There is growing anxiety about the increased Chinese footprint in South Asia and Africa within the strategic community in the West and India. Chinese projects have raised concerns about the lack of transparency, sustainable development, and being politically motivated. This has led to pushback against the Asian giant.
Yet in many countries where political parties have swept to power on an anti-China card, these same parties in government have ended up signing new deals with Beijing. This can be seen in Sri Lanka where the regime change after the 2015 general elections did not see a full-fledged pro-India and anti-China swing.
The new government has continued engaging with China, not only by leasing out the Hambantota and Colombo ports but also signing a string of other projects. In April 2018, state-run China Railway Beijing Engineering Group Co Ltd received a contract to build 40,000 houses in Jaffna province. Although the project is stalled due to infrastructural issues and India has stepped in, Sri Lanka may consider China to help build the remaining housing projects.
A similar experience unfolded in Africa where countries that witnessed an anti-China wave ended up signing new deals with China. During Zambia’s 2011 elections, for example, presidential hopeful Michael Sata campaigned with warnings about China’s “profiteers”, which helped him to defeat then president Rupiah Banda. A few years later, China continues to be a lead financier of major infrastructural projects such as the building of roads and hydropower generation plants in Zambia.
There are several reasons for new governments to continue engaging with China.
First, Chinese projects are too attractive to refuse. Large-scale Chinese projects provide many opportunities, especially in infrastructure development. The Jaffna project in Sri Lanka was first given to a Chinese company since it offered to rebuild the damaged infrastructure at a lower price in a shorter time period than offered by other countries. The housing project was not exclusive. The new government has rewarded many projects to China ranging from new hospitals in Polonnaruwa to renovation of Superior Courts Complex to housing development for low-income groups.
Contrary to popular belief, many of these Chinese projects are given as grants instead of high-interest loans. Pakistan, under the new government of Imran Khan, said in October 2018 that it wants to renegotiate some of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects. There is scepticism about whether any of these projects will be successfully renegotiated and that new contracts will no longer be rewarded to China.
Second, China is viewed as a counterweight to other major powers in their respective regions. Western cultural hegemony in Africa through its education, mass media, culture, and ideology brings back bad memories of colonisation. There is now a strong resistance to the continuation of Western cultural imperialism. Similarly, India’s clout in the South Asian region through cultural hegemony, big brother attitude and interventionist policies have resulted in resentment and unhappiness in neighbouring countries.
The poor understanding of regional dynamics, concerns, and priorities has resulted in traditional powers losing their sphere of influence. These countries want to be seen as sovereign states with their own agency. Hence China is viewed as a balancer to the regional primacy by the West and India in Africa and South Asia respectively.
Third, despite China’s substantial progress in its domestic development, it is able to relate to developing countries. The West is perceived as too isolated to relate to the problems experienced in poorer nations, such as poverty, inequality, and corruption. As Jonathan Holslag argues, Beijing has worked closely with African nations to advocate a different set of political-economic values from the West. It has made their voices heard in the multilateral system.
Fourth, Chinese “soft power” has been a useful tool of diplomacy. Some have estimated that China spends around $10 billion a year towards its soft power campaign. There are over 30 Confucius Institutes in African alone where classes on Mandarin, calligraphy and Chinese cooking are taught. The Chinese government has also scholarship schemes for African students to study in China. Chinese soft power has been felt in South Asia as well. Beijing recently started giving visa on arrival for Bangladeshi nationals travelling to the country. China is also making a concerted effort on conflict resolution by having multiple rounds of talks with the Afghan Taliban.
Not everything is running Beijing’s way. The resentment against Chinese engagement in both South Asia and Africa is aplenty. There is general criticism that the Chinese do not employ domestic workers but bring thousands of workers from China. The locals who are hired have to work for long hours with poor working conditions and low wages. In other circumstances, China has been criticised for ignoring human rights abuses, rule of law and good governance in the countries it is dealing with such as Sudan and Congo.
As a result, attacks against Chinese workers by nationalists and terrorist groups do not come as a surprise. Yet despite the resentment and suspicion, new governments will continue to engage with China. These regions will continue to witness great power contestation. Chinese investments and projects may come with a precondition but even critics have to acknowledge that some of these projects have been beneficial to the host country.
China is well aware that it has the key to act as a balancer against regional domination by one power.
Roshni Kapur is a research analyst at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore where she specialises in conflict resolution, peacebuilding and transitional justice in Sri Lanka. This comment first appeared in Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter and can be assessed at https://bit.ly/2sp1xEi