“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world,” Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly said. It has been quite a while since Austerlitz and Waterloo, but the former French emperor and military genius seems to have hit the nail right on the head. Long forgotten are Mao’s economic and social experiments, namely, the “great leap forward” and the “cultural revolution” that killed millions and left the country destitute. Since the late 1970s, China has been nudging and turning. And now, it seems, she is wide awake.

China has one of the fastest growing economies. In the last decade, the Chinese economy has been soaring at 10 percent per year in terms of GDP (1). She is the largest importer of oil in the world and the second largest consumer behind the United States. She has overtaken the U.S. in global car production, and her booming manufacturing sector is building everything, everywhere (2). Her military is modernizing. Fast. She already has one aircraft carrier, another under construction, and, allegedly, an additional one is on the planning board. Her cyber-warfare capabilities are some of the best in the world. “Hegemony or militarism is not in the genes of the Chinese,” proclaims President Xi Jinping (3). But China’s actions on the international chessboard sing another tune.

Early this year, China opened a military base in Djibouti (the first such overseas presence since withdrawing her forces from North Korea in 1958), and has promised military aid and training to the Assad regime—although this has the feeling of a revenge slap to the U.S. for its South China Sea policy rather than a committed interest in the Middle East. However, as ambitious preying nations have understood ever since the Romans felt that Carthaginian figs were sour and decided to go to war over it, without a strong economy, nothing can be achieved. Yet an economy needs fuel. And an economy the size of China’s needs a lot of fuel. So, how can a country with somewhat limited domestic resources (excluding coal, of which China is the largest producer and consumer) feed its furnaces and its geopolitical ambition?

Enter Africa. Since gaining their independence, rather abruptly, in the 1960s and 1970s, most African nations have travailed through a jungle of conflict and economic instability toward a more improved existence. Some have achieved this goal; most haven’t. With vast natural resources such as oil, minerals, and natural gas—still available in huge quantities—it’s no wonder why China has been so interested in Africa. And the interest is reciprocal, for smaller, still-developing nations are increasingly seeking China’s aid and capital. China’s strategy in Africa is, evidently, to secure resources and to gain international legitimacy.

And we only have to look at her engagement in oil-rich Angola for the perfect example of how she seeks to achieve these goals. Angola is one of the four major oil exporters to China (Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Oman are the others), and is a nation with huge developmental needs, thus providing the ideal opportunity to examine how the Chinese pursue their strategy. Moreover, China’s relationship with Angola provides a template of her broader involvement in other sub-Saharan nations that possess equally alluring natural resources.

You might ask, then, what is the degree of China’s involvement in Angola? What economic incentives does she employ in her quest for oil and legitimacy? But before we delve in the dark labyrinths of Chinese foreign policy, we have to understand how the opportunity for her involvement in Angola came up in the first place.

China in Angola

In the early 16th century, Portugal invaded and colonized Angola. For almost 500 years, the Portuguese ruled the native population with an iron fist. But the decolonization winds of change that swept through Africa during the late 1950s and early 1960s led to a growing desire for independence among the Angolans.

The Portuguese military junta of the time vigorously suppressed any such thoughts, thus provoking the anger of the native population and the eventual creation of three independence movements: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which was supported by the Soviet bloc; the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which later received support from the United States; and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which was supported by China and South Africa’s apartheid government—a rather awkward partnership if you consider their conflicting strategies. Interestingly, China had initially backed the MPLA, but as Angola’s future ruling party received increased support from the Soviet Union (at the time, China and the Soviets were bitter competitors), she changed sides and backed UNITA.

The armed struggle between the Portuguese military and the Angolan guerrillas raged throughout the 1960s. In 1974, the Portuguese junta agreed to hand over power to a coalition of the three parties. Unsurprisingly, the ideological differences between the three movements promptly led to a civil war. In 1975, the Soviet-supported MPLA declared independence from Portugal after capturing the capital, Luanda, and the profitable oil fields. They then established the People’s Republic of Angola. Meanwhile, the FNLA and UNITA came together and created a rival government. In the ensuing 27-year civil war (1975-2002), which saw thousands killed, the MPLA government prevailed. After the end of the war in 2002, much of Angola lay in ruins.

The government had devoted all of its financial resources to the conflict, leaving the transportation, health, energy, economic, and agricultural infrastructure devastated. Angola urgently required capital in order to begin a much-needed reconstruction process. In 2004, she applied to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan. The IMF conceded to a substantial loan with some very reasonable structural adjustment policies as caveats: The Angolan government would have to commit to transparency reforms and an economic stabilization program, which aimed to reduce inflation and balance the economy. However, with a corrupt, dictatorial government in power (Angola ranked 42nd out of 48 sub-Saharan nations in terms of quality of governance in 2007), it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she declined and looked elsewhere for capital (4). Enter China.

  1. Wearden, Graeme. “Chinese economic boom has been 30 years in the making,” The Guardian (16 August 2010).
  2. Molla, Rani. “What Countries Produce the Most Vehicles?” The Wall Street Journal (28 August 2014); Bloomberg News, “Oil Finds a Silver Lining in China’s Unsated Thirst for Crude,” BloombergBusiness (3 January 2016).
  3. Charles Clover and Luna Lin, “Throwing out the rulebook,” The Financial Times (1 September 2016).
  4. Rotberg, Robert. “China Into Africa,” (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2008).