For the past few months I have been toying with the idea of returning to blogging, having (rather reluctantly) given up the enterprise some time ago. The thing with bloggers these day, I find, is that they do it constantly or not at all: it's either job-like or it's not. Falling the category of 'almost-but-not-quite-willing-to-dedicate-my-life-to-blogging' of bloggers, I relinquished the task, only to be confronted by an old Oxford tutor of mine the other day, who immediately prompted to enquire about my absence from the blog-o-sphere. Perhaps his words were merely intended as polite chit-chat, or perhaps he was indeed genuine in his desire to see my thoughts plastered all over the internet -- either way, here I am back; inspired and ready and willing to reengage in discussion with those of you out there.
My time away has been quite curious, divided as it was between fieldwork in Addis Ababa, holidays on the American east coast, and -- of course -- Oxford. My research has shifted slightly, away from the more economical and towards the more political. My time in the field has led me to the (perhaps anticlimactic) conclusion that China's economic competition in Africa can largely be understood in simple market economic terms (i.e. competition), and save for curious loopholes and investment advantages enjoyed by Chinese firms, the story more or less stops there. Where it begins is with the political and cultural/societal implications of China's engagement with Africa: not only for the African countries themselves, but for the region and international community more generally.
The NYTime's David Sanger had a perhaps slightly obvious though nevertheless worthwhile piece on "the three faces of China" which very much speaks to this issue. Sanger argues:
In one sense, there’s nothing surprising about a rising power finding subtle ways to handle complex problems. But before China’s breakout from poverty to arguably the world’s No. 2 economy, its default position on foreign policy was to restate the principle of non-interference in other nations’ affairs and focus largely on its neighborhood.
That was before it had the military resources and the incentive to start thinking of how to secure and defend interests around the globe. Today, its interests include access to oil in places like Sudan and Iran, safe shipping around the Horn of Africa, the ability to manipulate its currency for its own gain.
And for the first time, the world is seeing a distinct range of behaviors, from aggressive to passive-aggressive to diplomatic, in places that 20 years ago China’s leaders rarely thought about.
What American diplomats and analysts now have to figure out is what drives China’s actions and responses, how to try to shape them and, some would argue, what limits to try to set
Not only American diplomats, but indeed international leaders generally. Though the 'China threat' theory was perhaps a bit too overplayed, China's global political rise remains largely underplayed, presented as an event that may or may not occur at some point in the distant future. A balance must be found, preferably sooner rather than later.