Gains of China’s soft power in Africa over the West

China portrays itself as a “Third World” country that pursues an “independent” foreign policy of peace. And by the Third World, it means that China is a developing country and not part of any power bloc such as that around the United States or the socialist bloc formerly associated with the Soviet Union. “Independence” here implies that China does not align itself with any other major power. The people of China assert that their country seeks peace so that it can concentrate on development. China also affirms that its decisions on foreign policy questions derive from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. The Chinese leadership originally counted these principles in 1954 when China, with a communist government, was trying to reach out to the non-communist countries of Asia.

Diplomatically, the Five Principles still serve a useful purpose for China to date. They offer an alternative to the American conception of a new kind of world order the one in which international regimes and institutions (often reflecting U.S. interests and values) limit the rights of sovereign states to develop and sell weapons of mass destruction, repress opposition and violate human rights, pursue mercantilist economic policies that interfere with free trade, and damage the environment. As opposed to the Western design, China’s alternative design for the world stresses the equal, uninfringeable sovereignty of all states whether large or small, Western and non-Western, rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian, each to run its own system as it sees fit, whether its methods suit Western standards or not. This is a system which the Chinese also refer to as “multipolarity.”

The Five Principles draw attention to and explains why the west should avoid imposing its values on weaker nations. Thus the core idea behind the Five Principles as interpreted by China today is sovereignty – which one state has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of another state. China places emphasis on explaining that it never seeks hegemony. In the 1960s hegemony was a code word for Soviet expansionism. Today, Chinese officials use the term to refer to what they see as a one-sided American effort to enforce America’s will on other countries in such matters as trade practices, weapons proliferation, and human rights. By saying it will not seek hegemony, China tells its smaller neighbors that China’s economic development and growing military might, will not turn the country into a regional bully. By doing so, China endeavors to win the trust and support of other countries against the hegemonic eminence of the West.

China takes a firm position that most disputes around the world should be solved by peaceful negotiations. At the United Nations, China often abstains or refrains from voting on resolutions that mandate sanctions or interventions to reverse invasions, end civil wars, or stop terrorism. As a permanent Security Council member, China’s negative vote would constitute a veto, angering countries who favor intervention. By not voting or casting an abstention, China has allowed several interventions to go ahead without reversing its commitment to non-intervention. Again, in doing so, China succeeds in retaining a good image over the west especially if it (the west) was in favor of such interventions.

Of course, these articulated ethical principles do not entail that Chinese foreign policy is not realistic or strategic. In most cases, the principles that are pronounced actually fit the needs of Chinese strategy. In places relatively far from China (such as the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America) a few simple principles actually reflect Chinese interests most of the time. To oppose great-power intervention and defend sovereignty and equality among states is not only high-minded but it also represents China’s national interest in regions where China cannot intervene itself.

Socio-economically, China gains some advantage over the west in terms of the provision of aid to the developing countries. Conditionality and selectivity have created a dilemma for the Western approach to aid that cannot be solved owing to the central nature of development and good governance. Chinese aid, however, does not face this dilemma, as China does not impose such conditions on aid donations. Instead, the Chinese approach involves infrastructure building together with Chinese finance, technology, engineers and workers. Although this approach may seem rather old-fashioned in Western eyes and though it may create less direct employment in the recipient countries, the indirect positive externalities associated with Chinese aid projects can have a huge impact on kick-starting and energizing local economies.  It is widely accepted that infrastructure plays a crucial role in economic development and lack of physical infrastructure has been allied to the main reasons leading to slow economic growth in much of Africa. It then implies that by minimizing transportation costs (roads) and transaction costs (communication networks) and enabling domestic and international trade (through increased specialization) – China’s major investments in infrastructure in Africa are helping to generate economic growth and thereby creating more indirect employment than is possible following the West’s approach. Some argue that the recent economic development in Africa is, at least in part, a result of its increased trade with and infrastructure building by China.

It is further argued that the Chinese approach is capable of dealing with the hardcore circle of underdevelopment in Africa, which the West’s approach to aid is unable to address. Moreover, China’s approach is effective mainly due to its own comparative advantage in manufacturing and the compatibility of its resource donations (in particular, abundant labor) with African nations, which makes it impossible for the West to imitate. Africa was colonized and its markets were monopolized by the West, but now China has stepped in and competition for aid and investment in Africa is increasing. Donors are also competing with each other to provide aid to African countries, perhaps with the expectation that their aid will lead to increased trade and improved access to African markets especially in terms of natural resources. It may only be hoped, however, that by improving its efficiency and effectiveness, this increased competition in aid between China and the West will ultimately be for the benefit of Africa.

Socio-politically, the American political system does not seem to inspire as many people in Africa as it used to do. Africans have realized that Washington does not have much further to offer them in terms of socio-political capital, with very few socio-political lessons to emulate. According to Adams Bodom, Africans are unenthusiastic about talking against Washington because they are uncomfortable with their hard power, and live in fear of the deadly drones, and the callous imposition of sanctions through the United States Africa Command (Africom). On the other hand, he emphasized that China is having positive socio-political influences on Africa, African leaders, and ideologically literate Africans on the African streets. Many Africans now view the  Chinese way of handling their political economy as being far better than that of the American and western governments in general. China and other prudent Asian economies even bailed the world out of the banking disaster induced by some greedy western leaders and businessmen that caused untold hardships on Africans since 2008.

Socio-culturally, the United States soft power is waning in Africa whereas China’s soft power is increasing. Adams Bodom further purports that the use of English in Africa is barely anymore an example of American soft power as it used to be, but the increasing learning of Chinese is an instance of growing Chinese soft power. Young people in Africa seldom think well of America and Britain as a land of milk and honey when they open their mouths to speak English, but young people in Africa learning Chinese do think of China as a land of opportunity with which they hope to trade or engage in other ways after successfully learning the language at the fifty (50) or more Confucius Institutes springing up everywhere in Africa great symbols of Chinese soft power in Africa. Moreover, Asian soft power in the entertainment industry is rising faster in Africa than American in addition to the Chinese cultures and herbal medicines, particularly herbal tea in the middle-class African living room, which is fast becoming a popular Chinese cultural consumption item in Africa by the middle class.

In conclusion, the west used to have a strong soft power influence in Africa, but it is waning while China is beginning to register a rising soft power. As such, there are a number of aspects that the west can learn from the Chinese soft power strategies especially in areas of engagement and cooperation. There are also some characteristics of soft power from the west that has been underutilized in recent years. As such, it would be a great opportunity for the United States and others to engage China on areas of common interest, to strengthen African capacities to manage the intensifying competition that China and others bring to the continent, and to preemptively work to mitigate potential areas of disagreement. The United States can do more to engage in collaborative efforts with China to engage African governments, regional organizations, and civil society more systematically with the goal of mitigating potential tensions and conflicting interests. It is evident that both China and the United States have expressed willingness to engage in collaborative projects in Africa, but although there will almost certainly be long-term benefits to such collaboration, it will take a stronger upfront investment of political will and attention to launching these efforts. Health, agriculture, and peacekeeping capacity are areas of potential collaboration in Africa, and more global issues of climate change, food security, and clean and efficient energy use (areas that the Chinese leadership has emphasized in recent international forums) could be taken up in the African context. Likewise, in areas of tension and disagreement arms sales, transparency approaches to conflict resolution, environmental safeguards the United States should ensure systematic, senior-level engagement with Chinese and African leadership to find common ground and mitigate conflict.

David Ceasar Wani
David Ceasar Wani
David Ceasar Wani Suliman is a Doctoral Fellow (Ph.D.) in the school of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University China, Majoring in International Politics. He worked as a Research assistant at Jilin University China; He Achieved Master’s degree in International Relations from Jilin University China, and correspondingly graduated with honors from Cavendish University Uganda with bachelor degree in international relations and diplomatic studies.