Presidents Chirac, Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are all going to retire soon, creating a power vacuum in the world stage. The question is, will their successors be guaranteed positions as world leaders? The United States, in particular, has lost the respect of the world community through its misguided unilateral actions, and the next president could bear the brunt of it. American columnists have already begun to apologise on America’s behalf. After the World Economic Forum at Davos, Fareed Zakaria pointed out that it appeared as if other countries were beginning to move beyond the United States, but at the same time warned that the world economy does need a ‘leader’ to manage it. David Brooks, in The New York Times, made the case that despite failures in Iraq; the US will continue to remain a world leader.
But there are other moves being made around the globe, most especially China’s heavy investments in Africa which are worth keeping track of. China is treating Africa as a business investment – the money that is going into the continent does not come with political strings attached. For the Africans, many of whom feel that the West has closed its doors to it, this is a relief. The International Herald Leader worked with the Global Issues Research Agency of the Xinhua News Agency for research into African perceptions towards China. One of the more interesting findings was that Africa believes that China upholds justice – it respects small countries and does not impose on them or interfere in their domestic affairs. This is significant because it directly contrasts the money that comes in from Western countries, and also the IMF and World Bank, who actively interfere in the country on the promise of better government and health, and are yet to deliver.
In effect, what we see in Africa is the ‘alternate’ model of development. Looking at other countries simply as a market opportunity and not interfering in domestic matters. If Chinese investment in Africa continues along this path, then Africa will acquire the tools to pull itself out of its chronic poverty. So the next step would be for Beijing to transfer technology and skills along with money, and for Africans to start owning significant shares of Chinese funded projects. (As the Chinese proverb goes: ‘It is better to learn to fish rather than be given fish’.)
The US needs to take stock of what is going on and enter the game as a competitor, with the same rules. For example, in the case of Sudan, China has largely stayed out of human rights issues and only treated the country as a source of petroleum. In contrast, the United States has regarded Sudan mainly as an Islamic government with gross humanitarian abuses.
Another interesting aspect of this development model is the Arabic world’s reaction to these developments. Unlike the dominant opinion about the hypocrisy of the West who ultimately put their own interests first, China has been viewed with less suspicion. Mohammed Lattif, an official in the Asia Division of the Egypt Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “The Arabic world did not regard China as the threat to the world, instead, we take it as an important force to help the world have peace and stabilization. China balances the international power.”
It has already been pointed out in the US that because of its pre-occupation with the Middle East, it has lost out on investment potentials in Asia – a gap that China is all too happy to fill. The Heritage Foundation, a US think-tank, has already worked out a responsive strategy, so that the US does not lose its status as world leader to China. The strategy involves the promotion of human rights, democracy and governance, but at the same time, aims to develop energy resources in Africa and also work in partnership with new allies, such as Latin America.
The quiet re-positioning of China and the US also brings forth the question of the importance of democracy. China is communist. The West does not understand its end game in Africa. But at the same time, despite being a democracy, the actions of the US have not been perceived favourably in the Middle East, Africa, South America and so on. It appears that the economic model of development, without a moralistic lecture and pre conditions attached, is gaining ground. Democracy clearly does not have the same value everywhere, and in the end economics seems to win. If the US wants to maintain its position as world leader, it will have to keep up with China and allow countries to run their own course domestically. The invisible hand will have to stay strictly economic.
Chinese realism is a direct contrast to American idealism. The current trend might well be indicating that the form of government is not important, only respect as a business partner. It is not necessary to have a democratic government to have a vibrant market. Unless the US follows suit, it might well be overtaken by China in the race for world leader.