This is the fifty third part in the series
The China Chronicles.
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Military might and economic coercion have traditionally been the preferred tools for the pursuit of geopolitical ambitions with soft power playing a supporting role. For the first time in contemporary geopolitics, we witness this accepted norm turn on its head. The experience of China being a classic example — where, in several cases, we see development diplomacy assume a central role in reinforcing Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions. Beijing’s conduct calls into question not only established understanding of geopolitics, but also that of global development.
The sphere of global development will increasingly be the arena where geostrategic tensions play out. As such, perhaps it is time to give development cooperation some serious consideration in the larger study of geopolitics.
The soft power of attractiveness and persuasion has often been treated as the stepsibling of coercive hard power. As Joseph Nye Jr. argues
, diplomacy and economic assistance programmes are generally underfunded as they rarely show immediate visible results. Take the case of the United States — with arguably the largest strategic influence across geographical clusters, foreign aid makes up less than 1 percent of the American federal budget. In addition, when budget cuts take place aid faces the axe first, creating the perception that development aid is dispensable, particularly when compared to military spending. Yet, it is development diplomacy that has come to China’s advantage in securing its interests abroad.
The soft power of attractiveness and persuasion has often been treated as the stepsibling of coercive hard power.
China’s development assistance model — much like those of other emerging powers — are based on two fundamental pillars articulated in the two White Papers on foreign aid. First
, it stresses non-interference and respect for the sovereign rights of partner countries. Articulated as a direct contradiction to the controversial conditionalities prescribed by traditional aid donors — most particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — the Chinese development approach provides recipient countries with the agency to choose their independent growth and development trajectories based on individual requirements. Second
, Chinese development finance follows the win-win principle. Identifying itself as a country still struggling with its own domestic development challenges, China’s economic assistance must bring benefits for the Chinese state — in addition to development gains recipient countries reap. The mutual-benefit principle also brings with it another aspect — the perception of a horizontal partnership and equal power dynamic. Thus, Chinese development diplomacy not only offers alternative sources of finance, but also presents a model that seems to overcome the major criticisms of traditional aid. The issue, however, is that such power relations are rarely horizontal, and they often come attached with significant geopolitical implications.
While it would be impossible to decipher the motivations behind China’s development diplomacy programme — other than those stated in the White Papers — development assistance has allowed China to secure a range of strategic gains. Beijing’s engagement with the African continent showcases many such instances. Beijing — through the People’s Bank of China, the China Development, the Export-Import Bank of China and the China-Africa Development — has provided Africa with a considerable volume of aid in the form of investments and loans. As per calculations by SAIS-CARI, Chinese loans to Africa amount to USD 86 billion in the 2000-2014 period. A major portion of these going to resource-rich countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Today, Africa is the second largest source of crude oil to China. More important, however is the increasing Chinese military presence in Africa. China’s contribution of military personnel to peacekeeping missions in Africa has seen a sharp rise — with more than 2,500 troops and experts committed to six such UN missions, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Further, in 2015 Beijing promised the African Union military aid worth USD 100 million; and China’s first overseas naval base has recently been constructed in Djibouti.
Beijing — through the People’s Bank of China, the China Development, the Export-Import Bank of China and the China-Africa Development — has provided Africa with a considerable volume of aid in the form of investments and loans.
Asia too offers several such examples. The latest and most controversial one being Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port. In 2010, Beijing provided a loan of USD 1.5 billion for the construction of the Hambantota port — a project that many deemed economically unviable from the start. This loan, in addition to many other Chinese loans for various other infrastructure projects, has meant a monumental debt. The turn of events has been well covered — Sri Lanka signing a 99-year lease with Chinese state-owned firms for the Hambantota port. This also raises alarm bells for the rest of the infrastructure projects financed by Beijing — for instance, the many segments of the Belt and Road Initiative, which are unlikely to provide any significant commercial returns. Further, Beijing has invested in the construction of the strategically located Gwadar port in Pakistan; it has pledged USD 7.2 billion to develop a deep-sea port in the Straits of Malacca; and has entered into an agreement to develop the international airport of Maldives.
A country’s development policy and economic assistance programme can, thus, lead to more than the mere creation of global goodwill. In fact, such diplomacy figures as a useful instrument for a revisionist power to further its geopolitical ambitions. Consequently, the conventional categorisation of development diplomacy within soft power no longer holds. Considering this, then, does the study of soft power in international relations require a revision that reflects current geopolitical realities? Secondly, is there an added urgency in reconciling the existing ideological differences between traditional and emerging providers of development assistance — in order to develop an internationally accepted normative framework that is conducive to development and geopolitical stability? Lastly, will the threat of becoming a global outlaw be enough to bring an increasingly confident Beijing within the boundaries of such a normative framework?
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