By Heidi Welte:
George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This has been paraphrased in various ways, usually as a proverb warning individuals not to forget history, lest its most evil ills are perpetrated once again. Sometimes, however, repeating history is not such a terrible fate. Over the last ten years, China has invested billions of dollars into the infrastructure of many African nations. For example, in 2015 they conducted 160 billion dollars in trade, making China the largest trade partner with the continent. This trade is expected only to increase over the next decade. East African nations have received a great deal of this money in traded goods and commodities as well as investment in infrastructure such as hospitals and railroads. These huge sums of money, expected to reach one trillion dollars by 2025, are going a long way to helping African countries improve their economic situations. Being able to develop their own economic potential helps not only the people of Africa, but also China who is fostering these lucrative trade deals.
Before the Opium Wars of the 1860’s fatally weakened the Qing dynasty, before the United States of America was an independent nation, even before Europe was aware of the New World, China conducted a series of seven voyages on an unprecedented scale over nearly three decades (1405-1433). They were led by Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch whose military prowess brought him great favor with the Ming emperors. Zheng He’s fleet of ships eventually visited 37 countries in Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and even as far away as the eastern coast of Africa, bringing back to the Chinese court emissaries and gifts from many nations. His mission was to demonstrate China’s great wealth and power and was an astounding success. The largest of Zheng He’s ships was over 400 feet long, roughly the size of a modern US Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Columbus’ largest ship by contrast was 62 feet. Even the Susan Constant, which landed in Virginia 200 years later, was only 116 feet. A seaworthy vessel over 400 feet in length in the fifteenth century would have been a technological marvel and would have required massive amounts of labor and capital to complete, both of which China had in spades. Historians are not sure why the voyages ended with Zheng He’s death in 1433, but whatever the reason, China would withdraw from the world into relative isolation. This worked for a while as China protected its culture from outside influence while still conducting limited trade with the outside world on its own terms. Isolationism would come at a steep cost, leading to the sharp decline in technological advancement. The Opium Wars were fought over trade with western powers in China, and ended with a series of trade treaties which were hugely advantageous to the western nations signing them. These treaties came at the cost of Chinese sovereignty and made her an unofficial colony of the several western nations benefitting from these unequal treaties, a status which would persist until the fall of the Qing empire and the eventual rise of communism in China after WWII.
Some of the commodities being traded today are as old as the treasure ships’ voyages themselves. Exotic animals from Africa are in high demand for Chinese zoos. Just in 2015, 24 elephants were sold to such Chinese establishments. Zheng He’s treasure ships also brought back exotic animals to the Ming emperors, which were very well received. Tea from China was a popular commodity beginning with the early days of European exploration and lasting through to present day, with Morocco importing more Chinese tea than any other African nation.
Just as China had vast amounts of capital to pour into its treasure ships, today it has large amounts of capital to spare as evidenced by the amount of investment in Africa’s infrastructure, which includes everything from hospitals, schools and stadiums to railways and dams. This is not simply charity; China stands to greatly benefit in decades to come from an economically developed Africa, both to receive desired goods from African nations and to trade their own goods and commodities to enrich their own nation. China is powerful once again and in some ways, history does repeat itself. This time China seems to be embracing global trade as a positive way to exert influence as well as enrich itself and does not seem to be retreating back into the isolationism that eventually led to its downfall. China is once again a powerful force to be reckoned with and will continue to exert influence in Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Heidi Welte is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Navy veteran.