Sunday, July 01, 2007

Beijing? Charming?

(Cross-posted at Ezra Klein's)

Well, it hasn't gotten as much attention as the heterodox economics discussion, but TPM Book Club had a discussion this week about Joshua Kurlantzick's new book, Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power is Transforming the World. Some very good contributions there, and it just so happens that the main focus of the discussion -- China's aid campaign in Africa -- has shown a real payoff, in terms of China's public image: every other region in the world except Africa has shown a declining opinion of China's role in the world. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, African countries are the only ones where China's star is rising.

Feelings have deteriorated in the United States, Britain, Japan, India and Germany, though China generally is viewed favourably, due largely to its contribution to economic growth, according to the survey.

The exception to the downturn was Africa, where China is expanding commercial ties and has pledged several billion dollars in aid. Large majorities in all but one of 10 African countries surveyed see China and its growing economic and military power positively.

Now, I've never understood what exactly the threat of China's actions in Africa is supposed to be. China's "expansion" in Africa has largely taken the form of bridge, road, and dam-building, as well as some peacekeeping and peace-corps style foreign aid. Nothing, in short, that the US couldn't do just as well if not better. The real objection usually seems to be that China has been giving large, unconditional loans where the US (fronting for the IMF and World Bank) would prefer that all aid be through conditional channels they control.

The solution should be an easy one, right? Conditions are an added cost to the aid recipient, especially in a continent where national sovereignty and autonomy are touchstones. If America and the West want Africa to choose conditional loans over unconditional ones, then clearly we need to offer more money at lower costs. It might be impossible to undersell the Chinese on finance, but I'd be shocked if that were true. In any case, America has lots more money to throw around than China does.

It makes no sense for America leaders to whine about China competing in Africa for influence. America has a more varied toolbox to go to than China, and more money to fund initiatives with. If America's willing to compete with China, this shouldn't even be a fair fight: the US should win, hands down. The whining coming from some corners strikes me as an indication that actually, America doesn't want to compete for African influence. They liked it a lot better when Africans had no choice but to come cap in hand to the World Bank and IMF. This might be lamentable if you live in D.C. but it's probably a good thing for Africa, where The Consensus did no good whatsoever anyway.

The whole discussion about China's "soft power" really strikes me as a misnomer. China has amassed exactly zero ability to convince any other non-authoritarian country that authoritarianism is nifty, and no capability to even convince the Taiwanese to want less independence. There's no country out there -- outside of their most dependent trade partners -- who wake up asking themselves "How can I make the Chinese happy today?" If countries are willing to take Chinese money, it does not necessarily follow that the People's Republic is building an anti-American alliance of those globe-straddling superpowers, Senegal and Namibia.

What has happened in Africa is a combination of a) China's inevitable desire to be seen as a major player in the world, including in global issues like development, and b) America's unwillingness to look at the real failures of development policy as practiced in structural adjustment programs. There's plenty of historical stuff in there too, but if the SAPs had actually, uh, worked in any measurable sense whatsoever, the countries where China is now doing so well would probably have been more charitably inclined to the US. Even that would be no gurantee: honestly, what would you prefer -- a loan where the bank forced you to stop paying for your kid's education and rent out your kitchen to strangers, or a grant that came with a new patio for your back yard? This is the kind of choice that Washington's offering the countries of Africa, and you can't blame them for taking the better bargain, or Beijing for making them the offer.

Finally, this whole discussion is poisoned by an assumption among many that the liberal prescriptions for international relations (globalization, democratization, human rights, on and on and on...) form some kind of international consensus that China is now disrupting. As with so many assumptions about the world, this simply isn't true. These are issues that spark intense debate even with liberal, democratic states, and the debates are no less fierce in the international realm. What Washington calls "anti-corruption" campaigns African countries call hypocritical, patronizing meddling by outsiders. China isn't disrupting any consensus -- it's exploiting the very lack of a consensus to it's own ends. Virtuous? Probably not. But it's not evil, either. It's just usual statecraft, something the US used to be very good at.

No comments: