Over the past few decades, China has expanded its interests across the developing world, especially Africa, as its state-sponsored companies and contractors have laid down roots. Some see it as a new benevolence; others, a new colonialism. In either case, China isn’t looking to start a war with anyone. Their ventures in Africa do not directly threaten the United States. Rattling sabres over Africa will not be worth the White House’s limited attention if and when the issue arises.
Nevertheless, the People’s Republic is making a place for itself in countries the United States has generally ignored. By influencing the development of infrastructure, and extending aid and deals for manufactured goods, the Chinese government is carving out its own sphere of influence in the former Third World. If the United States does not make a conscious effort to maintain friendships and help the oppressed of the world, China won’t need a war.
Since 2008, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has pledged itself to working alongside United Nations’ peacekeeping forces against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean. In 2016, the Chinese began work on their first military base outside of the country – a naval station and airfield in Djibouti. It also happens to be less than ten miles away from the U.S. Camp Lemonnier. It is clear that a military presence abroad is necessary to to support a vision of self-assertion, and this is gesture shows the world that their navy has indeed arrived.
Djibouti serves as a regional hub for international peacekeepers against piracy. The Chinese base signifies a new enthusiasm for the role of global benefactor. For much of its time in the U.N., China has avoided foreign peacekeeping. Until 1981, the Chinese abstained from peacekeeping resolutions or contributing funds or personnel to any mission. But now over 2,500 Chinese troops and police are working throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and Africa is home to over one million Chinese nationals. Most of these are contractors, engaged in a number of projects bringing improved energy and transportation infrastructure to the continent. Where Western nations have seen liability, the Chinese have clearly seen opportunity.
In 2014, trade between African nations and China amounted to $200 billion. For context, the Chinese military budget in 2015 was only $145.8 million. In their quest for “soft power,” the sensible option is reaching out to developing countries which the West has avoided business with. The Chinese manufacturing-based economy has great need for raw materials, of which Africa enjoys an abundance. Political stability only makes for better business, thus involving the Chinese government explicitly in the affairs of the continent.
The Chinese government, both of its own standing and through multifarious government-owned corporations and private companies, has wrangled similar deals with Latin American nations, such as Venezuela. A considerable portion of Venezuelan debt belongs to the Chinese government, for which they receive payments in petroleum. Although most of China’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf, China can count on steady supply coming from Venezuela by this leveraged position.
China has enjoyed a policy of “non-interference,” rather at odds with the less-trusting Western model. Western nations have typically gifted $180 billion dollars annually in various forms of assistance, partly as atonement for past sins of colonialism. This aid has generally come on the condition of keeping a good human rights record. Chinese aid comes without an ethical price tag, though there is an established correlation between how much Chinese aid an African country receives and how it votes with regard to Chinese interests in the U.N.
Non-interference is also at odds with the Chinese Communist Party’s roots: during the Cold War, Mao Zedong hoped for a wave of “wars of national liberation” from the West, though that dream was not to be. Instead, Africa has responded to capital over ideology. While the West has indeed contributed aid for easing famines and troops for halting genocide, it is treating the symptom and not the cause. Chinese contractors, on the other hand, are working to improve roads, rails and access to energy, and this is likely to the detriment of our own soft power.
The Chinese have a peculiar desire to improve their standing among the “great powers” of the world. Chinese schoolchildren are taught the phrase “Never forget national humiliation” from a young age – a perennial reminder of the many injuries China has suffered at the hands of foreign powers.
But this is by no means doomsday. According to pan-African polling network Afrobarometer, Africans of various nations throughout the continent have been receptive to Chinese initiatives, but a majority still regard the American democratic capitalistic model for development as being best, and a majority still consider former colonial powers, such as France and Belgium as being more influential. Moreover, Chinese popular culture does not enjoy the influence that American pop culture does: one could argue, it wasn’t missiles that won the Cold War, but blue jeans. And as Americans learned in Iraq, it is hard to win hearts and minds from the top-down.