Thursday, May 11, 2006

Lessons from China on Dealing with Africa

The US needs to relearn how to win friends and influence nations, and the Chinese experience in Africa holds good lessons, according to a recent American Foreign Policy Council report.

How does China obtain resources, build trade, and win African nations to its side? In January, Beijing released an official China-Africa policy white paper, a document remarkable for the broad range of issues it covers. The white paper offers some clues into Beijing's strategy in Africa. First, China is dramatically boosting its aid and economic support to Africa-aid it can provide with few strings, at the same time as international financial institutions, like the World Bank, increasingly link aid disbursements in the developing world to good governance and anticorruption initiatives.

Chinese aid to the continent has become more sophisticated. While China once focused on large buildings-sports stadiums in Gambia and Sierra Leone, for example-it has increasingly used aid to support infrastructure creation that then also helps Chinese companies, and to directly woo African elites. In 2002, China gave $1.8 billion in development aid to its African allies. (Beijing has since then stopped officially reporting its aid, making a complete and accurate tally impossible.)

China has also used debt relief to assist African nations, effectively turning loans into grants. Since 2000, Beijing has taken significant steps to cancel the debt of 31 African countries. In 2000, China wrote off $1.2 billion in African debt; in 2003 it forgave another $750 million. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has proclaimed that "China's exemplary endeavor to ease African countries' debt problem is indeed a true expression of solidarity and commitment." Debt relief has been an excellent public relations tool for Beijing because it not only garners popular support but also allows for two positive press events: the first to provide the loan, the second to relieve the debt.

In addition to increased aid, China's outreach includes efforts to boost its soft power in Africa. This is evident in a growing focus on promoting Chinese cultural and language studies on the continent. In 2003, 1,793 African students studied in China, representing one-third of total foreign students that year. Indeed, China plans to train some 10,000 Africans per year, including many future African opinion leaders who once might have trained in the West.

Beijing also seeks to establish "Confucius Institutes" in Africa-programs at leading local universities, funded by Beijing and devoted to China studies and Chinese language training. Already, in Asia, Confucius Institutes have proved effective in encouraging graduate students to focus on China studies and, ultimately, to study in China. Meanwhile, Chinese medical schools and physicians train African doctors and provide medicine and equipment free of charge to African countries.

Through these programs and exchanges, China develops trust by investing in long-term relationships with African elites that formerly might have been educated in London or Washington. Beijing is also working to encourage tourism in Africa, partly in an effort to develop cultural ties. The government has approved 16 African countries as outbound destinations for Chinese tourists, including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. This pushed the number of Africa's Chinese tourists to 110,000 in 2005, a 100 percent increase over 2004, according to Chinese government figures.

In particular, the US cannot afford to lose its status as THE place for the best and brightest in the world to get an education. The brain draw of US universities is the enduring insurance of maintaining innovation, and a widespread deep understanding of American values among the influential classes of other countries.

h/t Simon World


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