The quinquennial party congress of the Chinese Communist Party started on Sunday. It will reelect Xi Jinping, China’s Secretary-General, and open the door for him to run for a third term. Xi is determined to regain China’s lost leadership in the region and East Asia. Xi has thus raised the stakes both for his leadership and for his foreign policy.
China must increase its military strength, not just for conventional warfare but for hybrid warfare. It must also develop cutting-edge technologies and strengthen its alliances with other countries in order to surpass the United States. Based on Xi’s past moves, he will try to achieve all of this via economic means. This will make China more dependent on foreign markets than its competitors and increase their dependence on China’s manufacturing capabilities and consumer market.
However, China’s Covid policies and its cozying-up to Russia have made it a powerful, exploitative, and heavy-handed power. This reputation could threaten its diplomatic efforts, and Xi runs the risk of overpromising domestically and going too far abroad. To protect its interests worldwide, the United States must be able to see the tea leaves of these overextensions.
China’s leadership has created a diplomatic strategy that includes blaming the United States, promising to share its secrets of the post-2001 economic miracle, making flashy investments as a gesture for goodwill and then signing an exclusive trade deal or building deep relationships with the top officials in the target country. This strategy works because it uses powerful psychological levers to instill paranoia and present China as the only entity capable to make things right.
As I watched Xi’s diplomatic blitz in the past few months, it occurred to me that I had witnessed the exact same process in 2019 when I was able to study abroad in Ethiopia for an intensive seminar about the African Union. Although my visit was before the civil war that ravaged the country, tensions were already rising, making Ethiopia an attractive destination for foreign engagement. Many of the issues that I researched, including ethnic conflicts, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and the African Union’s attempts to establish a free-trade area and monetary union based on the European model, are still relevant to Ethiopia and the rest of the world. They are also useful case studies to understand the pattern of political conflict in developing countries that Chinese diplomacy exploits.
In fact, my time in Ethiopia was marked by the constant presence of American, Russian and Chinese power projection. All parties, including mid- and top-ranking officials from the African Union and United Nations and continental NGOs, stressed their determination to prevent Africa and its communities falling into unequal power dynamics. Many of these officials referred to the Berlin Conference of 1885, and stated that Africa has much more to offer the world than being the latest stage for the Sino-American hegemonic rivalry. Many of these officials were warm toward Russia and China because they are not colonial states from the nineteenth century. Today, Russia and China are present in Ethiopia, where they seek to reaffirm their influence on policymakers, diplomats and businessmen. Addis Ababa is home to both the headquarters of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, UNECA.
My seminar group had the opportunity to meet with an American diplomat to Africa. The seasoned diplomat outlined the different visions of development that Russia, China and the United States represented. These are a great way to help us understand the ongoing diplomatic conflict between China and America around the rest of world.
Russia’s development strategy is to sell weapons and other weapon systems, train soldiers, and include partner countries in its massive military exercises. Russia’s diplomacy in development avoids flashy investments. Instead, it provides tangible and immediate value for its partners through its fearsome reputation and historical ties. Russia has used its military relations with African countries to project power, with an emphasis on Ethiopian armed forces due to Ethiopia’s strategic location between Africa and the Middle East. Ethiopia is the A.U.’s largest contributor to the African Standby Force (the peacekeeping force of African Union), with more troops than any other A.U. Russian military advisers and the Russian government have wide access to the African Union’s military circles.
Warm relations have existed between Russia and Ethiopia for centuries. This is due to a longstanding military relationship, which began under the rule of Emperor Menelik II in late nineteenth century. It started during the Great Game, when Russia and the British Empire fought for supremacy in the Middle East. For example, in 2021, Ethiopia turned to Russia after it suffered setbacks from the Tigray Defense Force during the civil war.
Russoethiopian relations have not been affected by Russia’s invasion in Ukraine. Reuters reported in April that Ethiopians waited to join the fight. Russia is now the largest supplier of materiel and expertise to Ethiopia’s military, closely followed by Turkey, Iran, and Iran.
China’s development diplomacy, unlike Russia, focuses on large-scale infrastructure projects. This includes roads, highways, canals, and ports. It buys what it can, and then proceeds to improve the infrastructure it doesn’t want or is unable to build. This includes the Panama Canal and port of Piraeus, both near Athens. China’s heavy machinery is a common sight on Ethiopia’s roads, while Chinese civil engineering projects shine in major cities. China donated the headquarters of the African Union and had it built by Chinese workers.
These investments are still looked at by locals with suspicion. Our Lalibela-born tour guide told us wryly that a bumpy stretch on the road is commonly called a “Chinese Massage.” Despite China’s claims to modernize and upgrade its infrastructure, they tend to skim on areas more popular with power players. A diplomat who we met shared a remarkable story about attending the summit of A.U. delegates. The Chinese New Year coincided with this summit. All the Chinese workers managing the property had taken time off work and no one knew how to turn the lights on. The summit was held in darkness and without air conditioning.
The United States is different from China and Russia in how it invests in projects that are less visible but which it usually sees through to completion. The United States views development as a first-and foremost investment in people. It prioritizes the elimination of diseases, the training and support of teachers and provides expertise to address local problems such as social isolation or market access. It is important to note that neither Russia nor China have attempted to replicate the Peace Corps or Fulbright English teaching assistantships when evaluating American development diplomacy.
With the United States President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, (PEPFAR), President George W. Bush revolutionized African public health. Since 2003, more than $90 billion has been invested to combat HIV/AIDS. This program is believed to have saved more than twenty million lives in Africa. It recruited both local health professionals as well as volunteers to lead HIV prevention and treatment projects. Yet, American diplomats as well as policymakers fail to celebrate this ongoing and monumental success as much as they should.
The short version is that Russia sells weapons to its allies, China produces sometimes impressive feats of civil engineering and the United States launches campaigns in order to solve complex economic or biomedicine problems. The actions of Russia, China, and the United States are easily visible and understandable. However, it takes the United States years to blossom and can take many generations.
One Nigerian envoy noted that “politicians want full-grown trees but you must start with saplings or even an acorn” so while the U.S. trains locals to plant an apple here, and a maple there, China plant its own trees and won’t let anyone forget. We can only imagine Russia teaching its allies how to militarize their trees. It is clear that both Russia and China have trees of some value for nations the United States wants to support.
China has the ability to infiltrate itself into other countries’ affairs and secure its advantage over them by allowing this gap between visible and invisible effects and investments. Two things can be drawn from this: The nations of the globe are largely rational and intelligent and will pursue their own interests. The United States cannot assume their cooperation or partnership as a given. Although the Belt and Road is often portrayed by American media as a predatory play it is important to remember that many countries and their people reap tangible benefits from its projects.
This was the heart of American foreign policy for a long time: to provide goods, investments, and training in order to win the goodwill of both countries and their people. However, American foreign policy is becoming more ideological. This is another area in which both the Republican and Democratic parties are seeking to promote their views and agendas at all costs to the other.
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China’s twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping dominating the party apparatchiks, and its 20th congress, are both evidence of the single-mindedness and coherence in its geopolitical strategy. As American policymakers were trying to point fingers at each other over the Afghanistan withdrawal disaster, Chinese policymakers arrived with their briefcases and enjoyed tea with the Taliban as they worked out a trade and mining deal. China continues to bring Russia closer into its orbit, touting the benefits of its leadership to other Central Asian nations as the conflict in Ukraine progresses. It would be wise for the United States to pay attention.
China’s rise is not certain, although some developments may lead to greater technological disparities at home and abroad. China’s diplomatic moves could set it back in its quest to become Asia’s kingmaker by threatening the United States. China is at risk of destroying its relationships with powerful middle powers by alienating potential allies and overpromising or underdelivering on investments. Or simply falling into exploitative patterns which will irritate its partners. What happens if African Union officials and other political figures around the globe start to view China as a colonizer of the future? China promises prosperity but many developing countries are unwilling to pay with their sovereignty or their dignity for it.
Xi ended his speech at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in Kazakhstan with a bold statement: “At the 20th National Congress of the CCP, we will stand as a new historical point and draw a blueprint to China’s future growth.” China cannot grow without the rest of the world. The world needs China to prosper. It is up to the world to decide how much and who it will buy.