Travel to almost any African capital and even before you make it from the airport to downtown there is a very high likelihood you will pass a Chinese construction project along the way. From the new terminal at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobito the main road connecting Kinshasa’s N’Djili Airport to the city center, the Chinese construction boom is immediately evident.
Simply put, the magnitude of China’s construction drive in Africa is so vast that only the rapid industrialization of the Chinese economy itself and the U.S.-funded Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II can compare in scale.
All this construction is a central component of Beijing’s foreign policy agenda where it builds roads, dams, hospitals and other badly needed infrastructure in developing countries in exchange for vital natural resources. On the surface, this arrangement has all the hallmarks of pure mercantilism but to leave it at that overlooks critical subtleties that are now beginning to sway the balance of international influence across the continent.
In a recent article for the Asian affairs website “The Diplomat,” military affairs journalist David Axe details how Chinese construction projects are opening a new front in Beijing’s increasingly ambitious global soft power agenda. China, he writes, is simultaneously competing for influence with the established foreign powers in Africa while copying Western diplomatic tactics.
“Where the U.S. sends soldiers, the Chinese build roads. Their approach [to soft power diplomacy] could not be farther apart.” – Military Affairs Journalist, David Axe
Earlier this year, Axe spent two months in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where he covered a U.S. military joint training operation with the Congolese armed forces. To get from his hotel to the training grounds, Axe and the U.S. troops drove along Boulevard 30 Juin, Kinshasa’s main thoroughfare that was recently re-paved and widened by the Chinese. That road, Axe realized, had come to represent the stark differences in how Beijing is engaging with countries like the DRC and Washington’s growing reliance on its military:
“That China and the United States are in a race to gain sway over countries possessing vital natural resources, not only in Africa but across the developing world, is hardly news. But the scene in Kinshasa—US troops speeding down a Chinese-built road—underscores the differing strategies Washington and Beijing have tended to pursue. While it has fallen on the US military to lead the country’s forays into Congo and other mineral-rich nations, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, China has traditionally preferred underwriting infrastructure projects.”
In addition to the public perception benefits associated with building infrastructure in many of the world’s poorest countries, Beijing is also turning to its military forces as another tool in its soft power diplomacy kit, according to Axe. The deployment of Chinese naval forces off the coast of East Africa to take part in multi-national anti-piracy operations along with the launch of the new hospital ship “866″ are two recent examples that Axe highlights to demonstrate how the Peoples Liberation Army (and navy — the PLAN) are playing an important role to shape African perceptions of the Chinese.
While media outlets like Xinhua and CCTV along with educational organizations such as the Confucius Institutes have traditionally been the centerpiece of China’s public diplomacy initiatives in Africa, it appears that Beijing may have a much broader soft power agenda that also includes all of those roads and bridges as well.