became Africa’s largest trading partner, with the volume of trade between the two four times larger than with the U.S (see the recent Financial Times articles here). Although U.S. FDI in Africa exceeds that of China’s, the trend for Chinese investment is edging upwards while U.S. FDI has been on the decline. In addition, loans from China’s Exim Bank – heavily focused on high-profile infrastructure projects – dwarf those from the U.S.

This growing economic involvement dictates higher stakes for China, strategically and politically, despite past claims on the part of the Chinese government of political non-interference. Their Belt and Road Initiative, expected to cost approximately $1 trillion worldwide, will include critical development projects in Africa. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation meeting in Beijing in September this year renewed promises on the part of China for high levels of spending, to include support for industrialization. Chinese imperialism in Africa is not identical to that of the U.S.: it has its own dynamics and obligations, including adherence to the One China policy with regards to Taiwan, and other political terms, while often conditioning loans on future production rights. In other words, although China has been able to take advantage of the door kicked open by neoliberal deregulation and privatization on the part of the West, its engagement has its own unique character.

Nonetheless, the centrality of this imperial dynamic is unavoidable. The posture of U.S. imperialism with regards to China in Africa extends back through former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama: despite a shift in approach from ‘partnership’ under Obama to the unilateralism of current president Donald Trump, there is a line of continuity in their strategic objectives of strengthening American capital worldwide. The U.S. has recently been joined by Britain and Germany, among others, who openly deride Chinese policy in Africa as ‘debt crisis diplomacy’ – for the promissory nature of its bilateral relations -= while promoting Western investment. Very recently, in fact, Trump unveiled a new program to increase U.S. investment on the continent, a move that can only be understood as a response to China’s involvement in Africa (see the New York Times articles here). Yet Trump’s aggressive nationalism and massive recent hand-outs to ‘his own’ ruling class show that these kinds of policies continue to drive the workers in both the U.S. and across the globe in a race to the bottom. Class inequality only intensified during Africa’s ‘boom’; soaring corporate profits in the U.S. merely paper over a similar class divide (see the recent article here) ), business press celebrations of a tight economy notwithstanding. Contrary to Smith’s take (and Adam Mayer in his contribution to the debate), while the world’s working classes might be differently-positioned within supply and production chains, those same working classes share the same interests within a wider system built on profit.

Above all, this imperial competition is thrown into sharp relief by the heightened militarization of both the U.S. and China, as well as other major powers, across the continent. China’s first overseas military base is located in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, right alongside of the U.S.’s Camp Lemonnier. China’s contributions to U.N. peace-keeping operations in Africa has escalated massively, as has those from Russia, which has more ‘peacekeepers’ in Africa than France, U.S. and UK combined. This is the landscape of heightening global tensions and the background for the Trump administration’s ‘security first’ agenda, including the rise of the U.S. Africa military command (AFRICOM) – now just over a decade old – and the widening military footprint of the U.S. on the continent, across which troops are scattered in the thousands.

According to investigative journalist Nick Turse, ‘Africa…has seen the most significant increase in special ops deployments.  In 2006, the figure for that continent was just 1%; as 2017 ended, it stood at 16.61%.  In other words, more commandos are operating there than in any region except the Middle East… Special Operations forces were active in at least 33 nations across that continent last year… Last spring, President Donald Trump loosened Obama-era restrictions on offensive operations in [Somalia]’ (see Nick Turse’s article from earlier in the year). The heightened militarization can only be understood in the context of the higher stakes and sharper competition as economic conflicts are expressed in increasingly dangerous military forms.

Meanwhile, the notion of ‘sub-imperialism,’ as argued by Patrick Bond in the debate, fails to fully explain these inter-imperial dynamics. The so-called ‘emerging’ or sub-imperial powers of China, Russia and India are contending for dominance on the world stage, not content to (merely) ‘lubricate’ the interests of the ‘older’ powers. Likewise, African ruling classes do not merely play a ‘lieutenant’ or ‘comprador’ role in a global order dominated by the West but seek to facilitate capital accumulation for their own ruling classes, a project which is both independent of yet constrained by the major imperial powers. Thus, African political leaders will host military installations and award lucrative extraction contracts in pursuit of their own objectives; goals nonetheless imprinted by the legacies of colonialism and neoliberalism that mean that African economies are unevenly combined and integrated into the global capitalist system. Resource nationalism represents one strategy for African ruling classes to ‘renegotiate’ the terms of that relationship, a strategy itself limited by an inheritance of economies over-reliant on primary commodity exports and world prices that can sustain it.

The urgency for left analysis on the centrality of this sharpening inter-imperial rivalry – as described by Lenin – cannot be overstated. Resistance on the part of African working classes as producers of (surplus) value at the ‘point of extraction’ and – as industrialization spurred by Chinese investment in Africa continues to grow – the point of production must be understood as class struggle demanding solidarity, regardless of which imperial players are involved. As the commodities crash of 2015 showed in no uncertain terms, the systemic crisis of capitalist competition and the dangers of overcapacity will be sharply felt in the ‘export-driven’ economies of sub-Saharan Africa. The new African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement would make Africa the world’s largest free trade zone, with a combined GDP of more than $3.4 trillion and a massive boost to intra-Africa trade. Such an agreement, if it is ever realised, underscores the inadequacy of left projects that envision a ‘delinking’ from the world system. This global competitive drive – fueled by China and the U.S. – is on a collision course, unfolding on a continent armed to the teeth. Equally, the left must mobilize against all forms of racism and oppression in this volatile period, from anti-Chinese xenophobia in Africa to the right-wing mobilization at the U.S.-Mexico border against the Central American migrant caravan. The left must insist upon a shared embrace of our struggles against imperialism and all its current manifestations.

Lee Wengraf is a writer and activist based in New York. Her work on Africa is published in the International Socialist Review, Counterpunch, Pambazuka News, AllAfrica.com, on roape.net and in the Review of African Political Economy. Her new book Extracting Profit: Neoliberalism, Imperialism and the New Scramble for Africa will be launched at the Seminar in Contemporary Marxist Theory at Kings College, on 21 November 2018, 18:00 to 20:00, Bush House, Strand Campus, London (see the details of the launch are here).

Featured Photograph: A BRICS meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa (July 27, 2018).


  1. Beautiful! Africans and their leaders must wake up. We cannot be the dinning table and food on it at same time. We must enjoy our own meal at no ones dictates and control. Yes, we will need capital injection but it must be subject to modern day slavery.

  2. The author seems to imply that providing peacekeeping forces is evil. If the African Union is unable to maintain peace on the continent and military forces from other sources are unwelcome, then who will battle terrorists and keep a lid on conflicts between neighboring nations? Isn’t the lack of maturity among the African states to govern themselves part of the problem?


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