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Can Aid Change The World?

Jari Claasse

The highly anticipated announcement of Xi's third term as head of the CCP and the strengthening of his authoritarian rule over China at the 20th Party Congress last October granted Xi the sovereign power he deems necessary to fulfil the ‘Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation.’ Gone is the period of Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy philosophy of hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time’. Xi reiterated his mantra that now was a historical opportunity to materialise China’s – irreversible - rise as its ‘international influence, appeal and power to shape [the global governance system] have risen markedly.’

Photo: Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the party congress. JU PENG/AP

Facing the consequences of China’s growing global clout is important. After all, the current Western-led liberal international order is not a God-given fact, but man-made. China's continued expansion of power and influence across all domains of international politics have raised threat perceptions around the (Western) world. President Biden, in the latest U.S. National Security Strategy,  even stated that our world is at an inflection point’ and focussed on China as it ‘harbour[s] the intention and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order.’

China’s accumulation of power and capabilities is already much debated and projected to surpass that of the U.S., the current hegemon. However, as Kupchan stated ‘understanding and managing international change requires examining not just shifts in material power, but also the associated contest among competing norms of order.’ The fabric of global politics is as much social as it is material. This means that the international order is not only shaped by those with the most (material) power, but also by the distribution of ideas, identities, norms and ideology among the international community. Therefore, the future of the international order depends on both; the forthcoming distribution of (material/hard) power as well as dominant ideologies, values and beliefs.

China has growing international stakes, capabilities and power that enable it to look for ways to (re)shape the rules and institutions of the global order to suit its purposes. With it, China is, according to Ikenberry and Lim, ‘following in the footsteps of rising great powers of the past. Great powers rise up and contest the terms of international order.’ History has shown that as a great power rises, it will as a matter of course try to push outward the norms that create order within its own polity to its expanding spheres of influence.

At the very least, Breslin argued that ‘China is engaged in an attempt to block the dominance of Western discourses and thinking by taking the lead in providing a discourse on international affairs, as an alternative to a ‘Western’ discourse.’ China is pushing for the multi-polarization and ‘democratization’ of international relations. To democratise international affairs means that it is boosting greater political and cultural diversity and equality in international affairs, which effectively implies countering the dominance of liberal norms and promoting alternatives (in particular authoritarianism). As such, there can be no doubt that a global shift in power toward the East will have profound effects on the world.

In my thesis, I therefore scrutinised the (potential) normative change brought about by China’s ascendancy. Specifically, I investigated how development finance and aid is a foreign policy tool for China to influence norms, values and beliefs in Africa. I focused on the African continent because of its aid dependency but also because of Africa's growing importance in the global (political) arena.

Development finance and aid have become an explicit instrument for pursuing China’s national interest, but also have the potential to diffuse norms and values across recipient countries. In fact, ‘foreign aid programs have been the major vehicle of China’s normative diffusion’ according to Zhongzhou Peng. China’s growing clout as development finance and aid provider together with its distinct ‘no-strings attached’ approach have generated controversy and criticism in the West. Beijing does not abide by the Western development regime and instead bases its development model, policies and assistance on different principles, rooted in (neo-)Confucian and post-colonial thinking. The predominant Western narrative highlights that China’s engagement with many African countries will undermine democratic accountability, erode liberal structures and entrench authoritarianism. However, empirical information on China’s official financial transfers have been shrouded in obscurity for a long time, making it impossible to statistically test these ‘accusations’.

Figure 1: Based on estimates of AidData, Beijing is outspending Washington on a more than two-to-one basis on a global scale. Source: Malik, et al. (2021).

Official Development Assistance (ODA) are activities provided on highly concessional terms (with a minimum grant element of 25 percent) and with development intent. Activities defined as Other Official Flows (OOF) are provided on less concessional terms (with a grant element below 25 percent) and/or activities without development intent. The sum of ODA and OOF is referred to as Overseas Development Finance (ODF).

The official figures on Chinese development finance and aid are unreported or ‘hidden’ as China considers this to be a state secret. For the purpose of my study, I relied on secondary datasets for estimates on China's provision of development finance and aid, public opinion on (preferred) style of governance and the status of liberal structures in African countries.

The findings of my quantitative analysis confirm that Chinese development finance and aid have a negative effect on liberal ideals and convictions, associated with the Western international order. The level of democracy, the degree of civil liberties and individual rights in recipient African countries are negatively influenced by Chinese development finance and aid. In addition, public opinion becomes more positive towards authoritarian rule and control over society, when a country receives more development finance and aid from China. This could indicate that China is effectively employing its financial instruments to ideologically steer Africa away from the liberal West towards the East. My study’s findings echo Breslin's in that ‘it might be rather cynical to suggest that a [political] culture is more attractive when it is accompanied by money—but maybe not totally incorrect.’

I identified three different but interrelated mechanisms underlying the impact of Chinse development finance and aid on the African continent, namely the (1) unconditionality, (2) undermining effect, and (3) the appeal of the donor. The mere reason that Chinese engagement is unconditional, makes it likely to have negative effects on democracy and Western standard of ‘good governance’ as a result of the inherent fungible character of aid. Also, China’s sheer presence undermines the direct leverage and diminishes the systemic influence of Western donors to induce ‘liberal’ reforms. Furthermore, recipient countries opting for the Chinese financial support, except for its generosity or favourable terms, could signal a rejection of the Western -liberal- political structures and values. Meanwhile, the growing support for China’s understanding of foreign aid, sovereignty, development and ‘good governance’ illustrates China's appeal in the African region. In this way, China is basically facilitating its own development model, based on state-directed capitalism and authoritarian political control, via development finance and aid.

Finally, African countries turning to China could be indicative of changing international norms and coalitions, posing a challenge to the established Western-based liberal international order.

Cartoon: https://es.toonpool.com/cartoons/Africa%20and%20the%20World_324985