LETTER FROM CHINA
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
By Howard W. French
Published: February 21, 2008
SHANGHAI: Something powerful happened on President George W. Bush’s way to Africa.
Listening to Bush’s statements in appearance after appearance, one gets the impression of a major diplomatic shift. It is as if a switch had been flipped, relegating the ever-present war on terror to the background and emphasizing classical, uplifting themes with roots in the U.S. Great Society era of the 1960s.
There was the president, speaking forcefully in Tanzania about long-held American values; not just freedom as an obligatory throw away line, but of democracy in terms of good governance, and of the importance of heeding the people and serving their needs.
“I’ll put it bluntly – America doesn’t want to spend money on people who steal the money from the people,” Bush said, addressing the news media together with his Tanzanian counterpart, Jakaya Kikwete.
“We like dealing with honest people and compassionate people,” he added. “We want our money to go to help the human condition and to live human lives.”
Bush then lent credence to his rhetoric by bestowing a generous aid package on Tanzania, including $662 million for this year and $698 million more over the next five years to upgrade electricity, water supply and roads, through a U.S. agency called the Millennium Challenge Corporation, whose funds are aimed toward countries that demonstrate good governance. All of this on top of big spending for AIDS and malaria prevention.
Beyond the words and the cash, the very logic of Bush’s itinerary is illuminating. In six days, in addition to Tanzania, he is visiting Benin, Ghana, and Liberia, all of which are small democracies, and post-genocide Rwanda, which although not democratic, has established a reputation for clean, effective government.
The symbolism was strengthened by the fact that none of Bush’s stops are in Africa’s emerging natural resource powerhouses: important yet highly corrupt places like Nigeria, Angola and Congo, to name three of the biggest, which either lack democracy altogether, or have recently suffered erosion in their democratic credentials.
Although Bush cannot fairly be said to have only now “discovered” Africa, this trip – from its itinerary to its rhetoric – shows that America is serious about reasserting its interest in the continent. In this regard, the international context could not be more important.
Over the past five years China’s top leaders have visited the continent five times, and the world’s emerging superpower has pretty much been the sole player in Africa. During that time, Beijing has been racking up gains on a continent neglected at an accelerating pace.
So much so, that in many countries where China has showered its largesse, Africans have spoken of the growing irrelevance of the World Bank, which has long been a leading source of financing, but whose lending, unlike China’s, comes with many strings attached.
In the United States and China, leaders have taken pains to insist that there is no competition between the two countries in Africa. Both countries, however, look to Africa as an important frontier, not just an important source of minerals and fuel, and as part of the world whose political weight will grow.
It should be said that having both countries engaged is good for the continent. Africans themselves sense this, and are determined never again to have to choose between outside partners, as they did during the last era of superpower rivalry.
Bush’s foreign policy has not built a reputation for subtlety, but the president’s tour sets up a compelling contrast between China and the United States, and achieves this in a way that shows that Beijing will face immense challenges to its ideologically hidebound foreign policy if Washington remains consistent and engaged.
As things stand, the United States, with its emphasis on good government, democracy and rights has positioned itself to be the friend of African peoples, while China positions itself as a friend of African governments. Where the Clinton administration often favored African strongmen, Bush’s visit tilts policy in favor of cleanliness and democracy. Because of its diplomatic competition with Taiwan, and its thirst for resources, China’s African embrace, meanwhile, is indiscriminate.
Make no mistake, by building roads, railways and universities, not to mention its industrial investments, China may potentially have a dramatic impact on people’s lives across the continent. The problem with its position, which is tied up with long-held notions of noninterference in internal affairs, is that China has little or nothing to say about corruption, about human rights abuses, or the lack of democracy that has been as important as any other factor in holding Africa back.
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LETTER FROM CHINA