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The Chinese script for empire building: Establishing Colonies via debt-trapping Diplomacy

Jayakrishnan K

Jayakrishnan KAug 27, 2021, 12:00 AM IST

The Chinese script for empire building: Establishing Colonies via debt-trapping Diplomacy

One important aspect of Chinese policy is the covert effort to establish “colonies” in other countries.


There is a well-crafted plan behind China’s push towards global supremacy. The contours of one of its sordid elements, a biological weapons programme, is becoming clearer by the day as the mystery behind the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic unravels. Certain others, like the country’s aggressive moves towards smaller neighbours, have already put Asia on alert. The military alliances in the Asia Pacific are being reworked.

However, one important aspect of Chinese policy has not received the attention it deserves. It is the covert efforts to establish “colonies” in other countries. The stated intention is an investment, particularly in food production. But the lessons of history make one believe that China will ultimately take control of the food security of a large number of nations, including some in the developed world. This, together with China’s debt-trap diplomacy, can deprive many countries of their internal security and even national sovereignty.

The operation of the plan began with Chinese companies, which are mostly agencies of the government, like ZTE, buying or taking on long lease vast tracts of fertile land in countries around the world. In developed countries, the land is taken over by buying out existing companies. Several million hectares of land has already gone to Chinese hands. The crops cultivated are mostly cereals, millets, corn and oilseeds, and there are poultry, dairy and meat farms. The claim is that the products are exported to China because only about 10 per cent of the country’s land is cultivable. A curious fact is that mostly high-protein products are sent to China.

The list of these countries is quite long (China’s Foreign Agriculture Investments, EIB-192 USDA, Economic Research Service) [1]. They extend from New Zealand and Australia to Indonesia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam in Asia; D R Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Mali, Angola, Senegal, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Cameroon, Mozambique, Benin, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania and Togo in Africa; and Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Chile, Bolivia, Bahamas, Brazil and Jamaica in Latin America and the Caribbean. Chinese companies run farms in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Italy, France and the United Kingdom in Europe.

WH Group, a Chinese-controlled company, now owns the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods of the United States of America. Smithfield, together with three Western pharmaceutical companies, is doing research in genetic engineering with funds from the U.S.  Department of Defense. Quite intriguing, given the allegations surrounding the origins of the coronavirus. In China, there are farms growing pigs that weigh more than 500 kilos. One can imagine the extent of manipulation of genes that has gone into this. What is the guarantee that an American company in Chinese hands will be an honest partner in research in critical areas?

At first glance, the Chinese agricultural invasion may appear to be a boon to the hungry billions of the world. But the picture becomes somewhat disturbing when seen against China’s evident imperialistic tendencies.

Unlike in the case of Western multinational companies, which are privately run and have profit-making as their prime motive, operations of the state-controlled Chinese companies are certain to be designed to suit China’s national interests. They will be interested in gradually taking control of agriculture in the host countries. Food is power. This power can be used to bring the host countries to their knees. In case of an international conflict, food can be used as a powerful weapon against adversaries. A country like China may not hesitate even to sabotage agriculture in powerful host countries with the treacherous use of technology, like terminator technology.

China’s debt-trap diplomacy has enabled it to control land and other resources in many countries. For instance, Sri Lanka borrowed $1.1 billion to build a port at Hambantota and, unable to repay it, had to lease out to China the port and 6,000 hectares of land. Again, recently, the Sri Lankan parliament passed a bill granting China sovereign control over the Colombo Port City, a special economic zone and international financial facility China is building as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

The land that went to China along with the Hambantota port is bustling with activity. "Many Sri Lankans see all this construction, and they're proud of their district having these facilities. What people don't seem to understand are issues of environmental impact, human rights and labour," the US National Public Radio reported quoting Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo.

"If you go to any project site, it's the Chinese who have the jobs. Job creation hasn't come for locals. Will these [Chinese] workers settle here? Is this becoming a colony? Very few people are asking these questions," said Fonseka

Shades of colonialism, for sure. And plenty of reasons for countries like India to worry. For the activity concerned goes on at a place only a few hundred kilometres away from the southern tip of the Indian mainland. No wonder if it finally turns out to be military facility.

The colonial characteristics of Chinese presence are even more evident in Africa. The Ogun State Free Trade Zone in Nigeria is a collaborative venture of the local authority and a large number of Chinese companies. According to Financial Times, Wilson Wu, managing director of the zone, says, “It is like managing a country. We have our own customs, our own police, our own operations. The government of Nigeria provided the land. We used all our own money to build everything else.” 

That is, a state within a state. Nigeria is notorious for civil strife. If needed, China can bring in People’s Liberation Army contingents to protect its “economic interests”. And the soldiers will stay on, which means the country will have a Chinese military base. Boko Haram, the fanatical Islamist rebel group, operates freely in the country. One day the Chinese can, or may be called upon, to takes sides. That is precisely what the English East India Company did in India.

A curious aspect of China’s worldwide acquisition is that it now controls a large number of ports in different continents. China Overseas Port Holding Company, a state-run firm, operates the Gwadar port in Pakistan. The Darwin port in Australia is in the control of Landbridge Group, another Chinese firm, on a 99-year lease. China has invested in the Melbourne port. China has a 0.5 square kilometre military base in Port of Doraleh, Djibouti. A Chinese government company has controlling stake in the Piraeus port in Greece. The web of Chinese controlled ports extends to other European countries and the Americas.

Control of ports means control of global trade, which also means the capability to sabotage the economic interests of rival countries. Chinese companies (meaning government) together own a huge fleet of ships. The trade arm has reached almost every corner of the world. It not very difficult for the military arm to encircle the world.

China, unlike democratic countries, is a silent, cunning operator. The power structure there is opaque and what the authorities in Beijing are up to next is anybody’s guess. The rest of the world has to keep its eyes and ears open. The responsibility for this lies particularly with the Western governments because it was the reckless pursuit of profit by Western corporates, with support from their governments, that created the China of today.


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