“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world,” Napoleon Bonaparte had 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 world. In the last decade, the Chinese economy has been soaring in terms of GDP. 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. Her military is modernizing. Fast. She already has two aircraft carriers 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. But China’s actions on the international chessboard sing another tune.

In 2017, 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 more 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.

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. This provides 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 into the dark labyrinths of Chinese foreign policy, we have to understand how the opportunity for Chinese 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.