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The Next Big Wave of Imperialism: Neo-Colonialism

In Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and arguably one of Africa’s most influential political leaders, highlights his theory concerning an emerging phenomenon he describes as “neo-colonialism.” While this book was originally published in 1965, in response to the growing aid from America, it is even more relevant today. Today, that word is used quite often in common parlance to describe a threat of new-age imperialism.

According to Nkrumah, the general aim of neo-colonialism is economic domination for the satisfaction of a few – the rich and upper-class. In the case of Africa, this manifests itself as imperialistic power without any responsibility or accountability. Neo-colonialism in its cruelest form is the continuation of colonial policies under the false pretense of achieving economic and social freedom. African nations rely heavily on their formal imperial power or colonial “mother country” for defense, essential goods, and internal security. In exchange, the imperialist nations advance their economic neo-colonial aspirations by various aid schemes under the disguise of improving the living standards and conditions of their former colonies. In reality, such powers have little interest in developing the countries they aid. or improving social aspects such as education or healthcare.

According to Nkrumah, destructive military aid, rather than helpful multilateral aid, is often given due to competing imperialistic objectives from Western powers. Thus Africa’s mass amounts of natural resources are utilized to develop external Western nations such as the United States, Western European countries, and Japan rather than their own economies. As African countries export and provide cheap raw materials to help imperialist powers industrialize, they simultaneously create spheres of influence while supplying such powers with a market for their expensive finished goods.

The “scramble” is often used to refer to the first wave of foreign interest in Africa. This was when the 19th Century European colonists carved up the continent from all corners and seized African land; something they are infamous for. The second wave was observed during the Cold War, when both the East and West fought for the coveted African loyalty. The third wave is what we are witnessing today; it is more silent and sneaky than the others, but in no way any less benign. The country is growing in importance, not only as a producer of resources but also as a consumer, the UN predicts that by 2025, there will be more Africans than Chinese people. Nevertheless, due to the prevalence of internal struggles and skirmishes, Africa has given way to richer nations to pave their way into the continent. The most prominent example is China.

To better comprehend China’s growing assertiveness in African nations one needs to understand all of its motivations, national and international. Since President Xi Jinping has taken office in 2012, the CCP has pursued more aggressive policies abroad which have raised questions about China’s role in the international system as a revisionist or status quo power. Xi Jinping’s ideological drive for greater international ambitions is enshrined in the ideals of China’s “Great Rejuvenation” and the “Chinese Dream”. This “Dream” represents the national endeavour of China to reclaim its “rightful” place as a superpower within the international economy. It is not only an important agenda in China’s goals, but especially in Xi Jinping’s manifesto for the country. The conversations around the “Great Rejuvenation” have also served as cementing Xi’s and the CCP’s domestic political legitimacy while mobilising citizens around a united and singular national identity.

First, China’s leadership legitimacy rests precariously and heavily on their economic performance, hence the pressure to increase growth is central to any decision they make. With its growing reach in Africa, China also has its abundant natural resources, in terms of oil and minerals, at their disposal. This is an absolute priority for a manufacturing-intensive country like China. Second, Africa is an expanding market, with a massively growing population. It is an ideal location for China to export its cheap manufactured goods. Additionally, Africa has relatively lax rules and regulations regarding quality assurance making it an easy market for China to dump all of its goods in. Third, by providing development assistance aid, the Chinese State can influence key policies and even contribute to an alternative development model that is more conducive to China’s needs - the perfect opportunity to assert its soft power into the continent. As concisely summarised by Mark Beeson, a renowned political scientist studying the evolving nature of governance, “Africa is providing an important testing ground for China’s evolving resource diplomacy and its efforts to ensure long-term economic security and influence”.

We see the use of this softpower in other countries and organisations too, one of them being the International Monetary Fund (IMF). When countries come into significant debt, the IMF provides loans with pooled funds from its member country quota system. To deter governments from squandering this capital, however, the IMF makes almost all of its loans conditional. That is, each loan is contingent on countries implementing the conditions outlined in the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programs. Alternatively known as SAPs, they aim to increase capital inflow so that countries have the means to recover from debt and are unlikely to default on their loans. Common asks of the IMF include austerity measures such as tax increases coupled with budget reductions in sectors like infrastructure, research, and education, financial liberalization policies like reducing trade restrictions, privatization of state-run corporations, measures to increase government accountability and transparency, programs that increase a country’s export and resource mining levels, and the reduction of price regulations and unions.

Although SAPs have existed since the 1950s, many less economically developed countries have remained in significant debt, which raised a few eyebrows. It brought SAPs under fire, accusing them of promoting economic growth at the cost of economic degradation, political instability, and worker mistreatment, among other negative impacts. Due to this, the IMF has been the target of many allegations of neocolonialism. While traditional colonial practices involved the subjugation of countries through military and political dominance, neocolonialist states leverage the pulls of conditional loans, cultural hegemony, and economic superiority to sway another country’s foreign policy. Hence, although the asymmetries in power are more tacit, neocolonialist nations retain control over other countries through continued financial dependence or sizable political influence. In the IMF, wealthy states carry much of this power, in fact, the US alone holds so many votes that it has an effective veto over any of the IMF’s policy decisions, many of which involve interventions in economically stricken countries.

As you can notice, neocolonialism is not as obvious as troops marching in and conquering land, instead it happens much more sneakily by crowning the nation (and its leadership) with a fake sense of agency that they are in control. The use of soft power is a critical tool that is being maneuvered in interesting ways to manipulate developing nations that are still learning how to govern their citizens. This threat of neocolonialism not only ushers in a new power dynamic between nations but also threatens the economic and social freedom of many new, fledgling democracies.

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