the term neo-colonialism gets thrown about a lot these days, however, is it relevant or fair to say that China's BRI is the most obvious and outright form of neo-colonialism. Or is it simply offering an alternative for developing countries to get loans and infrastructure that isn't the world bank?
Neocolonialism can be described as the subtle propagation of socio-economic and political activity by former colonial rulers aimed at reinforcing capitalism, neo-liberal globalization, and cultural subjugation of their former colonies. In a neocolonial state, the former colonial masters ensure that the newly independent colonies remain dependent on them for economic and political direction.
The dependency and exploitation of the socio-economic and political lives of the now independent colonies are carried out for the economic, political, ideological, cultural, and military benefits of the colonial masters’ home states. This is usually carried out through indirect control of the economic and political practices of the newly independent states instead of through direct military control as was the case in the colonial era.
From the definition, it is clear that the term neocolonialism appears to be a political and economic critique of the current west, by the political left, to describe how the former colonial masters no longer use the military to subjugate another country but do it through economic and political means.
I have italicised certain terms in the definition to highlight how this doesn't really apply to China:
- China wasn't a colonial ruler but itself an occupied colony.
- It's highly questionable whether it wants to reinforce capitalism as chinese capitalism is still highly state controlled, and not the "free-market" kind that the west advocates for.
- It's again highly questionable if China is in favour of neo-liberal (economic policy that favours free market) globalisation as China wants to be the world's factory and the world to buy everything from it.
Considering the above, the term Neocolonialism doesn't really seem apt for China. But, if you consider how western neocolonialist go about getting new "colonies", parallels do emerge of how China is trying to do the same thing too.
Imperialism did not begin with outright invasion and occupation of a future colony. It often began with trade, which the imperialists used as an opportunity to establish themselves there. They would then use their economic and military might to force trade concessions in their favour. (And ofcourse, during the imperialism era, even outright militarily conquer the weaker nation states or kingdoms).
China seems to be following the same path.
Africa is a good example that is highlighted often in this context. In its search for raw materials for its industry, China has been increasingly making deep investments in Africa. They also convince some of the governments to allow them to bring Chinese workers to the Chinese companies in Africa. And they setup chinese communities in those country.
It happened in Zambia like it could happen elsewhere in Africa. Chinese investors made deals with the government to mine its natural resources, filling federal coffers with billions of dollars. Chinese immigrants moved into cities and rural towns. They started construction companies; opened copper, coal, and gem mines; and built hotels and restaurants, all providing new jobs. They set up schools and hospitals. But then instances of corruption, labor abuse, and criminal coverups began to set the relationship between the Chinese and the Africans aflame.
... “China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism,” Lamido Sanusi, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote in the Financial Times earlier this year.
The hallmark of European colonialism was the imbalanced trade in which raw materials was harvested from the colony and then have manufactured goods sold back to them by the imperialist country. China, as the manufacturing hub of our current world, seems to following the same pattern.
And, just like in the past, China also seems to be competing with other "imperialist" powers.
Sudan is a very good example, where the Chinese have invested heavily by building pipelines and oil refineries and they now import around 2/3 of the oil output of Sudan. They have even deployed Chinese soldiers to protect Chinese workers and their infrastructure in Sudan. All this has annoyed the USA, as US oil companies previously had the upper hand in exploiting the Sudanese oil fields. The US has tried to bring oil embargo sanctions against Sudan (citing the political conflict in the country) but China has always threatened to veto it in the UN.
“It is surprising, the coincidence that U.S. sanctions began around the same time China invested in our oil industry,” a Sudanese government official offers sarcastically. China has invested in other aspects of the industry until it controls as much as 75 percent of the Sudanese oil industry. Sudan currently produces 133,000 barrels of oil per day — a fraction of what it produced before the south of the country seceded in 2011, taking most of the country’s proven oil reserves with it.
Another way it tries to economically subjugate another country is by creating "debt-traps" for them. The term was coined by the US and the gist of it is that China targets countries that is strategically important to them (economically and militarily), that have weaker and poorly managed economy and encourages them to take huge loans from China to build some infrastructure, some of which are not even commercially viable. The debt, and any commercial failure of the project and / or the country's economy, is then used by the Chinese as leverage to make more demands on the country.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka are very good examples of this kind of "debt traps", where their failing economy and the huge loans from China has made them very vulnerable to China.
Two countries in the neighbourhood, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, signed up for massive Chinese debt-funded infrastructure projects, slipped into economic crisis, and now are caught in political turmoil. In a third country, Myanmar, the Chinese have moved back in after the military coup 14 months ago, and are pushing projects for an economic corridor. In the Maldives too, Chinese-funded projects and loans have risen and fallen with changes of government. Estimates of the Maldives debt to China vary sharply — the opacity is typical because China has a history of hiding loans as trade credit or by routing them through special purpose vehicles. And Chinese debt isn’t cheap; interest rates seem to be about three times what other countries charge on bilateral aid.
... What is China’s role and responsibility? Like a sharp moneylender, it stepped in where it saw opportunity and picked targets carefully. Projects and loans went to resource-rich or strategically-placed countries, 70 per cent of which did not have a good credit rating or any rating at all, and which therefore had few, if any, alternative sources of external finance. It protected its interests by holding project assets as collateral, taking over quite a few. Lending has therefore been followed by asset-grab ... China exacerbated but did not mostly cause the problem, whose roots lay in the borrowing countries’ broken politics and economic mismanagement.
... in South Asia, with the Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific as new theatres of contestation, Beijing will, and has capitalised on opportunities to further entrench its presence, influence, and leverage in the region. Sri Lanka is a prime example of China having taken advantage of internal fiscal mismanagement and debt. A New York Times investigation into the 99-year Hambantota Port deal and 15,000 acres of surrounding land that was given to a state-owned Chinese company revealed an insistence on the Chinese side to focus on handing over equity in the port, rather than allowing any easing of negotiating terms with the Sri Lankans. Additionally, while China explains the deal as a purely commercial endeavour, Sri Lankan officials have stated the intelligence and strategic opportunities the port offers were part of the negotiations – aspects that have serious security implications for India.
... China has also included dubious clauses in bilateral agreements that directly contradict the benign nature of the BRI and reinforce the proactive debt trap diplomacy in other parts of the world. Montenegro is one such case where China has loaned €800 million to build a highway. A provision under the agreement states if Montenegro were to default on repayment, China would get the right to access Montenegrin land as collateral – directly alluding to a strategy of seizing assets in case of inability to repay. This will provide China a direct entry into Europe.
China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’ is not a figment of imagination. While it may have decided, for strategic reasons, to keep it in abeyance in some parts of the world, it is blatantly apparent in others. The pattern is quite clear in India’s neighbourhood where it is systematically acquiring real estate for strategic reasons.
In the last 2 decades, after signing a treating with another world power - Russia - the Chinese have also started using their military aggressively against other countries. See this answer here for more details on how China has been increasingly willing to engage in low-intensity military conflicts in territorial disputes in many parts of Asia.
The increasing use of its army by China mirrors the imperialistic ambitions shown by the old superpowers.
So while it is not correct to call the Chinese neocolonists or neo-liberal, they certainly seem to be combining and using the political ideas pioneered by the west - imperialism and neocolonism - meshed with their own developing political ideology to create a new world order that benefits their global political ambition.
According to Britannica.com
Neocolonialism, the control of less-developed countries by developed countries through indirect means. ...
More broadly, neocolonial governance is seen as operating through indirect forms of control, particularly by means of the economic, financial, and trade policies of transnational corporations and global and multilateral institutions.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (一带一路) is a strategy initiated by the People’s Republic of China that seeks to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks with the aim of improving regional integration, increasing trade and stimulating economic growth.
These two definitions don't match. Therefore, theoretically, BRI is not a neo-colonialism
- China is not an arm-twister
When a country becomes economically powerful, its soft power is automatically projected even if doesn't want to. The question is whether it is coercing other countries to follow its designed policies or not. China seems to be not actively coercing countries into following China-defined policies.
For example, with an FDI of $30 billion, China is the single largest investor in Bangladesh. China could have made the present Bangladeshi government, which rigged two consecutive elections, a puppet. China could have also taken control of Bangladesh's construction and strategic infrastructure. It seems, thus far, that China is not doing so. Most government contracts are given to Indin-led consortiums or individual Indian companies. China was also denied the construction of the Teesta dam and an airport nearby on the protest India.