China’s foreign presence is ambiguous, hard to adore, difficult to dislike wholeheartedly and all-pervasive: the diplomatic equivalent of tofu. Analysts say it is open to debate on its role abroad, far more so than on domestic policy. But on the other hand, China will deal with anyone, and pariah states are a gap in the market. Despite US concerns, China treats these countries as it wishes to be treated itself: be they corrupt, inept, or genocidal, it doesn't get involved. Put aside whether this is a recipe for a new Cold War — what does it mean for Bono?
Britain’s “development community” has been searching its soul recently. In particular it seems to have gone off aid. The idealistic, hippy talk of the redistribution of wealth is now passé as the penny drops that the billions given to Africa have only kept tinpot elites in power. “I think Africans must have been smiling and cringeing at times when they saw us just thinking that money could solve their problems,” said Bono earlier this year. “Aid is not a magic bullet,” says Duncan Green, Oxfam’s head of research. “The real drivers of change are internal.”
The new buzzword is governance. Growth will come only when accountable governments establish property rights and weed out corruption. Tricky though it is, the Department for International Development is now trying to encourage good governance, by cutting back aid to countries that persecute opposition leaders and supporters. The latest approach makes sense. But, sadly, the game is up: China makes it irrelevant. It is giving billions of dollars of loans to Angola, for example, with no strings attached in return for oil contracts. Raddled old kleptocrats such as President José Eduardo dos Santos can now raise two fingers to the West.
Unlike those wussies at the IMF and the World Bank, China doesn’t make aid conditional on respect for human rights. Privately, its leaders think that the West’s claim to the moral high ground is self-serving cant. Nor does China push a model of economic development — although its new friends are welcome to learn from Beijing. That’s a worry, too, as countries on a path to democracy may think again. After decades of following one faddish Western policy after another with little to show for it, whom would you trust on reform — China with its red-hot growth rate or creaky old Europe?...
Too late the US is realising what is slipping through its fingers. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations called for treating Africa strategically: “The United States should engage China on ‘rules of the road’ in Africa, to end support for egregious violators of human rights, reduce incentives for corruption, protect the environment, improve the long-term prospects for stability, and reduce unfair business practices.”
Sorry, but it is just not going to happen. Africa is not a road for foreign powers to drive on. For good or ill, its leaders can choose whose rules to follow. We can engage with China or try to pick a fight. But a world in which the West can single-handedly lay down democracy and good governance? That’s just hippy talk.