How China Is Slowly Becoming The World’s Largest Imperialist Power

How China Is Slowly Becoming The World’s Largest Imperialist Power

To formulate a strategy, one needs to understand what one is dealing with. Recent actions in China are a clue.
Sumantra Maitra
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One of the most insidious aspects of modern “post-colonial studies” departments in Western universities is that they really do not “study” anything. Instead they churn out anti-Western propaganda.

Euro-Marxists in the late 1960s fundamentally influenced this worldview, where the only colonial and imperial powers were from the West, rapacious in their territorial greed and mindless in their racial atrocities. This is, needless to say, a highly ideological and flawed interpretation of history, and it cripples recognition of modern colonialism, such as China is demonstrating.

Western imperialism started as late as the 16th century, taking advantage of the collapse of traditional empires in the East, such as the Moguls and the Ming. Imperial colonialism is also not relegated to simply the West, as some of the largest imperial and colonial powers were the Persians and the Ottoman Turks. It’s an unfortunate ideological corruption in a discipline that should formally be under the study of history. Had it not been so, volumes of work would be dedicated to chronicling the rise of a new imperial and colonial power from the East.

In a second such scenario, Kenya is apparently under pressure to hand over its busy and lucrative Port of Mombasa to Chinese companies, as it fails to repay debts owed to China. Mombasa, as any student of history will remember, was one of the pivotal strategic points for the Royal Navy in the 19th century to control and project force in Asia-Pacific, as well as keep sea routes open for trade, the others being Suez (Egypt), Aden (Yemen), and Singapore.

Previously, Sri Lanka had to cede control of its Hambantota Port to China, as it failed to demonstrate its capability of repaying debts to Beijing in what is now termed “debt-trap” diplomacy. The port in Sri Lanka potentially gave the Chinese navy a foothold right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, with an eye on the established navies in the region, such as from the United Kingdom, United States, and India.

In other parts of Africa, such as Uganda and Zambia, China is now in an asset-buying spree. China is not just demonstrating its ambitions in Africa. In Europe, countries like Serbia, Italy, and Greece, not to mention Germany, have become gateways for Chinese investment — investment that could easily transform to debt trap and even security risks.

China Is Demonstrating Aspects of Colonialism

In a recent book, superbly reviewed by Nils Gilman, economist Branko Milanović suggests the next cold war won’t be between communism and capitalism, as capitalism has still won the ideological battle. We are indeed seeing a passing of an order, but the post-1989 unipolarity was a historic aberration. Overall, we are moving to a far older and very normal version of multipolarity.

Milanovic suggests that, regardless, a competition will exist even within the capitalist worldview — a liberal capitalism versus a political, state-controlled, imperial capitalism. Just because the two competing models are within the same economic ideology doesn’t mean the competition will be any less fierce. After all, extreme competition emerged between the various models of communism. Likewise, the current Chinese model will compete for authority with the American-led model all over the world, especially in the global south and developing countries of Africa and Asia.

The main difference in the Chinese model is that while it is still capitalist broadly and is entwined with the global economy, the profit motive is subservient to national interest, and the state remains supreme. The Chinese elite took very different lessons from the collapse of the Soviets than what our end-of-history politicians understood.

Milanović argues that in some cases, it is observable that the Chinese model is more attractive to the Third World, as China never dictates to other nations about human rights, LGBT rights, etc., nor does it care about infringing sovereignty. To paraphrase Gilman, the Americans want to be emulated; the Chinese simply want to be paid tribute.

That is a valuable explanation of Chinese behavior, and I agree with both Milanović and Gilman. But as laws of economics and geopolitics suggest, China cannot simply afford to be aloof forever, and sooner or later it will have to compete with resources and defend its security interests. That is where the inherent colonial aspects would come into play.

Lenin unilaterally declared that Soviets would have no Russian colonies after the First World War. After World War II, Joseph Stalin captured half of Europe, and the Soviets helped topple pro-Western governments from two-thirds of the world and had countless satellite states. It is likely China would act similarly. Already, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is echoing the past, and alarm bells are ringing. As Jonathan Hillman of the ‎Center for Strategic and International Studies said, “If it can carry goods, it can carry troops.”

Colonialism Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Colonialism is not something that suddenly happens. It is a process. It is also often value-neutral. A lot of good things come out of colonial powers. Nature abhors a vacuum, and colonial powers have just been historically great powers strong enough to take advantage. For example, the first British traders landed in India in the early 16th century, and the first East India Company administration was formed in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey, a full 120 years after the first traders swore fealty to the ruling Moguls. The crown control of the Indian lands was even later, in 1858.

It’s a process that takes centuries. The English crown, Parliament, and governments in the 16th century probably never thought they would have the Americas, lose it, and then have a second empire, much bigger than the first, and be a superpower in control of the world’s seaways for over 120 years. Any single loss could have altered that course of history. If Nelson didn’t see off Napoleon in Trafalgar, I’d probably be writing this article in French.

Likewise, it is not just reactionary monarchist powers that can be colonial. France was a republican great power and a colonizer, just as Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union were all colonial powers — even the United States had a fair share of colonial territories at one point of time in history.

In that regard, China is acting no different. But it is a colonial power, and there should be no qualms about that. The first shots of Chinese colonialism are evident as we head to the third decade of this century. One would be foolish not to take note of this historically significant development — and study its actual character.

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK, and a senior contributor to The Federalist. His research is in great power-politics and neorealism. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.

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