Conflict

When the US bows out of nation-building, China steps in

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Yiwu warehouse

Ali at the warehouse in Yiwu inspecting a box for export.

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Photo by Jocelyn Ford.

China is increasingly the go-to country for fragile states seeking economic assistance. 

Unlike Western nations, China rarely shuns, or attaches demands for reform, when engaging with states with weak or failing governments.

Syria is a case in point.

During the seven-year conflict, China has frequently joined Russia in voting down United Nations resolutions against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last year, the head of the China-Arab Exchange Association, Qin Yong, led what he says is the first business delegation to visit the war-torn nation to survey reconstruction opportunities. He also helped organize the Syria Reconstruction Project Symposium in Beijing, attended by about 1,000 Chinese companies. 

Syria's ambassador in Beijing, Imad Moustapha, says his country is looking to China not only for reconstruction, but also as a role model for economic development.

"Syria does look to China as a model that can be emulated," said Moustapha, noting he's issued hundreds of visas to Chinese businesses. 

"It has been a model of the state playing the role of an enterpreneur, helping certain sectors in the economy and industry to develop in which they also take care of the more vulnerable classes."

China's model is at odds with the democratic, free market prescription promoted by the United States.

"U.S. Administrations often force other countries to conduct democratic elections before these countries have established basic order, which results in chaos in the countries," Gao Shangtao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University's Institute for International Relations, wrote in an email.

Pointing to Afghanistan and Iraq, he said China does not support this approach. "China advocates first establishing basic order via consultations among various factions, and then having them commit to economic development. Many problems may disappear with the healthy economic development." 

Though there is debate about exactly how to define China's development model, and whether other societies can emulate it, there is broad consensus about what the model does not include: Namely, a specific form of government nor safeguarding human rights.

Tang Xiaoyang, an associate professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said China's approach to development clashes with the so-called Washington Consensus guidelines, which promote policies like privatizing state companies, and reducing barriers to trade.

"This principle ... cannot be simply replicated or transferred to other societies," said Tang.

"It may be true for the US or Western Europe. But if you apply it to developing countries, you find a lot of problems," he said.

Tang said aid donors in democratic countries place a bigger priority on building institutions that will govern responsibly. China's priority is to use whatever means possible to get the economy up and running, regardless of the health or type of governing institutions.

Commercial loans and infrastructure projects play an important role, said Tang. "Conflict often is caused by poverty. But if we engage with them, we try to do some business, the direction of that country might be changed."

Efem Ubi of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs says the development practices of major international development institutions from democratic nations often have not yielded the desired results.

"They are focused on corruption and human rights. Has it actually helped Africa develop? Has it actually (reduced) corruption?" Ubi said.

Corruption or human rights abuses in Africa, said Ubi, are caused by Africans.

"I think Africa should sit up and try to remedy such situations and try to remedy themselves," while trying to make the most of what China has to offer in terms of infrastructure and commerce. 

The starting point for commerce could be the tens of thousands of small traders who China welcomes each year. They come to buy cheap goods to export back home. 

Many flock to the city of Yiwu, 200 miles southwest of Shanghai, which claims to be the world's largest wholesale market for light manufactured goods. The 75,000 wholesale shops offer items like broom brushes, door knobs and even Muslim clothing and books in Arabic for Islamic schools.

An estimated 4,000 foreign residents in Yiwu are from fragile and war-torn countries like Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Many play a bit role in growing the economy back home.

Among them is Modathair Ali, from Sudan.

Ali arrived in China 12 years ago as a fresh college graduate, at a time when there was conflict raging in Darfur. After several years of trading, he launched a shipping company, Eversource, which sends goods to customers worldwide.

His thriving company now employs over 70 Chinese.

China, is good to people like him, he said. Unlike the United States, it's easy to get a visa.

"Sudanese, they like China, you know? Because they come easy, go easy, do business easy, not like America."

But Ali questioned the billions of dollars of loans China has given to the corrupt government of Sudan.

The Sudanese government turned to Beijing after Washington imposed sanctions on Sudan 20 years ago in the wake of human rights abuses and the government's links to terrorism.

Today, China is Sudan's leading economic partner, and it controls a big part of Sudan's oil industry.
 
But the billions of dollars from China don't reach the neediest, Ali said. He pulled up a picture on his phone of the tiny schoolbuilding in his village. It looks more like an abandoned shack.

"The government [doesn't] care. [We] don't have the hospital," said Ali. There are no chairs in the bare classroom.

Ali said there is no road to his village and villagers are paying to drill their own well.  

According to the anti-corruption advocacy group Transparency International, Sudan ranks among the world's five most corrupt nations. Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, is the first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

"The government minister take the money, not do anything," said Ali. 

China is frequently criticized for its willingness to engage with rogue regimes in return for natural resources, as well as for extending loans that bury poor countries in debt they can't repay.

A recent example is Venezuela, which is currently in the midst of political turmoil and its worst economic crisis in modern times, despite China's loan of more than $60 billion in return for oil. 

Matthew Ferchen, an American who runs a program on China and the developing world for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, says China has compounded Venzuela's problems by adding to its already enormous debt.

"China has claimed for a very long time that its engagement with Venezuela underpins development," said Ferchen. "But Venezuela is in a freefall economically, politically and socially."

Ferchen is concerned China, the world's second largest aid donor following the US, is not learning from past mistakes.

"In the case of Venezuela right now China has its head in the sand. It is unwilling to acknowledge that any problem exists," said Ferchen. "And if you don't acknowledge that a problem exists you can't really respond to it."

Ferchen urges more discussion among Chinese and US experts about how to find common solutions to problems that have bedeviled both countries' efforts to support development in fragile states.

There are signs China is preparing to become more systematic and strategic with its development aid in order to support its global agenda.

Last summer, Chinese President Xi Jinping opened a new development think tank, the China Center for International Knowledge on Development. 

This year, Beijing announced it's forming a new International Development Cooperation Agency.

Xie Yanmei, a former senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group, says the goal is to put Chinese foreign aid to work for great power diplomacy.

"There will be an agenda attached," said Xie. "There will be more strategic using of Chinese foreign aid. "

China may also edge further away from it's longstanding policy of not getting involved in local conflicts, namely nonintervention and non-interference.

Beijing is sending more troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa, and last year China's navy opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa.

Ubi, who has published widely on China, Africa and security, hopes China will eventually play a more active role in conflict resolution.

"You know, you cannot just go do business as usual, make money, get resources, without intervening and trying to make sure that this country's living in peace," said Ubi.

He added though China often says there cannot be peace without development, the opposite is also true. There cannot be development without peace. 

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