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Congressional Research Service, "China's Foreign Policy and 'Soft Power' in South America, Asia, and Africa," April 15, 2008

This report, unlike most by CRS, was published by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

April 15, 2008

For other articles and documents on China-Africa relations, click here.

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China's "Soft Power": Overview and U.S. Policy Challenges

We begin this memo with several caveats about the limits on a decisive analysis of the extent and implications of China’s international ‘‘reach’’—its soft power, a phrase we define below. First, there is little consensus within the U.S. and global China-watching communities on China’s foreign policy goals or on what motivates and informs China’s decisions—either decisions made in general terms or with regard to specific regions or countries. Does China’s international engagement have a pragmatic, overarching strategy, or is it a series of marginally related tactical moves to seek normal economic and political advantages? Is Beijing interested in supplanting the United States as a global power or focused mainly on its own national development? Does the PRC feel strong and confident internationally or weak and uncertain? No one is sure.

Many have written on China’s foreign policy decision-making. Although China’s foreign policymaking has become more regularized in recent years, few claim to be certain about how China’s foreign policy decisions are made, about who makes them, or about what long-term goals Chinese policies seek to attain. Some profess certainty: however, they have not been able to demonstrate that their convictions lead to any sort of consistency in analyzing or predicting China’s foreign policy decisions. In the aftermath of incidents of Sino-U.S. tension or confrontation—such as the case in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance plane, or the case in 2007 when the PRC suddenly denied Hong Kong port visits to a series of U.S. ships—U.S. officials have remained largely in the dark about the PRC’s crisis management processes and about why and how PRC leaders reached their decisions. The number of unknown variables that still animate China’s foreign policy goals and decision-making processes is simply too great. There appears to be no ‘‘magic bullet’’ then—no individual or group with proven answers—that definitively can inform U.S. views or prepare U.S. government and congressional actors on how best to prepare for the challenge China could pose to U.S. global interests.

Relatedly, a study of PRC international influence is hampered by a lack of reliable data on Chinese foreign aid and by lack of transparency on whether and how the PRC makes and implements large, high-profile investment agreements. PRC assistance to other countries comes from multiple government agencies with little or no apparent oversight; it does not appear to be tracked or monitored by one single government entity. Many forms of PRC foreign assistance—loans, debt forgiveness, the building of large public facilities, and trade and investment agreements—do not meet the traditional definition of ‘‘development assistance,’’ which is how most of the world’s donor countries provide aid. Furthermore, PRC assistance is not provided in regularized annual allotments, but appears to follow a funding schedule determined by Beijing’s diplomatic priorities. Beijing reportedly also is reluctant officially to reveal the totals of its foreign assistance for a variety of reasons— including out of fear of domestic objection that Beijing is not spending its money at home rather than abroad.2 In sum, the extent of PRC foreign assistance to other countries cannot be determined accurately.

Finally, although U.S. Administrations for decades have pursued consistent engagement with China, periodic questions arise about whether the U.S. approach is based on a well-articulated and coherent strategy or is simply an approach of convenience that should be reassessed in the face of China’s rise. Outside the Administration, the U.S. policy debate continues to be characterized by the strident dynamics that arose in the mid-1990s, in which American hard-liners (self-described as the ‘‘Blue Team’’) are pitted against those advising cooperation and engagement with China (pejoratively labeled as the ‘‘Red Team’’ by the opposing group). Thus, there is little agreement about the degree of threat or challenge China poses to the United States.

In the vocal minority are those who view China as a growing military menace with malign intent. These hardliners have been perceived sometimes by others as agitators whose counsel to treat China as a major threat to U.S. interests is designed to justify huge U.S. military budgets and is more likely to bring about conflict with China than to deter it. The view that has been pursued more openly by U.S. Administrations is one that counsels cooperation and engagement with China as the best way to integrate China into the prevailing global system as a ‘‘responsible stakeholder’’— a nation that has ‘‘a responsibility to strengthen the international system that has enabled its success.’’ But opponents of this approach typically paint these as the views of ‘‘panda-huggers’’ who, seduced by the potential of the China market, are oblivious to PRC hostile intent, cave in to PRC wishes and demands unnecessarily, and thereby squander U.S. strategic leverage and compromise U.S. interests. The confrontational and highly-charged dynamic between these two polar views continues to make elusive the kind of pragmatic and reasoned policy discourse that could create greater American consensus on how the United States should position itself to meet the challenges China poses.


As requested, this study focuses on China’s ‘‘soft power’’ projection in the specified regions. The term ‘‘soft power’’ originally was conceived in 1990 by Harvard Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr.. Nye argued that the United States had reserves of power and influence that were separate from ‘‘hard power,’’ or military force projection. He expanded greatly on this concept in his book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics—partly, he said, from the frustration of watching ‘‘some policy makers ignore the importance of our soft power and make us all pay the price by unnecessarily squandering it.’’ 4 According to Nye, soft power is crucially important in today’s world politics and is significantly more than just the trappings of American culture:

"Soft power rests on the ability to shape the preferences of others . . . . [It] is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced. America has long had a great deal of soft power . . . ."

More broadly speaking, the components of soft power also are defined as including international trade, overseas investments, development assistance, diplomatic initiatives, cultural influence, humanitarian aid and disaster relief, education, and travel and tourism.Although American soft power remains formidable, by some of these measures it is seen to have declined in the 21 century. In absolute terms, some believe this perceived decline is the result of the United States’ own policies and actions. One former U.S. Government official speculates that although America has massive remaining reserves of soft power, they have become a ‘‘non-renewable resource’’ given current U.S. policies.6 Others point to multiple global survey results on international views of the United States, saying ‘‘the downward trend is unmistakable.’’  As Nye himself puts it:

"Anti-Americanism has increased in recent years and the United States’ soft power . . . is in decline as a result . . . . A Eurobarometer poll found that a majority of Europeans believes that Washington has hindered efforts to fight global poverty, protect the environment, and maintain peace. Such attitudes undercut soft power, reducing the ability of the United States to achieve its goals . . . . "

Others have attributed the perceived decline in American soft power as relative—largely a comparative decline based on the rise of other powers—in particular the rapid emergence of China as a U.S. ‘‘peer competitor’’ and a growing source of international influence, investment, and political and economic power. China is seen to be trying to project soft power by portraying its own system as an alternative model for economic development, one based on authoritarian governance and elite rule without the restrictions and demands that come with political liberalization. Furthermore, according to this view, ‘‘soft power’’ is ephemeral; the United States has recovered from loss of prestige and influence before (such as occurred with the Vietnam War), and it will again. China’s apparent soft power gains, then, should not be blown out of proportion.

It is clear that China’s foreign policy today has changed fundamentally in the years since Chairman Mao Zedong’s policy of ‘‘self-reliance’’ greatly constrained the country’s foreign contacts and when the country’s foreign policy goals centered on promoting Maoist revolutionary parties around the world. Under reform policies begun in 1978, China in the past 30 years has openly sought and received substantial foreign investment, technology, and expertise; has become an international export powerhouse; has expanded its membership and participation in international organizations; and increasingly has appeared willing to embrace many norms and rules of the global economic system of which the United States is the chief architect and dominant player. Since 2000 in particular, there has been a steady increase in the PRC’s courting of foreign governments, including high-level diplomatic exchanges, trade initiatives, investment agreements, and tourism and cultural  understandings.

Having progressed on a steady path in the last three decades on multiple global economic and political endeavors, China’s robust international engagement since 2000 has caught many by surprise and has prompted growing American disagreement and debate over PRC motivations and objectives. The fact that much of this international engagement has expanded while the United States has been preoccupied with its military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan
also is causing a growing degree of American introspection. Moreover, many fear that China’s growing international economic engagement is going hand-in-hand with expanding political influence. Although some believe that PRC officials appear more comfortable working with undemocratic or authoritarian governments, PRC outreach also has extended to key U.S. allies or to regions where U.S. dominance to date has been unparalleled and unquestioned, leading some to conclude that Beijing ultimately intends a direct challenge to U.S. global power.


Within the ongoing international debate about what China’s ultimate intentions may be for its growing global achievements, it is possible to point to some fundamental objectives that appear to be at least partial motivations for Beijing’s current international outreach.Adding to the uncertainty about PRC policies, these presumed objectives at times are in contradiction, suggesting either a lack of coherence or that they reflect internal Chinese disagreements and compromise. China’s policy direction is that much harder to predict when some of these key policy objectives are seen to clash, and experience tells us that abrupt shifts in policy, shifts which remain unexplained in many cases, still occur with a fair degree of regularity in the PRC system.

Enhancing Sustainable Economic Growth

Strong economic development continues to be seen as the core primary objective for the PRC leadership for a host of reasons—not the least of which are to raise the living standards of its enormous population, to dampen social disaffection about economic and other inequities, and to sustain regime legitimacy after the demise of communist ideology as an acceptable organizing principle. China’s annual economic growth rates routinely are in the double digits; in 2007, they reached an annual rate of 11.4 percent—the highest since 1994.9 This rapid and sustained economic growth has created voracious domestic appetites for resources, capital, and technology, as well as for markets for Chinese goods, and these appetites have served as powerful drivers of China’s international trade and investment

In energy sources alone, for example, China became a net importer in 1995—it became a net importer of oil in 1993—and its energy demands are expected to continue increasing at an annual rate of 4–5 percent through at least 2015, compared to an annual rate of about 1 percent in industrialized countries.10 China steadily and successfully has sought trade agreements, oil and gas contracts, scientific and technological cooperation, and de-facto multilateral security arrangements with countries both around its periphery and around the world. In all three of the regions discussed in this memo where China is most active, access to energy resources and raw commodities to fuel China’s domestic growth plays a dominant role in Beijing’s activities. China has oil and gas exploration contracts with Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba; oil contracts and pipeline deals are a major part of China’s activities in its relations with Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and China’s oil exploration interests extend to Burma, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Imports of crude oil constitute the bulk of China’s imports from African states.

In pursuit of sustainable economic development, China also is seen to have placed a priority in keeping stable and relatively tension- free relations with its primary export market, the United States. Some analysts suggest that this priority is behind Beijing’s decision in 2003 to tone down its anti-U.S. rhetoric and criticism and instead to emphasize China’s ‘‘peaceful rise’’ on the world stage. According to this view, Beijing calculates that even the appearance of a more overt pursuit of its regional and global interests could prompt the United States to strengthen its alliances and form other groupings to counterbalance and deter China’s international outreach. Such a development could fetter China’s economic growth.

Squeezing Taiwan’s International Space

In addition to economic and resource-related imperatives, China’s outreach into Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific incorporates the political dynamic of trying to separate Taiwan from its remaining diplomatic relationships. China claims that Taiwan is part of its sovereign territory, and for decades has tried to make acknowledgment of this ‘‘one China’’ policy a condition for receiving Chinese investment and assistance. All but one of Taiwan’s remaining 23 official relationships are in the three regions that are the focus of this memo. With China’s dynamic economic growth in recent decades, it effectively has been able to ‘‘outbid’’ Taiwan in courting a number of these governments. Taiwan lost four of its diplomatic relationships to this competition in the last three years, including the loss of official relations with Malawi on January 14, 2008.

The Taiwan factor is not uniformly significant in China’s relationships with the regions under discussion. While the Taiwan issue is important in China’s African relationships, it is not important in China’s relations with Central Asian countries, where Taiwan has no official diplomatic relations. It is a negligible factor in China’s relationships with Southeast Asian countries, where Taiwan has significant economic interests but again no diplomatic ties. And Taiwan is a very important factor—even perhaps the only one—in China’s courtship of the 6 tiny Pacific Island nations that still have official relations with Taiwan. But Taiwan-PRC competition looms large in China’s relationships in Latin America and the Caribbean. Not only is this where Taiwan maintains most of its remaining official diplomatic ties, but the region’s proximity to the U.S. mainland allows Taiwan’s president and senior leaders to ask for controversial but symbolically meaningful transit stops in the United States when making official visits to these western hemisphere countries. A  significant reduction, or even the disappearance, of Taiwan’s Latin America and Caribbean relationships greatly could impair this convenient Taiwan-U.S. connection.

On an entirely different level, Taiwan also is a potentially important factor in China’s activities with U.S. allies in Asia—Japan and Australia, especially, but also Korea and the Philippines. While all of these countries recognize the PRC and not Taiwan, as U.S. allies they potentially could become a factor in any U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. In 2005, for instance, the United States and Japan declared for the first time that Taiwan is a mutual security concern, implying a new Japanese willingness to confront China over Taiwan. It is in China’s interests, then, to use its diplomatic and economic activities to exert quiet pressure on these U.S. allies to stay out of any possible conflict over Taiwan.

Maneuvering against Taiwan—and ultimately ‘‘recovering’’ it— provides one of the key contradictions in China’s foreign policy objectives as it is an issue that appears to be able to trump other key policy goals. Chinese officials have said, for instance, that they will ‘‘pay any price’’ to prevent Taiwan independence, although this would jeopardize the otherwise key imperative of assuring strong economic growth, not to mention risking armed confrontation with the United States.

Table 1. Taiwan’s 23 Official Relationships*

Latin America and the Caribbean (12)
Belize, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras,
Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, St. Kitts and Nevis, St.
Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Africa (4)
Burkina Faso, Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, and Swaziland

The Pacific (6)
Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands,
and Tuvalu

Europe (1)
 The Vatican
* As of February 2008

Increasing Its International Stature and Competing With U.S. Supremacy

After decades of international isolation, PRC leaders are presumed also to place a high priority now on expanding and improving China’s global stature and influence and, where they can, on limiting or constraining the ability of the United States to interfere with or adversely affect PRC interests. Having come late to the global economic development party, China is seeking multiple international partnerships and groupings that make it, if not an indispensable player in the global system, then at least one whose interests must regularly be taken into account. Having embraced the international system, Beijing is seen to be maneuvering deftly for space and opportunities not already taken up by the United
States—opportunities where it can have greater freedom of action. Lacking a formal system of alliances like those of the United States, the PRC has devised numerous other frameworks. These include efforts to act:

Through Bilateral Initiatives. —On a bilateral basis throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa, PRC leaders have established Strategic Partnership Agreements, Friendship and Cooperative Partnership Agreements, Friendship Associations, and Free Trade Agreements, among other vehicles, to reinforce the notion that special economic relationships exist between China and the recipient countries. ‘‘Chinese Friendship Associations’’ abound all over the world, including with individual U.S. states. In 2004, PRC leaders created the ‘‘Confucius Institute’’—a non-profit program to teach Chinese language and promote Chinese culture around the world. Beijing opened its first Confucius Institute in Seoul, Korea, in November 2004; by the end of 2007, the PRC had 203 Confucius Institutes around the world, including 40 in the United States. China also has expanded the use of Approved Destination Status (ADS)—a bilateral tourism arrangement with other countries that facilitates Chinese tourism in groups.

Through Existing Multilateral Organizations.—In addition to bilateral initiatives, China increasingly has grown more active in international multilateral organizations that it formerly viewed with suspicion as U.S.-dominated institutions that would try to constrain and exploit PRC interests. China now participates more confidently in the United Nations, the World Bank, and other entities, even seeking to employ what one specialist calls a "Gulliver Strategy" that tires to tie down the United States giant in constraining international agreements. China also has successfully sought entry in one form or another to existing regional groupings in Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean. These include:

• Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, where China has been a full member since 1991 (the United States is also a member)

• ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)—established in 1994, where China is increasing its participation (the United States has been criticized in recent years when President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice skipped some ARF meetings, instead sending lower-level officials)

• Forum for East Asia and Latin American Cooperation (FOCALAE)—established in 2001, where China is a full member (the United States is not a member)

• Organization of American States (OAS)—where China was invited to be a permanent observer in 2004 (the United States is a full member)

Through New Multilateral Institutions.—Finally, China has sought to devise new multilateral organizations to support its own interests and expand its international influence. Beijing has not invited the United States to join these new institutions.

• East Asia Summit (EAS). In 2005, for instance, China took part in the first East Asia Summit (EAS), a fledgling grouping of 16 Asian and Pacific powers including China, the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand, but excluding the United States.17 Russia’s President Putin attended as an invited observer.

• Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With the Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia, China has pursued both economic and security arrangements
through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization another new organization founded in 2001 exclusive of U.S. participation. Within the SCO context, China has cooperated on border enforcement, signed pipeline and rail link agreements, and conducted joint military maneuvers.

• Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC). In 2000, China and African countries formed the China-Africa Cooperation Forum proposing that the FOCAC meet every three years to seek mutual economic development and cooperation. Representatives from 45 of Africa’s 55 countries attended the FOCAC’s first Ministerial Conference in October of that same year; the third FOCAC meeting was in Beijing in early November 2006. The United States is not a member of the FOCAC.


Whether one is reading press accounts and scholarly treatises or traveling through the regions under discussion, the PRC seems to be everywhere. It is tempting to begin to think in alarmist terms, thereby magnifying presumed PRC strengths as well as perceived U.S. weaknesses. Many concerned observers focus on the competitive strengths that PRC soft power has in relation to the United States, pointing out that the PRC international approach is particularly strong in areas where the U.S. political system and U.S. values make it less competitive. Some suggest that these PRC strengths have a brighter future in today’s global economy, meaning that China will have increasing economic and political soft power clout internationally at the expense of the United States. Still, a closer look at some of the PRC’s presumed assets suggests that they may have downsides as well.

No Strings

The recipient governments of PRC trade and investment are particularly attracted to the fact that Chinese money generally comes with none of the pesky human rights conditions, good governance requirements, approved-project restrictions, and environmental quality regulations that characterize U.S. and other Western government investments. With an authoritarian government that has few if any democratic imperatives, China has capitalized on its willingness to make such ‘‘unrestricted’’ international investments as part of its ‘‘win-win’’ international strategy. In response to the December 2006 military coup in Fiji, for instance, Beijing promised to continue its aid programs on the grounds that the coup was Fiji’s ‘‘internal’’ affair. (PRC leaders do not appear to define the recipient country’s adoption of the ‘‘one- China’’ policy as such a restriction.) China markets this capacity internationally as a key competitive advantage to Western capital— one that is both more efficient and less intrusive for the recipients. And the unrestricted nature of PRC investments resonates with many foreign governments. According to one African leader, for instance:

". . . I have found that a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months when we have dealt with Chinese authorities. I am a firm believer in good governance and the rule of law. But when bureaucracy and senseless red tape impede our ability to act—and when poverty persists while international functionaries drag their feet—African leaders have an obligation to opt for swifter solutions."

The World Bank and the U.S. and other Western governments may be able to increase the efficiency of their international investment processes and reduce attending red tape to compete with these PRC advantages. But Beijing’s willingness to make unrestricted investments while holding the recipients to no standards implicitly validates the policies of the recipient (and often authoritarian) governments. Such a ‘‘hands-off’’ approach could have negative longer-term implications for how the PRC is viewed within the countries in which it is investing. Over the longer term, then, China’s approach has potential negative consequences that could counterbalance any soft power advantages.

The Advantage of State-Owned Assets

The PRC also is thought to reap soft-power advantages by having much of its foreign investment carried out by its strong stateowned sector. These state corporations lack transparency, have deep pockets backed by government assets, and operate without the constraints that come with having to issue a corporate annual report. Unlike U.S. corporations investing overseas, who lack this close government patronage and in addition must answer to their shareholders, PRC state-owned companies have the luxury of beingable to take a longer-term, strategic view—one more closely integrated with national priorities—without having to demonstrate immediate profits. But again, there are negative consequences; there is a certain discipline in having to adhere to the bottom line. PRC state-owned companies, lacking this built-in discipline, sometimes are seen to have paid above-market prices for their oil and gas contracts and to have entered into unprofitable initial arrangements in order to improve bilateral relations and facilitate future contracts.


Even if its international outreach is entirely benign and centered on economic growth, the PRC’s potential to expand quickly to consumption and production levels comparable to those of the United States presents profound challenges to American and global interests. But more alarmist projections tend to minimize or overlook other limitations and complications that confront China’s overseas activities. Recognition of these and other limitations of PRC influence may help shape a more effective U.S. response.

Lack of Success

For one thing, PRC actions in a given country do not always lead to Beijing’s desired objective. Haiti in 2008 continues to have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, for instance, despite PRC efforts in 2005 to make severing Haiti’s relations with Taiwan a condition of Beijing’s support for renewing the U.N. peacekeeping mission there. In another example, the PRC’s efforts to extend its influence in Central Asia through formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization did not prevent individual SCO member countries from hosting U.S. military forces after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Moreover, PRC foreign policy success in sometimes constrained by the fact that the countries Beijing is courting have other, more complex foreign policy interests. According to one study of U.N. voting records, for example, a country’s increased dependence on trade with China does not appear to affect its willingness to vote against PRC interests in the United Nations.

The Narrow Base of PRC Achievements

In general, China’s new ‘‘win-win’’ approach to international interactions is based on a self-interested approach that focuses only on those issues on which all sides supposedly can agree. Easy things are taken care of first, while inconvenient and difficult things are postponed, possibly indefinitely. Racking up trade and investment agreements in this way, while creating symbolically significant headlines, nevertheless leaves a lack of depth in China’s overall relationships. Moreover, as already mentioned, China’s lamentable lack of transparency raises consistent doubts about whether the levels of aid and investment triumphantly announced are the levels of aid and investment actually provided.

To cite only one example, China initially reported that it pledged $63 million in assistance to Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, a figure dwarfed by the $405 million pledged by the United States. A later article in a PRC publication, however, put the actual amount of PRC Indonesian assistance at $22.6 million. PRC foreign policy achievements will be  constrained if Beijing continues to shortchange its intended recipient governments in this way. U.S. observers need to be cautious, then, about the initial headlines of PRCinvolvement and more mindful of the degree of follow-through.

Moreover, a ‘‘win-win’’ strategy is a slender reed for maximizing comprehensive soft power. The soft power potential that the PRC can hope to gain from such a strategy pales next to the national capacity and willingness of the United States to take on costly and forlorn global tasks such as international disaster aid—to demonstrate a willingness, in the words of Tony Blair, ‘‘to be the recipient of every demand, to be called upon in every crisis, to be expected always and everywhere to do what needs to be done.’’ Nothing in Beijing’s current soft power approach suggests it is willing to embrace such altruism.

Foreign entanglements also could raise political problems at home for PRC policymakers. The increasing availability of Internet and cell phone use assures that growing numbers of Chinese citizens have more access to information, including information about China’s international activities. Confirmation that China is investing millions of dollars in overseas projects, while at home unemployment soars and infrastructure development lags, may prove objectionable to the hundreds of millions of PRC citizens still living below the poverty line—much the way many Americans sometimes react to U.S. overseas investment.

The ‘‘Private Sector’’ Calculation 

le U.S. international public diplomacy programs. But comparing only government-directed and funded activities overlooks the huge advantage the United States has in the extent of its substantial global private-sector presence. In addition to U.S. business interests, American products, schools, newspapers, journals, banks, movies, TV programs, novels, rock stars, medical institutions, politicians, Chambers of Commerce, state governments, culture, religious groups, ideas, NGOs, and other American institutions and values are liberally scattered over the global map. While this U.S. presence is diverse, uncoordinated, not centrally directed, and at times triggers anti-American feelings, it nevertheless leaves a substantial global footprint.


Certainly a case can be made for considering the motivations behind the PRC’s international activities to be what Beijing claims them to be—a country’s natural and legitimate pursuit of peaceful global opportunities for economic growth. Moreover, PRC interests appear to have benefited more substantially by operating within the current global system, of which the United States is the chief architect, than by challenging it. The United States would be served, then, by encouraging China’s further integration into the global system. Even so, it is clear that China’s growing international muscle, even if natural and benign, by definition increasingly must compete with and even limit U.S. freedom to pursue American global interests relatively unencumbered.

But it also is possible to support skepticism concerning the ‘‘benign rise’’ notion by pointing to historical examples in the 19th and 20th centuries of confrontation and outright warfare between reigning powers such as the United States and rising powers such as the PRC. Through this more skeptical lens, the PRC presence in Latin America and the Caribbean has particularly worrisome implications. It could help strengthen anti-democratic and anti-U.S. political leaders and actors in some countries; moreover, in the event of a possible U.S. military conflict with China, PRC human and commercial infrastructure in Latin America would be well placed to disrupt and distract the United States in the  hemisphere and to collect intelligence data against U.S. forces operating in the region.

Whichever of the above policy directions the PRC is traveling and whatever its ultimate intentions, its international engagement and growing economic clout pose demanding challenges and questions for U.S. policymakers. Some of these include:

• How will the United States deal with increasing competition by China for leverage and influence, not only in terms of new economic and political international relationships, but for current U.S. relationships with allies and other countries where U.S. influence to date has been dominant?

• How can the United States hedge against possible PRC hegemonic ambitions in Asia without creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

• How detrimental is PRC ‘‘unrestricted’’ investment and assistance for U.S. efforts to promote good governance around the world and to limit corruption? How detrimental are the PRC’s perceived advantages to the ability of U.S. companies to compete for international business, and what policies and agreements should the United States put in place to mitigate these effects?

• What are the implications for U.S. global objectives and for institutions that are seen to espouse Western values, such as the IMF and the World Bank, if the PRC increasingly begins to compete directly as an international lender offering less encumbered assistance?

• As the PRC increasingly expands its ‘‘hard power’’ assets— naval and military power—to protect its growing international interests, how much greater are the prospects for Sino-U.S. military confrontation, either deliberate or accidental, and how should the U.S. prepare for and deal with these prospects?

• What policies should the United States adopt to prepare for increasingly robust U.S.-China competition for energy resources, international commodities, and space exploration?

• What will it mean for the United States and U.S. interests should Taiwan lose its remaining diplomatic relationships around the world? Should the United States seek to play a more active role in seeking to improve Taiwan’s international position—perhaps by reassessing current U.S. policy toward Taiwan in light of China’s rise?

• How should the United States respond, if at all, to any global perceptions of U.S. disengagement around the world?


Should U.S. policymakers decide that the status quo is sufficient protection for U.S. interests, then little if any action need be taken. The status quo presumes that U.S. soft power, complex and multifaceted as it is, will be dominant globally far into the future and sufficiently resilient to weather temporary ups and downs; that the capacity for PRC global soft power will remain limited, both by Beijing’s own policy predilections and by other countries’ self-interests; and that the PRC will remain too pre-occupied with resolving its own significant domestic economic inequities, infrastructure problems, political  transformation pressures, and social instabilities to focus significant effort on its global presence.

Should U.S. policymakers decide that the PRC’s invigorated activities around the world require a U.S. response to offset or better compete with China, there are innumerable policy options that might be considered, in both the ‘‘hardline’’ and ‘‘stakeholder’’ categories.

Each of these possibilities involves policy trade-offs. These, discussed in more complete detail throughout this memo, are briefly summarized below. They include:

• Reinvigorate U.S. engagement around the world to counter PRC soft power, including the expansion of U.S. public diplomacy. In Asia, this could include active participation in building the emerging economic and political/security architecture of the region. In Africa, it could include increased and more efficient U.S. bilateral cooperation, trade, and military relations, including the prospect of directly involving the PRC and African governments in bilateral and multilateral dialogue with the aim of defining goals, issues, and agendas of mutual interest. U.S. policymakers also could work to achieve greater efficiency and to cut red tape in U.S. and multilateral institution assistance and investment in the regions.

• Seek to counter PRC efforts to isolate Taiwan by making support for Taiwan’s greater international participation a condition of U.S. assistance and economic interaction with other countries.

• Seek observer status within the SCO and the EAS, and urge China and African countries to create an observational status within the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, enabling the United States and other countries to learn about the policy priorities of these groups and to participate in consultations on time-sensitive, urgent challenges in these regions, including armed conflicts, humanitarian crises, and security threats to Chinese and U.S. businesses.

• Urge China to support an equitable, rule-based global legal and business environment and help to develop the rule of law in the regions in which it is investing by signing up to publicprivate sector good governance initiative and agreements.

• Maintain and publicize an accurate calculus of actual PRC assistance and investment that is delivered, as opposed to that which is merely announced.

• Encourage China to join in multilateral and country-level donor foreign assistance dialogues and related efforts to prioritize key goals related to African development and coordinate aid efforts in order to create synergies, avoid duplication, and maximize each donor’s strengths—including infrastructure construction in the case of China.

• Offer to work collaboratively with China to help it to design, coordinate, and increase the efficiency of its nascent institutional foreign aid structure, including with respect to more clearly differentiating its official grant-based aid from its subsidization of trade and commerce credit; monitoring the effectiveness of its aid strategies; harmonizing aid reporting with other donor governments; and developing best practices in support of transparency and accountability.

• Focus on an assertive U.S. role in solving regional problems, including health care to address HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; providing drugs, and building clinics;  alternative energy sources; improvements in agricultural development capacities and providing increased education and human resource training.

• Emphasize cooperation among Russia, China, the EU, and other outside powers in assisting fragile states to develop their independence and security.

• Work harder to ensure that U.S. democratization and human rights values are not seen by other countries as encumbrances and prohibitions placed in the way of, but instead as things
that ultimately will improve, their economic progress.

• Re-think the current U.S. ‘‘gold standard’’ in regional and bilateral Free Trade Agreements, especially when such a standard requires substantial changes in domestic laws.

• Reinvigorate the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) as a vehicle for U.S. soft power influence in Asia.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.

Other articles and documents on China-Africa relations:

China-Africa Trade Cooperation | The Dragon's Gift-China in Africa | China’s Foreign Aid Activities in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia | China in Africa: Implications for U.S. Policy | China's Foreign Policy and 'Soft Power' in South America, Asia, and Africa | China-Africa Relations and the Global Village | Globalization, Water and Health: Resource Management in Times of Scarcity | Annenberg Dean Speaks on China-Africa Relations | Joint Communiqué Between China and South Africa | Consolidating China-Africa Traditional Friendship | The African American Encounter with Japan and China: Black Internationalism in Asia |