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China’s war for Africa’s hearts and minds

via Flicker (c) Pedro Szekely

China has made a badge of honor out of Zheng Bijian’s term coined in a seminal 2005 Foreign Affairs article, which described the Middle Kingdom’s path toward modernization as a “peaceful rise.” At the time, Bijian was trying to counter the dominant Western narrative that viewed Beijing’s ambitions and the country’s rapid growth with suspicion. The article ended with one of the most unexpected statements of intent coming from a country that had been the world’s foremost power for the better part of a millennium “(China) does not seek hegemony or predominance in world affairs.” A decade has passed since and China is still unsure of the part it should play on the international stage. Torn between its commitment not to intervene in the affairs of other countries and the growing demands of the West to use its growing clout to share some of the burden of shaping the world order, all eyes have turned to China’s budding soft power.

To find an answer to this conundrum, one must look no farther than Africa, where China is dovetailing its “peaceful rise” while also bringing new allies onto its side. Driven by the need to secure reliable sources of raw materials, Beijing has seen bilateral trade with the Dark Continent grow 20-fold in the past two decades, surpassing both the U.S and the EU. Many have argued that the process has been eminently a political one, amounting to little more than “check book diplomacy”, the practice of lending money to largely benefit China’s own construction groups, buying alliances and access to commodities. More than 2,000 Chinese companies now have assets in Africa, especially in South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Algeria and Angola, spanning all economic sectors. As a result, some 20,000 Chinese are currently involved in local projects, a number that will only go up in coming years. Moreover, in November 2013, the government announced plans to invest $1 trillion by 2025, thus turning Africa into the one-stop shop for Beijing’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). But China’s cold and pragmatic approach has managed to drive a wedge between the West’s historical interests in Africa and China’s nascent world reach, leading to numerous muffled conflicts. Two cases studies show how the traditional Western relationship with the continent are increasingly strained by China’s desire to win over the hearts and minds of Africans.

The strange story of Djibouti

One of the most poignant stories of China’s hard power appeal comes from the small but pivotal East African country of Djibouti. Located in the Horn of Africa, it emerged from anonymity in the early 2000s after cementing a deal with the U.S. to host Washington’s biggest drone military facility and key outpost in the so-called “War on Terror.” Moreover, thanks to its geographical position off the Gulf of Aden, it is an important bridgehead for the European Union’s Atalanta maritime operation to stymie piracy.

Since 9/11, billions of dollars have flown into the local economy, as the country basked in the favor of the White House. But following a dispute with Dubai’s maritime operator DP World over the Doraleh Container Terminal, which involved the authoritarian President Ismail Omar Guelleh purging political opponents, China stepped in. It bought a 23.5 percent share of the port, signed a landmark strategic defense agreement and is negotiating the construction of a military facility. China’s rising influence in Djibouti is causing a souring in the African nation’s relations with the West, prompting U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice to express deep concerns over the stability of bilateral relations.

Of Ebola and soft power

With great power comes great responsibility and in China’s case that responsibility means translating some of its hard power to political capital. Unfortunately, the Asian giant is notoriously reluctant to get involved in the internal affairs of the countries it invests in, being time and time again accused of showing interest only in hefty returns and not in strengthening much-needed institutional capacity. Indeed, China is only the 29th most generous humanitarian donor (wedged between crisis-laden Greece and Portugal), a position that has greatly upset its partners. For example, Beijing caused worldwide outcry when it donated a meager $100,000 in aid for neighboring Philippines during the devastating Typhoon Haiyan.

Recently, even in Africa, where loans and investments have no “finger pointing” clause, this relationship has come under fire as the Ebola outbreak continues to wreak havoc. African leaders have repeatedly beseeched Beijing to help in the fight against the epidemic that so far has claimed more than 4000 lives. To everyone’s surprise, China obliged. President Xi Jinping has pledged some $41 million in food and medical aid to the three worst hit countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Is this a sign that China will jump on the soft power bandwagon?

Not exactly. Even if it has responded with unprecedented generosity to the Ebola crisis, China’s “health diplomacy” so far has closely followed Chinese investments and businesses. In Guinea, where the current outbreak began, a $446 million hydroelectric power plant is being built courtesy of China Three Gorges Corporation, while in Sierra Leone investments are expected to top $10 billion by 2015. If these long-term, strategic investments had been absent, China’s attitude in the face of the worst Ebola epidemic on record would have been one of complete aloofness.

The two stories point out that growing Chinese weight in the world will surely leave an acrid backwash as the lumbering giant ploughs ahead in its quest for resources. If Africa is any indication, Beijing’s long-touted “peaceful rise” looks more and more like an interest-driven zero sum game, where the only winners are the SOEs who seduce African rulers using bucket loads of cash with few strings attached. But when push comes to shove, China is quick to adopt a libertarian we-don’t-get-involved perspective on humanitarian aid that would shame any Tea Party activist. At the end of the day, its soft power campaigns are simply realpolitik exercises coated with a thin veneer of diplomacy.

UPDATED 10/24: A response from the government of Djibouti can be found here