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It’s finally out there: China wants to replace America

It’s finally out there: China wants to replace America

If there’s one print title that policy wonks in Washington read religiously, it’s Foreign Affairs magazine. So if you want to know what the White House thinks about a certain geopolitical issue, all you theoretically have to do is look in the magazine’s pages. What does America think about China? Given the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, it appears they’ve acknowledged the game has just changed. By KEVIN BLOOM. 

At 972 Pretorius Street in South Africa’s executive capital a new building has recently gone up. It sits off the road behind a giant red flag, and its architectural principles signify balance and bilateral symmetry. Echoing an ancient tradition, the imposing concrete structure, characterised by gabled roofs and load-bearing columns, encloses an inner courtyard that’s just about visible from the entrance. The daunting scale and imperial presence suggests Beijing’s Forbidden Palace, a fact that can’t be lost on the occupants of 877 Pretorius Street, who have the second most impressive building on the avenue. If the sizes of embassies are any indication of a country’s place in the geopolitical hierarchy – and they almost always are – the People’s Republic of China, in South Africa at least, is sending a strong message to the United States: we see you, we aren’t intimidated by you, we’re pretty certain we’re about to replace you. 

The Daily Maverick has been following the story of China in Africa for a while now, and although a few specific opportunities have been missed – like the recent visit of vice president Xi Jinping – we’ve tried to focus on the broader implications; the view from ten thousand feet, as it were, where consequences for the continent can be assessed and guessed at. Commensurate with this initiative, on Monday we were alerted to a story that appears in the November/December 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, and we couldn’t help but conclude that the information contained therein is seminal: the magazine that’s a required read in Washington has just acknowledged that China is about to embark on a foreign policy revolution.

Entitled “The Game Changer”, the article’s third paragraph notes: “China’s leaders once tried to insulate themselves from greater engagement with the outside world; they now realise that fulfilling their domestic needs demands a more activist global strategy. Rhetorically promoting a ‘peaceful international environment’ in which to grow their economy while free-riding on the tough diplomatic work of others is no longer enough. Ensuring their supply lines for natural resources requires not only a well-organised trade and development agenda but also an expansive military strategy. The Chinese no longer want to be passive recipients of information from the outside world; they want to shape that information for consumption at home and abroad. And as their economic might expands, they want not only to assume a greater stake in international organisations but also to remake the rules of the game.”

The second line contains a clue as to how the United States might be feeling about all of this – after all, who but they have been doing the “tough diplomatic work” on which the People’s Republic has up until now been free-riding? Since the process of transforming the Chinese economy and social institutions began in the late 1970s, Chinese business has been expanding into markets that were first opened up by the United States; now that this initial phase of the Chinese economic revolution has come to an end – 30 years of rampant growth has resulted in massive pollution, skyrocketing unemployment, and rising income inequalities – Washington must watch as China tries to save itself by remaking the world in its own image.

That the process will affect Africa is patently obvious; a more interventionist role in global affairs for China will affect the entire world. How it will affect Africa is less certain. But a lot can be gleaned from the fact that running in tandem with the so-called “go out” policy will be an emphasis on innovation. China has come this far by focusing its energy and the huge power of its population on manufacturing and the exploitation of natural resources; for the next few decades it intends to continue growing by transforming its economy into one that’s knowledge-based. The People’s Republic, which for years has been standing on the side of America’s sandpit, has just jumped feet first into it.

Foreign Affairs magazine employs the exact metaphor: “The next wave of ‘going out,’ however, will take China far beyond investment in natural resources. As China becomes an innovative, knowledge-based economy, its leaders are encouraging their cash-rich state-owned enterprises and investment funds to take stakes in or acquire foreign companies, particularly those with desirable technologies. Where Chinese products are competitive, Chinese firms are jumping in feet first. China’s Ministry of Commerce is an aggressive advocate for the country’s companies, for example, promoting an ‘all-in-one’ service for clean-technology exports: the provision of equipment, expertise, and services. The government will even provide the necessary loans, which can then be used to pay for Chinese-made equipment, workers, and technologies. Beijing has already promised 1,000 such clean-energy projects to countries in Africa.”

Photo: People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers march during an open day at a PLA naval base in Hong Kong March 6, 2010. China kept the rise in its military budget to 7.5 percent in 2010, a slowdown that left observers skeptical after an increase in tensions with the United States. REUTERS/Bobby Yip.

If by 2030 China achieves its objective of becoming an “urban-based, innovative, green, wired, and equitable society”, Africa – or those African countries that have acted and negotiated smartly – will certainly have reaped the benefits. Thousands of clean-energy projects dotted around the continent can’t hurt, and neither can the example set by China’s new media strategy, which is driven by the realisation that the country needs to tell its own story to the rest of the world.  The People’s Republic is about to spend the equivalent of $80 billion on this strategy, with the Xinhua News Agency’s soon-to-be-launched 24-hour English-language TV offering at the forefront. At the moment, according to Foreign Affairs, Chinese state media have 400 correspondents in 117 bureaus around the globe, and they’re planning for 180 by 2020. Telling the world their own story cannot but imply that they’ll have to let the practices of the outside world affect them in return – a strong theory holds that China can’t afford (in a commercial sense) to control its information for much longer, and if Chinese media frees up, so presumably does Africa’s.

“How successful Chinese media will ultimately be in winning the hearts and minds of the rest of the world will likely rest on their ability to change the way they do business,” Foreign Affairs observes. “Other authoritarian states seek to emulate the Chinese model, restricting Internet access and controlling domestic media. However, gaining the respect and trust of the rest of the world will require China to adopt a very different strategy. An open and critical approach to reporting news about China will be essential. Ultimately, the impact of the Chinese media foray abroad may be less transformative globally than on the home front. As Chinese media companies remake themselves to compete in the international marketplace with more investigative and open reporting, the pressures will mount to adopt similar strategies in the domestic market.” 

So far, the world hasn’t seen much evidence of this mooted new approach. Jeremy Goldkorn may have had a point in his recent column for The Daily Maverick about local media being asleep at the wheel during Xi Jinping’s visit, but what Goldkorn doesn’t understand about news media is that it’s very often driven by the event-makers themselves. If the Chinese had wanted the South African press to cover the visit, the embassy on Pretorius Street would have sent out a slew of media releases. The silence that emanates from that remarkable building with the Forbidden Palace-like presence is the exact opposite of what local journalists get from the building just three blocks down – when it comes to telling the world its story, the public affairs department of the US Embassy in Pretoria is still about as good as it gets.

Which means the vision China’s leaders have for the next 20 years is still far from the reality in 2010. Most of the world’s innovation still comes out of the United States, which – despite China taking the mantle of the largest energy consumer earlier this year – is still the world’s largest economy. But while the Americans are not blinkered enough to think that they’re the only game in town, and while cooperation between the US and China is prodigious on a range of fronts, it’s perhaps on the military front that competition between the two giants will be most keenly felt in the decades ahead. As China seeks to refashion global norms and institutions (it was only last year that they suggested the world would be better off if the US dollar wasn’t the default currency) its armed forces, and in particular its navy, is blatantly challenging US hegemony. In April this year, notes Foreign Affairs, Chinese Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen bluntly stated that the country’s naval strategy had changed: “We are going from coastal defense to far sea defense… With the expansion of the country’s economic interests, the navy wants to better protect the country’s transportation routes and the safety of our major sea-lanes.” The statement was a shot across America’s bows, and the story of the century will be in how America reacts. DM

Read more: “The Game Changer,” in Foreign Affairs (subscription required), “China and the sleeping South African media,” in The Daily Maverick, “Analysis, Part I: Does Africa need China?” in The Daily Maverick, “Analysis, Part II: Why China needs Africa more,” in The Daily Maverick.

Disclosure: Kevin Bloom and Canadian journalist Richard Poplak have been commissioned by Jonathan Ball Publishers in South Africa and Portobello/Granta in the UK to write a book entitled Whiteout: The Chinese Advance and the Twilight of the European in Africa. They’ll be leaving on the first leg of the research trip in December.

Main photo: People pass by a billboard of a Chinese family in the financial district of Shanghai November 1, 2010. China launched a once-in-a-decade census on Monday in an exercise that will form a basis for policy-making in the world’s most populous country, but is likely to face resistance from residents wary of government officials. Six million officials will fan out across the country from the booming cities on the eastern coast to the remote mountains of restive Tibet as they try to visit some 400 million households over a 10-day period. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.


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