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Xi’s Africa speech points to a new Chinese world order
A new world order is taking shape. As America is distracted by an anonymous op-ed, the Russia investigation, Nike's new commercial and a Supreme Court nominee's raucous confirmation hearing, its chief rival China is quietly reshaping international affairs to suit its preferences.
The clearest evidence yet of what a China-dominated world might look like was provided by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting in Beijing this past week. The gathering boasted the attendance of about 50 African heads of state or government. When was the last time 50 world leaders came to Washington willingly and left without rancor?
Yet, that is precisely what is happening in this new Chinese world order. Unlike Western engagement with Africa and Asia, China does not have to bear the baggage of colonialism. What's worse, the West remains tone-deaf and continues to deal with Africa and Asia in a hectoring tone, issuing homilies with which countries with strong memories of colonialism have little patience.
China eschews lectures and pursues win-win commercial projects. It draws on a growing admiration for its remarkable transformation into a super power from among the populations of poor countries who aspire to similar success. Ghana's president, Nana Akufo-Addo, confessed he was "inspired by this model, and [we] are trying to replicate same." Botswana's president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, was effusive, "To China, her president and citizens, we admire and hold you in very high regard. Keep the innovation, friendliness and international outlook as bright as the Chinese spirit."
And in a veiled rebuke to the West, the African Union's Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, said, "The relationship between Africa and China is based on equality, mutual respect and a commitment to a shared well-being,"
This is not just cheap talk. It follows China's pledge to invest $60 billion in Africa in coming years. The investment is not just in infrastructure projects - it includes capacity-building programs for African workers, scholarships for students to pursue education in China, and more. Notably, this is not an isolated commitment; China pledged an investment of $60 billion in 2015 that resulted in infrastructure projects such as railway links and highways.
America should pay attention. Its own recent pivot to Asia is puny compared to these investments. And its strategy toward Africa is shambolic.
It is not adequate to merely point fingers at China's investments and allege that they will lead to a debt trap, nor to reference the Pentagon report that China's Belt and Road Initiative will be used "to develop strong economic ties with other countries, shape their interests to align with China's, and deter confrontation or criticism of China's approach to sensitive issues."
President Xi Jinping used his opening address at the FOCAC to repudiate these criticisms. Xi pledged "a five-no" approach in relations with Africa: no interference in African countries' pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries' internal affairs; no imposition of China's will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance for Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa. Xi then threw a dart at the West: "This 'five-no' approach could apply to other countries as they deal with matters regarding Africa."
Xi's speech reminded African leaders of their shared past: "With similar fate in the past and a common mission, China and Africa have extended sympathy to and helped each other throughout all the years. Together, we have embarked on a distinctive path of win-win cooperation." He announced that China will provide "50,000 government scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities for seminars and workshops, and will invite 2,000 young Africans to visit China for exchanges."
Xi's strategic engagement with Africa is a bold ploy that already is bearing fruit. Consider, for example, the migration of African students to China, despite the language barriers. China now hosts the second-largest number of African students after France - an increase of 26 times in 15 years. In other words, despite magnificent U.S. and U.K. universities, African students prefer to pursue their education in China. And it is not just Africans - China now hosts more than 489,000 international students.
The consequences of this are obvious: these students will be influenced by Chinese ideas and develop a different worldview than that enabled by the dominance of the West for the past century or more.
Clearly, China's strategy is not solely dependent on building roads and bridges; it incorporates the cultivation of soft power and influence through ideas. The West should take note before it is too late. As Zimbabwe's president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, put it bluntly: "There is now a transition to a new world order and those who don't see it are blind."
Sandeep Gopalan is a professor of law and pro vice chancellor for academic innovation at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He previously was co-chairman or vice chairman of American Bar Association committees on aerospace/defense and international transactions, a member of the ABA's immigration commission, and dean of three law schools in Ireland and Australia. He has taught law in four countries and served as a visiting scholar at universities in France and Germany.