Chinese expansionism doesn’t always involve reviving, or inventing, territorial claims along their borders. Chinese efforts to annex the South China Sea and large areas on their Indian border get a lot of diplomatic, military and media attention but there is another kind of Chinese expansion that, while less noticed, is becoming a serious economic and political problem for the countries the Chinese have been allowed to invade economically. There are a growing number of countries that allow Chinese investment on a large, multi-billion dollar, scale.
Such large investments come with conditions, and that’s where the trouble begins. The Chinese insist that they must bring their own Chinese workforce. This includes demands that these new visitors can establish their own Chinese settlements and then stay when the project is over. The new visitors must be allowed to start businesses. This sort of thing results in the Chinese establishing a permanent economic presence and control over a growing percentage of the local economy. This does not always end well, with the Chinese being driven out of the country along with any more Chinese investment. One reason for building a large navy and military air transport fleet is to provide armed escorts for Chinese bill collectors and diplomats.
Many Chinese neighbors are actively resisting these terms because these nations know what it means; eventual annexation of some or all their territory because it is now “Chinese.” Even Russia and North Korea are threatened by this. Former Soviet Union provinces in Central Asia, independent since 1991, are seeking closer ties with nuclear-armed Russia for defense against these Chinese moves. China would be all over North Korea if it weren’t for the fiercely nationalistic North Korean dictatorship. All Koreans know that the historical “Greater Korea” used to include large portions of northeast China that once had majority Korean population. These areas now have large Korean minority populations but are indisputably Chinese.
The same thing is happening in northwest China where Xinjiang province was once known as East Turkestan with a majority Uighur Moslem population. Centuries of Chinese efforts to turn Xinjiang from a conquered province into a Han (ethnic Chinese) majority region have succeeded in many respects. A similar effort is underway in Tibet, where the local population are distant cousins to the Han but have for over a thousand years resisted Chinese occupation and domination. Tibet is losing that battle.
There is a similar situation in Chinese “Outer Mongolia”, a portion of neighboring Mongolia where centuries of Chinese trade and Han migration turned a large portion of Mongolia into what is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. China started its Hanification of the area in the 14th century, after the Mongol dynasty in China was overthrown and China sought to eliminate any future Mongol threats by gradually absorbing Mongolia. Currently the rest of Mongolia is called Outer Mongolia by the Chinese and is independent only because of alliances with Russia. In time the Chinese will make all of Mongolia Chinese.
Considering their past experience, China is trying something different in Africa. Here China is sending in attractive trade deals first, followed by offers of huge development loans, but only if the locals accept Chinese terms. This is changing Africa and more and more Africans are wondering how far the Chinese will go.
Since 2000 Chinese use of these “invasion” tactics has become increasingly obvious in the African nations involved. The most troublesome (for all concerned) side effect is the growth of intense anti-Chinese attitudes by resentful and still unemployed locals. The bad relations began when Africans realized that the Chinese bring their own workers and employ few locals for construction projects China was paying for. Over time fewer and fewer locals were used. This gave the Chinese greater control over projects, usually related to construction (buildings, roads, and the like) or mining. Currently, Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia are the major targets for these Chinese tactics. Similar efforts in North Africa have been less successful because local opposition developed quickly and were quite violent. So China now concentrates on sub-Saharan Africa.
The Chinese point out that using their own workforce ensures that the project will get done on time and on budget. But there is a downside to the use of imported workers. It is easier for the Chinese to ignore local advice, which leads to construction practices that work back in China but not in various parts of Africa. Also the locals have different attitudes towards the use and maintenance of the new facilities. Often, after a decade or less, the Chinese projects are falling apart. No problem, because there are now plenty of Chinese (about two million now, throughout Africa) and Chinese companies (about 10,000 so far) to rebuild and maintain this infrastructure that has now become a vital part of the local economy The Chinese workers are kept in separate camps initially and eventually in newly built towns and city neighborhoods. The Chinese rarely mix with locals, giving rise to suspicions that they are Chinese convict labor. There’s no evidence of that, and Chinese managers everywhere tend to be very intent on tightly controlling work they are responsible for and seek to maintain, and profit from it, in perpetuity. Many of these Chinese workers stay after the project is completed and go into business locally.
These Chinese construction projects please the local African officials because the Chinese get the job done quickly and with minimal problems from locals. Neither the local politicians nor the Chinese are concerned with long-term problems. China has been generous with business deals in Africa, and sent millions of Chinese to work, invest, or settle in Africa. The local tyrants are treated well as partners. That's because these thugs are shunned by Western nations and businesses. Because of this, China is increasingly seen as a supporter of evil governments and that has generated widespread African hostility towards all things Chinese. This has led to anti-Chinese riots in some countries and general animosity towards the Chinese at the grassroots level. Thus, when these countries go through their next rebellion, the Chinese are likely to be a popular target and a major loser if the rebels win.
Despite the risks, China has been at this in a big way since 2002. This really kicked into high gear when China declared 2006 was officially "The Year of Africa." China went all out to make a favorable impression on African governments and increase Chinese economic and diplomatic activity in Africa that year. To that end, about a billion dollars worth of debts, of African nations to the Chinese government, were forgiven. The year before, Chinese commercial and government organizations invested over $20 billion in Africa. This was less than one percent of China's GDP but by African standards, it was a huge investment.
However, there was some blowback. The Chinese were mainly after raw materials, especially oil. A lot of the billions invested were bribes for local officials. As usual, the average African was getting screwed by these deals. For example, a lot of the investment was for infrastructure (roads, bridges, structures), and a lot of those deals stipulated the use of Chinese labor for most of the work despite public promises of jobs for locals. There was never any intention of employing many Africans and the people signing these deals knew it. The Chinese pay such low wages that they could afford to fly in Chinese for many jobs.
China is also flooding African markets with inexpensive goods. Both of these tactics are hurting local businesses and cause unrest among African business owners and workers. As a result, it's become common for opposition parties in Africa to accuse China of "neo-colonial exploitation." The accusation fits, and the Chinese will pay for it down the road, as will peacekeepers brought in to help clean up the mess.
Russia, Central Asian and other Asian nations are seeing the same tactics being used on them and are demanding restrictions on these practices. Thailand turned down billions in Chinese investments because the Chinese would not limit the use of Chinese labor doing the work in Thailand. China is now more willing to negotiate because a growing number of nations are willing to do without Chinese investment if the terms include an influx of Chinese workers, many of whom want to stay for good.
The “overseas Chinese” have been a presence in Asia for thousands of years. But until now the Chinese government was never much concerned with them. China was never, until the late 20th century, a major international trading power. Now China is and it is spending heavily to finance the migration of more Chinese to settle in foreign lands and never forget where they came from. For those who do, when the motherland calls, the Chinese government will remind the unwilling that they still have kin or other links back in China and how shameful would it be if this lack of cooperation became known.