When the United Nations General Assembly met in 2007 to vote on North Korea’s human rights record, only 10 of the 56 African countries voted with the U.S.-led western coalition.
The overwhelming majority followed China – either by voting against or abstaining from the resolution.
This has not always been the case. Just three decades prior, the consequential General Assembly vote to replace the Republic of China (Taiwan) with the People’s Republic of China – signaling international recognition of Communist Party rule – was met with resistance from the United States. Although the resolution was passed, African countries did not abide by any side.
In the interim three decades, China rose to be one of the world’s most formidable economic and military powers, surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner and financed more than 3,000 large, critical infrastructure projects.
More than 10,000 Chinese firms operate in Africa, claiming nearly 50 percent of Africa’s internationally contracted construction market.
China transitioned from the world’s supplier of cheap labor to a leading financier of the developing world, aiming to build bridges – both figuratively and literally – through economic cooperation. Its chief foreign policy project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – has connected 152 countries across continents and facilitated more than 1.3 trillion in trade.
Yet to the west, China’s ascent means an authoritarian challenge to the liberal international system.
In a foreign policy address last December, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that China has been “deliberatively and aggressively” undermining U.S. interests.
“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Bolton said. “Such predatory actions are sub-components of broader Chinese strategic initiatives… with the ultimate goal of advancing Chinese global dominance.”
Although Washington is becoming increasingly alert on Africa, Beijing devised its own Africa strategy long before the twenty-first century.
Shortly after China’s founding in 1949, much of the developing world was still struggling with anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. China’s then-premier Zhou Enlai saw this as an opportunity to position China – a country that triumphed in the same struggle – as a leader of the developing world.
“Africa’s always been important for China going back to the 1950s,” Dr. Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute, told IPS.
“In the earlier period under Mao, it was because of the number of countries in Africa that had votes at the United Nations and the fact that China was promoting revolutionary movements, so it’s very political.”
“Shortly after the reforms began in China in 1979, Africa became more important economically,” Dr. Rosen added.
In the 1990s, encouraged by then-President Jiang Zemin’s “Go Out Policy” – a government-backed program to incentivize private overseas investment – Sino-African trade grew by 700 percent. With the help of the low-interest loans from the Chinese Export-Import Bank, companies like Huawei spearheaded a new generation’s quest for markets abroad.
Dr. Rosen told IPS that China now seeks to build mutually beneficial relationships with resource-rich countries regardless of their domestic political situation.
In September last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China will provide an additional $60 billion in financial support to Africa for at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) through foreign direct investment (FDI) and infrastructure loans.
Perhaps more telling of China’s attraction, more African countries attended FOCAC than the similarly-timed UN General Assembly meeting in 2018.
Xi calls China’s foreign policy, “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” – a doctrine that prioritizes peaceful cooperation than single-power domination.
However, regardless of Xi’s intentions, China’s investment has boosted domestic economic growth and gained political sway over willing African leaders who need technical aid and infrastructure development.
More importantly, China has shown that the western-dominant model of development characterized by neoliberal economic policies and democratic political principles is not the only way. By doing so, China is shifting the eye of world affairs eastward.
In June, 43 African countries drafted a statement to oppose the U.S. veto power on judicial appointments at the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the world’s highest trade court. Again, they sided with China.
China has urged the WTO to oppose U.S. veto power since early last year. Zhang Xiangchen, China’s WTO ambassador, said the international trade system is facing “grave challenges,” referring to President Trump’s trade policy.
“The most urgent and burning question that the WTO has to answer now is how to respond to unilateralism and protectionism,” Zhang said. “What is most dangerous and devastating is that the U.S. is systematically challenging fundamental guiding principles by blocking the selection process of the Appellate Body members.”
“If left untreated, [the policy] will fatally undermine the functioning of the WTO,” Zhang added.
China’s challenge to the U.S.-dominant world order doesn’t stop with the WTO. China has set up international institutions such as the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to further solidify its position as the developing world’s financier.
While some have argued that these institutions are potential rivals to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), some are more cautious to assume that China is attempting to change the international order because of China’s lack of clarity in its policy implementation process.
Dr. Yuen Yuen Ang, associate political science professor at the University of Michigan, told IPS that China’s intentions are “not verifiable.”
“While observers are free to speculate upon China’s intentions,” Dr. Ang said. “What we should and can know for sure is a persistent gap between policy formulation and implementation.”
Dr. Ang explained that the implementation of BRI has been “fragmented and uncoordinated,” causing confusion for international partners and participant companies and blurring Beijing’s strategic vision.
Despite its flaws, however, the BRI is showing the world the China way.
On the 95th anniversary of the Communist Party’s founding, Xi announced to a hall of thousands that the Chinese people “are fully confident in offering a China solution to humanity’s search for better social systems.”
As China continues to form alliances in Africa and around the globe, the west may soon need to acknowledge Xi’s foresight.