Over the past generation, Americans have observed China’s emergence with a mixture of excitement and anxiety. On one hand, huge new markets have opened to American companies; on the other, Chinese producers have created stiff competition.

Nowhere has China’s emergence been more dramatic than in Africa. Since 2000, China’s economic ties with Africa have increased exponentially. As of May 2012, China is Africa's largest trading partner, surpassing the United States and Europe. Trade between Africa and Beijing grew from $10 billion in 2000 to over $114 billion in 2010, and a year later it reached $166 billion. At the same time, China received about 13 percent of Africa’s global trade in 2010.

By 2010, China’s investment in Africa reached $40 billion. Although only 4 percent of China’s global investment, this figure is projected to reach 10 percent in 2030.

As a result of its intense trade with China, Africa registered 5.8 percent economic growth in 2007, its highest level in recent history. From 2000 to 2009, China also forgave poor African countries almost $3 billion in debt, more than the Western world’s total African debt forgiveness during the same period.

Some in the Western media call this bourgeoning Sino-African economic relationship a new form of colonialism. British journalist Justin Rowlatt produced a documentary for the BBC in 2011 titled “The Chinese are Coming.” Scenes in the program ranged from Chinese construction workers in Angola to Chinese poultry farmers producing genetically modified chickens (described on the program as “inflated chickens”) in Zambia, driving local poultry farmers out of business.

The catchy title and menacing themes echo dire warnings from some African academics, Western media, and policymakers about China’s insatiable appetite for land, markets, and natural resources.

As the South African Pambazuka News reminded readers in a 2006 editorial, “Almost every African country today bears examples of China’s emerging presence, from oil fields in the east, to farms in the south, and mines in the center of the continent.”

An estimated 800,000 Chinese work in Africa today. Chinese-run farms in Zambia supply vegetables sold in Lusaka’s street markets and Chinese companies have a virtual monopoly on the construction business in Botswana.

Historical precedents, including both China’s and Africa’s position vis-à-vis Western nations, provide important context for understanding the trajectory of the contemporary relationship between Africa and China.

China, Africa, and the Cold War

Explaining the historical relationship between China and Africa, Lu Shaye, the director-general of Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of African Affairs noted that “Sino-African ties can be traced back to more than 2,000 years ago.”

He is probably right. Archeological evidence from the ruins of ancient Zimbabwe and coastal eastern and southern Africa suggest that commercial ties existed between China and Africa before the Common Era. The Silk Trade Routes (roughly 200 BCE-200 CE) included parts of northern and eastern African coasts. And the visit of the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta to China in the 14th century provides evidence of ongoing connections between the two regions.

But the origins of the relationship between modern Africa and modern China can be located in the 1950s, when colonial rule in Africa was ending and the Cold War was intensifying.

The Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, attended by most of the developing world, marked the starting point. Many attendees were young African nationalists whose core agenda was eradicating colonialism and forging a common front to safeguard the sovereignty of emerging nations against Cold War politics.

The Bandung Conference was followed by a series of conferences that culminated in the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. By this time, most of Africa had gained independence from European colonial rule and had joined the movement.

As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and the largest member of the non-aligned group, China emerged as the de facto leader of the developing world. Although a communist nation, China declared both the Soviet Union and the U.S.-led Western powers neo-colonialists. China presented itself to the developing world as an alternative ideological partner that shared the experience of colonial domination and exploitation.

A major refrain in China’s foreign policy statements even today is reference to the historical experience of humiliation by the West and Imperial Japan. Indeed, at the Bandung Conference, China declared its intent to help liberation fighters throughout the world, and this became the hallmark of China’s Africa policy from the 1950s to the end of the Cold War in 1990.

During this period, China offered military intelligence, weapons, and training to freedom fighters in Algeria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, and Namibia. Even the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress of South Africa received some support in their struggles against apartheid South Africa. This policy appealed to many young African nationalists, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, and King Hasan of Morocco.

Africa became a Cold War zone where China, the Soviet Union and the United States collided. The Congo Crises of 1961-1965 set the stage for Cold War politics in Africa and provide some clue to China’s interest in Africa during the first decade of independence.

Seeking for ways to compete with the superpowers for control over Congo’s copper resources crucial for military and civilian hardware, Mao Tse Tung remarked in 1964, “If we obtain Congo, we have obtained Africa. Congo is our passageway into Africa.”

China’s intention to help free Africa from the claws of colonialism was indisputable. For example, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, often considered the father of African liberation, invited Chinese military advisors to train freedom fighters from all corners of the continent between 1957 and his overthrow in 1966. Beijing also helped Ghana to secretly establish the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, which was dismantled in 1966.

As early as the 1960s, many African leaders considered China not only a political ally but also an economic partner with a development model sensitive to local cultures and conducive to the needs of societies that had limited foundation for industrialization. Despite China’s widespread famine and economic troubles during the Great Leap Forward, the Chinese model of gradual but rigorously planned industrialization appealed to many African leaders eager for development but aware of their limited technological capacity.

The “Ujamaa” (Swahili for “familyhood”) project implemented by Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, which emphasized collective farming and self-reliance, as well as Nkrumah’s plans to accelerate Ghana’s industrialization without sacrificing the agricultural sector were examples of African leaders’ attempts to emulate China. Ironically, just as the Great Leap Forward resulted in famine in China, the programs in Ghana and Tanzania resulted in severe food shortages and were subsequently abandoned.

During this era of Sino-African relations (late 1950s to early 1990s), China also offered direct economic assistance in the form of low-interest loans for public projects. The most important of these was the Tanzania-Zambia Railroad Project (TAZARA).

At a time when the world price of copper was very high, Zambia, a copper producer but a landlocked country, requested a $400 million loan from the World Bank in the late 1960s to build a railway linking the copper-producing region with the sea in Tanzania. But the World Bank rejected the project as too risky. China stepped in with a thirty-year interest-free loan and completed the project in 1975.

The TAZARA Railroad became the symbol of Beijing’s readiness to include economic activities in its relations with Africa, and served to convince Africans that China was not only a political ally but also a potential business partner capable of offering Africa what the West would not deliver.

The socialist-leaning Nyerere remarked at the signing ceremony in 1967 that “all the money in this world is either Red or Blue. I do not have my own Green money, so where can I get some from? I am not taking a cold war position. All I want is money to build [the project].”

Kenneth Kaunda, the capitalist-leaning president of Zambia, expressed his disappointment with the West more bluntly: “If the Western industrialized states do not shake off their apathy towards Africa, then the influence of the East will soon dominate the continent.” This prediction became a reality from the late 1990s. Meanwhile, China’s policy toward Africa during the Cold War remained focused on assisting the liberation of the continent from colonial rule and neo-colonial influences.

Interestingly, it was also in the course of helping African liberation that China faced its most uncomfortable diplomatic and military debacle in Africa. China had begun to establish closer relations with the United States after President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972, and as a consequence found itself supporting Apartheid South Africa and the United States against the Soviets and Cuba in the Angolan civil war (1975-2002).

Having publicly condemned apartheid and Western imperialism for over two decades, China disappointed African leaders by unwittingly acting as the proxy for apartheid in the Angolan conflict that Chinese experts considered a stand-in war between China and the Soviet Union.

Most African countries cut off diplomatic relations with China in protest and Beijing briefly lost African support in the United Nations on the issue of Taiwan’s independence. In the end, the Soviet-backed faction in the civil war won decisively despite the massive support UNITA received from the United States, China, and South Africa—a double loss for China.

After this fiasco, China virtually retreated from Africa only to return after the Cold War—this time as a powerful trading partner.

China’s Interests in Africa after the Cold War

At the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, both the United States and Russia abandoned their African allies, and China stepped into the vacuum. In place of the ideological and military focus of the Cold War, China concentrated on developing economic relations, not only changing the African economic landscape but also transforming Africa’s relations with the West.

There is no doubt that China perceives Africa as a market and a source of raw materials (primarily oil and precious minerals) as well as agricultural products. Let’s begin with China’s interest in African oil since China’s booming industry depends on a stable supply.

Once the largest oil exporter in Asia, China became an importer in 1993, and is projected to import more than 45 percent of its oil by 2045. As of 2007, China imports about one-third of its oil from Africa, about 13 percent of Africa’s oil exports. The United States remained the largest net importer of African crude oil.

Considering the ongoing crisis in the Middle East, China is moving ahead of the rest of the world in positioning itself to exploit Africa’s oil resources. In a January 2007 article, Esther Pan noted: “China’s voracious demand for energy to feed its booming economy has led it to seek oil supplies from African countries including Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Congo.” Two weeks earlier the state-owned Chinese energy company, CNOOC Ltd., announced it would buy a 45 percent stake in an offshore oil field in Nigeria for $2.27 billion.