For over six decades, China’s relationship with Angola has traversed the politics of colonial struggles and the elements of the Cold War to reach its current phase of growing economic diplomacy. The genesis and contours of this relationship continue in the often-told tales involving China’s pendulous shifts among Angola’s three main liberation movements—Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), União Nacional para a Indêpendencia Total de Angola (UNITA), and Frente Nacional para Libertação de Angola (FNLA)—in the heat of both the Cultural Revolution and Cold War. This part of the relationship was characterized by China’s provision of armaments, military training, and an ideological standoff with the Soviet Union. During this era, Sino-Angola relations were unbridled and downright confusing within the unsettling context of anti-colonial struggle and Cold War politics. With a rocky restoration of formal relations between Beijing and Luanda in 1983, mistrust took a better part of this relationship in the early 1990s with Angola’s descent into a brutal civil war. More interestingly, China’s relations with Angola lingered and matured through out the civil war until 2002, when the shooting stopped. This post-conflict phase of Sino-Angola relations has been characterized by a fundamental shift – from mainly ideological and security politics to economic pragmatism fueled by the dialectics of oil and loans.
Like China’s relationship with many other African countries, its partnership with Angola has been diversely construed and constructed as a monolithic tale of a giant economy taking undue advantage of a frail post-conflict partner. One of the issues that has become loud along with this relationship has been China’s colonization of Africa. With a prominent part of Beijing’s relationship with Angola centered on oil, this engagement has been variedly labeled as part of “Africa’s second scramble” and “Beijing’s oil diplomacy” in sub-Saharan Africa (where new oil discoveries have increased lately). Nonetheless, these characterizations and the general course of this relationship warrants an insight into the nature and novelty of Beijing’s contemporary cause in Africa – from ideological prudence to economic pragmatism.
China’s seemingly innocuous ways of interference in African economies have been often critiqued as one that is laden with “colonial motives.” First is the lauding of “South-South cooperation” or “Afro-Asian solidarity”, which represents Beijing’s prior involvement in African liberation struggles and its use of anti-colonial rhetoric. China’s shifting loyalties during Angola’s liberation struggles in the 1960s and early ‘70s, and its subsequent standby during the long and brutal civil war have been readily criticized as Beijing’s prudent way of foreshadowing its future oil gains. Second, the unequal exchange of export of natural resources to Beijing vis-à-vis the import of manufactured goods to African markets has also been a basis for the colonial argument. Even though Angola exports more to China than it imports, this truth is lost in a precast argument that sees China and its companies as overbearing and exploitative. In a global economic system where states look out for their interests, this should have been a virtue, but given Africa’s past of colonial exploitation and expansionism, this is easily perceived as a global vice. To invoke the fraternal bond, as a subtle nudge to gain access to African oil wells almost sounds sacrilegious to the sanctity of Beijing’s own non-intervention doctrine, and has thus partly fueled recognition of Beijing as Africa’s latest colonial power. However, this imagery simply falls short of the reality of Africa’s contemporary international relations. Apologists for this colonial argument often ignore the agency of the post-colonial African state in shaping its own political and economic destiny. For instance, Angola has had long-standing and complex relations with China as arms supplies and ideological confrontations defined relations between the two in pre-independent Angola. Since Angola became independent in 1975, under the Soviet-backed MPLA, the state has charted a difficult course, albeit immense external influences (especially during the Cold War). In spite of these influences that have significantly challenged a sovereign Angola, responsibility to direct the political and institutional path lies with the MPLA administration led by President Dos Santos, which has largely had a tight grip on Angola’s politics and purse since independence. In other words, a post-colonial or post-conflict African state like Angola may seem somewhat weak and frail, but cannot be dismissed into colonial surrender through the current economic exploits of Beijing.
The China-Angola relationship also denotes an era that African economies have another option when it comes to seeking credit for debt financing and for the much needed development projects. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, most African economies turned to the IMF, World Bank, and their subsidiaries as default lenders, especially when it came to debt financing. Offers from these institutions usually came with stringent conditions that were later perceived and contested as counterproductive to the development cause. The story is often told about how in the aftermath of the civil war in Angola, the country’s dire infrastructure needs were helped through its oil-for-loan deal with China instead of a condition-based structural adjustment assistance from Western institutions and governments. Along this story line, some African countries have struck resource-based financial deals with Beijing and its financial institutions. In some of such cases, African partners juxtapose Western offers that are perceived to come with political and diplomatic entanglements with ones from Chinese operatives that come with less of such obstacles. This has largely resulted in a positive sum game for both Beijing and African leaders (mostly leaving out the masses), which the former sees as a pragmatic step towards redefining the relationship away from ideology and towards economics.
Again, China’s relations with Angola demonstrate a new dimension of harnessing resources to benefit the African masses. In the past five decades, there continue to be numerous accounts of how masses in resource-endowed African nations witness windfalls from their natural resources profiting only a handful of elites. This narrative is currently being challenged in most of Africa, from Luanda to Addis Ababa, as Chinese resource-for-infrastructure deals have begun to improve the African infrastructure landscape. Most of these deals, which are often through loan agreements, have been labeled unfair and infused with draconian labor arrangements that humiliate or displace the African worker. Assenting that more can be done in this regard, it is however reassuring to see that some resources are truly paying for roads, railways, hydroelectric dams, and hospitals rather than building grandiose palaces and vacation homes for leaders and elites in these countries. Between 2004 and 2007, Beijing’s extension of loans to Angola in a series of oil-for-infrastructure deals enabled Angola to start rebuilding its war-torn infrastructure, especially at a period when it had difficulties securing capital from financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Paris Club. The road network from the Angolan city of Uige to Maquela do Zombo under construction by the China Road and Bridge Corporation is one such effort. This new China-Africa architecture of resource deals definitely challenges the old way of doing business, where resource windfalls hardly serve as antidote for the dire infrastructure needs of these populations. Even though Angola continues to make deals with China, there are still questions; for instance: is this a prudent development path for Angola? Fears of those in doubt are predicated on some discouraging statistics. In spite of the oil-for-infrastructure deals and other investments, Angola still remains one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on earth, placing 157 (out of 174) on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index for 2012. It also ranks 148 (out of 186) on the Human Development Index (HDI) in the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2013. The Dos Santos administration has done little to create the attractive and competitive economic environment for consistency in development. Arguably, this hasn’t been helped by Beijing’s non-interference posture, as Sino-Angola business continues without demand for some needed structural reforms. For instance, the construction of what is now referred to as the “ghost town” in Nova Cidade de Kilamba by the China International Trust and Investment Corporation is largely perceived as propaganda by the Dos Santos regime to use its position and relations with the Chinese to direct resources into projects that will drive its own political agenda. So, is this relationship making any significant difference, or whiles the actors may have changed, the political-economic environment persists?
Finally, as one of Africa’s top oil producers and a member of OPEC since 2007, Angola’s relationship with China has a profound impact on the discourse on Sino-Africa relations. Angola’s role as an oil supplier coupled with its checkered political history with China makes it a remarkable case in the ever-changing account of China’s current role in Africa. To either hurriedly construct China as a pragmatic colonial force or Angola as a reformed prudent polity is to ignore the context within which this relationship has evolved.