Analysis of Two Diplomatic Parallels: China and America’s Rising Influence in Liberia

By: Josephus Moses Gray In Beijing, China /

Although much has been written and published wildly about the United States of America (USA) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) new competing interests in Africa over the last decade, generally attempting to reflect positively, and present a scholarly analysis of the two countries rising interests toward African’s governments and sovereign states on the continent, there is also enough in the broad narrative that is tendentious, and often hysterical and specious about the public perception of the world’s two rivals economic powers.

This analysis, which dipped into several international relations as relates the world’s two rivals economic powers’ rising interest in Africa is mainly focused on the two countries foreign aid assistance and investment in Liberia. It further discussed strategic importance nowadays China and U.S. attached to their relations with African states and governments.

This article similarly examines the positives and shortfalls of the world’s two rivals’ new diplomatic approaches towards Africa which many scholars argue are geared towards a win-win situation whilst others have different perspectives on China and USA new affection for African states and governments. By focusing on tangible factors as descriptive variables, the article aims to identify the underlying rationale of Beijing and Washington foreign policy and interest in Liberia and other African states. Considering my background, I tried to restrict myself from reaching definite conclusion as to which one of the two countries, USA or China, is most appreciated by Liberians, let the Liberian public make such determination.

This article is authored above personal feelings and emotion especially as one of the hundreds of Liberians that have been opportune to have profited from the governments of China and U.S. fellowships assistance to enroll at various highest academic institutions in both countries. I remained thankful to the two countries but very grateful to the government of France for greatly empowering me to enroll and complete my doctoral studies in International relations and foreign policy studies in Paris, France. As a courtesy, I respectfully joined the President of Liberia, His Excellency Mr. George Weah to reiterates how France situated at the button of my heart.

The United States is Liberia traditional partner while China is Liberia’s strategic partner, both have maintained dynamic diplomatic missions and visible in Liberia regarding a noticeable diplomatic presence apropos of effectiveness and productivity, yet, the perception and misperception of Liberians, foreign capitalists and political bureaucrats towards China and USA present a hysterical and erroneous contradictory interpretation. Diplomatically, China and the United States use tools of soft and hard powers in different ways to their benefits and with varying effects.

Many experts argue that China‘s :soft” policies of non-interference, one-China policy and no political attached strings‘ have resonated so strongly among African countries which have become so wearied of those sanctimonious clichés about democracy, human rights, and good governance being proposed by the United States and its western partners. World Meters (2016) discloses that scientists believe that Africa was the birthplace of mankind and by 100,000 BC modern humans lived by hunting and gathering with stone tools. From Africa they spread to Europe while about 3,200 BC writing was invented in Northeast Africa, in Egypt. Africa’s current population stands at 1,221,269,843 as of Tuesday, September 6, 2016, based on the latest United Nations’ estimates while Africa’s population is equivalent to 16.14% of the total world population.

Africa ranks number 2 among regions of the world ordered by population and the population density in Africa is 41 per Km2 (106 people per mi2). The total land area is 29,661,703 Km2 and the 39.8 % of the population is urban (488,296,186 people in 2016), while Africa holds the world’s youthful population with the median age is 19 years. Africa is very rich with natural resources such as fertile soil, enough rain and sunshine for cultivation, raw materials, oil, gold and many other major resources, but corruption and bad governances as well as lack ways of exploiting Africa’s resources.

Other experts highlight the competition between China and the United States for influence on the continent, as well as their differing approaches. “On the technical level, China views development and foreign aid as practical policy instruments to promote political friendship and economic cooperation, while the U.S. attaches clearly stated goals, stringent conditions, and strict criteria to its development programs (Brookings’ Sun, 2014).

China and Africa have since then become all-weather friends that understand, support and help each other. China has a major diplomatic presence in Africa. Even though it’s still arguable, In fact, according to research, Beijing is more widely represented in Africa with missions on the ground than is the United States. Beijing, which has diplomatic relations with Fifty-one continent’s fifty-three countries, maintains an embassy with an accredited ambassador in 48 of African states thus far, the most recent being South Sudan in 2011.

While the United States operates over forty diplomatic missions across Africa, below the embassy and diplomatic missions China operates around Africa. China maintains offices of a commercial counselor in 40 of those countries and seven consulates general in five of them. But Chinese investment in Africa overtaking Britain‘s and France‘s, and stood only behind that of the United States of America (USA) (Sautman and Yan, 2009). The African continent has now become a vital arena of strategic and geopolitical competition for not only the United States and China, but also for India, Russia, Great Britain, France and Japan as well as other new emerging powers. The main reason for this level of new love for Africa is that the continent is the final frontier as far as the world’s supplies of oil and energy are concerned with global competition for both oil and natural gas becoming just as intense.

The increasing presence of China in Africa has drawn a lot of controversy and strong criticism among some Western countries, which perceive Chinese foreign policy for Africa as a growing threat to their own interests. It is increasingly evident that Chinese economic involvement in several African countries has forced the traditional African partners, particularly Europe and the U.S., to reassess its strategic political cooperation with the continent. The Chinese government’s “soft power” global influence attained through diplomatic, economic, cultural, and other non-coercive means has grown along with its international standing. While in other parts of Africa, Chinese companies are muscling their way into countries by “under-cutting” western competition including the USA through its attractive “gifts” of development aid and “non-interference”.

On a general level, the growing profile of China in Africa reached a significant milestone in 2006, when 41 African Heads of State were hosted by the Chinese leadership to a Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a forum held in Beijing. Therefore, taking into account China’s influence on the continent, in recent years the U.S. has shown a growing interest in Africa in order to ensure access to energy resources, gain a Geo-strategic position and political influence in African countries, using several strategies and tactics to achieve its objectives.

Liberians Perceptions about China and USA

The Chinese government has captured the attention of many African countries including Liberia due primarily to Beijing’s reasonable approaches towards socio-economic and structure development, and the ways in which the Chinese government practices win-win diplomacy and is foreign aid’s policy. Beijing’s “win-win” diplomatic style has featured greater accommodations with several African countries like Liberia. Chinese government growing popularity Liberia is due to the soft power approach in the region and the speed of which it response to developmental requests by unpunished countries like Liberia.

There are mixed perceptions among state actors, political pundits, bureaucrats and western capitalists and journalists over the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States of America (USA) rising interests and foreign aid assistance toward African’s governments and sovereign states on the continent. Both Beijing and Washington’s aid assistances on the African continent have been growing rapidly, but one might ask: Which of the two, China and U.S. that outdoes the other vis-à-vis foreign aid assistance and investment in Africa especially the Republic of Liberia?

In order to address the answer, an extensive assessment was put into place to obtain the logical details consistent with observable distinctions and comparisons of world’s two adversaries’ economic powers investment and foreign aid in Liberia and its socio-economic and structure development impact in Liberia. Let me quote the words of ex- President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia: “Africa is not poor; it is poorly managed”. She made the statement in August 2009 during her interview with the BBC. But President Johnson-Sirleaf 2009 statement is appeared to have tainted her regime against the massive public outcry in Liberia of rampant corruption. Corruption in the former government was at all-time high, it is still on everyone’s lips in the country.

Corruption was the reason for the April 12, 1980 bloody coup of the late president William R. Tolbert’s government, followed by the public execution of the 13 high ranking public officials. The executions, many believe was a direct result for the 14-year bloodbath in the country which claimed over 250,000 lives and destroyed billion dollars’ worth of properties and also displaced quarter a million Liberians. Nowadays, China remains a shining and deeply admired posture in the realm of mutual respect for others to be master of their own destiny and captain of their own future. Indeed, that praiseworthy. For instance, during the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, China was the first to response with medical aid and cash.

Let me quote the words of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia: “Africa is not poor; it is poorly managed”. Conflicts and crises such as civil strife have affected governance in Africa as well as the establishment of sustainable growth performance. Although some countries have recovered from civil wars, good governance remains a challenge. This includes boosting national capacity to avoid crises in governance, maintaining good internal relationship and peace building, as well as reinforcement of issues regarding national security reducing and crime.

Whilst As the United States continues to debate the merits of aid to Liberia, China continue to fill a major gap in several areas of interventions. While it is too early to predict precisely whether Chinese long-term rendezvous in Liberia will produce a positive influence, the impact of China in the country is highly visible in several developmental areas including roads rehabilitations, constructions of bridges, hospitals, schools, sports stadium, agriculture facilities, and investments projects. All of these projects create opportunities for the current administration to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of the people.

The friendly relations and cooperation between China and Liberia enjoyed sound and all-round growth in 2013. The two countries had frequent political exchanges. In March, 2012, ex-Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf sent a congratulatory letter to Xi Jinping on his election as Chinese President. Notable progress was made in business ties as well as people-to people, cultural and military exchanges between the two countries.
In July 2011, the project of Bang Iron Mines in Liberia undertaken by Wuhan Iron and Steel (Group) Corporation was put into operation. In September 2011 China, for the first time, sent a 140-strong riot squad to Liberia for the UN peacekeeping operation. China’s relationship with Liberia is a strong example of how China is using soft power to successfully and deftly broaden its influence in Africa. China gains at least short-term popularity by answering the request of the Liberian government especially in time of urgent need and long term solution the country’s numerous infrastructural needs.
But let not forget that the United States of America has played and continues a pivotal role in Liberia’s body politics and leadership. Besides, the U.S. has been very supportive of Liberia both at the UN level and others international system as well as the physical intervention of former U.S. President George W. Bush to demand the departure of ex-Liberian president, Charles Taylor.
Although the U.S. might not gained such anticipated favoritism among Liberian poverty-stricken population due squarely to it “hard policy” for respect for constitutionalism and good governance as a blur-print for foreign aid assistance, the U.S. has a long diplomatic ties with Liberia and second, after Great Britain, to recognize Liberia independence in 1847. The U.S. has also supported lots of visible projects across Liberia including reform security sector, education and health system, academic institutions rehabilitation, support for the construction of bridges and rehabilitation of roads, rule of law, governances programs and human development.
But nowadays in Liberia, public perceptions and attitudes toward China are generally favorable compared to the U.S, its depends to whom you speak with. In the views of Liberians, China is not only a credible and willing international partner but also a strategic option for the country’s development. On the other hand, the Liberian market is relatively small in comparison to many African markets. Ordinary Liberians feel that Chinese-made commodities are not durable. There have been enthusiasms Liberians for goods made in the United States compared to that made in China. Liberian consumers, workers and small businesses are worried about the economy. The perceptions of Liberians toward Chinese made products are fewer enthusiasms.
President Charles Taylor switched ties to Taiwan Strait (Republic of China). Mr. Taylor too realized that ROC could help to boost his government development agenda. But the former regime of Charles Gyude Bryant once National Transitional Government of Liberia severed diplomatic ties with ROC and reestablished relationship with mainland China. Years back as a reflection, former Speaker of the House of Representative Edwin Snowe reportedly met covertly with the Taiwanese government officials in the Republic of Gambia. The Snowe‘s secret visit caused a forceful storm of disapprovals and negative reactions because many Liberians felt that Mr. Snowe’s his unilateral action undermined the ex-Johnson-Sirleaf’s administration recognition of one China policy.
China is happy to remain in Liberia as long as Taiwan is out, the former Chinese Ambassador to Liberia has said during my interaction with him in my previous capacity as Assistant Foreign Minister for Public Affairs and Diplomacy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Liberia. China sees a small window of opportunity to consolidate its influence and project its power. For example, Chinese companies have been working in the Liberia thus engaged into visible bilateral project including infrastructural construction of public buildings, health delivery and educational facilities across the country, telecommunications sector and is now about to complete the construction of Sixty Million United States Dollars Ministerial Complex and the New Terminal at RIA.
Besides, China is also undertaking several other millions dollars’ worth of projects in Liberia including the “Chinese Building” University of Liberia Fendall Campuses, the Jackson Doe’s Medical Hospital in Tapita in Nimba County, the installation of Traffic lights in Monrovia and its environs of Sinkor and Paynesville, the rehabilitations of the Samuel K. Doe Sports Complex, the Extension of MVTC, rehabilitations and refurbishing of roads and bridges, peacekeeping mission, warding fellowships to public and private sectors, and support to the national army and security apparatus.
Besides, the China win-win diplomacy and soft power in Liberia has given the Chinese leverage in the country. Today, some Liberian political and economic elites even believe that China is not only a credible and willing international partner but also a strategic option for growth in Liberia. America too is clearly concerned. Liberians must heed the lessons learned.
History has shown that whenever a rising power, like China, creates fear among its neighbors and other great powers, such as America, that can be a cause of conflict in direct reference to Newton’s third law is: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The statement means that in every interaction, there is a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. The size of the forces on the first object equals the size of the force on the second object.
In the words of He Jun, a Beijing-based energy consultant: China does not have a competitive edge over its Western counterparts in an open market. But in a closed market like Africa’s, Chinese companies are able to gain from government influence.”‘ Western oil companies, not to mention industry based in other sectors, have been able to build upon generations of engagement dating back to the colonial period to secure their investments in Africa. The result has been a Chinese strategy constructed around the following areas.

Sino-African trade and economic cooperation

The Chinese economic interests goes beyond Liberia, Angola, and Sudan to Africa’s major rich richer states such as Nigeria and Angola, thereby focusing on establishing stronger trading and economic ties with petroleum producing states by following a policy of mercantilism, while oil companies, which are under strict government control, seek to sign equity deals with oil companies and obtain a stake in the local oil industry.
In Nigeria, Sao Tome, South Sudan, Liberia, Principe, Angola and several African states along the west coast of Africa are the main hotspots for Chinese oil interest. Nigeria is second the biggest exporter of oil in the region, while Angola first after taking over Nigeria. For Angola, the state’s rejection of Western aid conditionality, paved the way for the acceptance of Chinese aid, and the takeover of an oil block hither-to allocated owned Total (upon its expiration) to a Chinese oil company. China’s top five African trading partners (Capital Week) are Angola, South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria, and Egypt. China has also pursued exploration and production deals in smaller, lower-visibility countries, like Gabon.
In 1949, the birth of new China opened up a new chapter in Sino-African relations. Since 1950s and 1960s, as more and more African countries won independence and established diplomatic relations with China, the Sino-African relationship was ushered into a new era of all-round development that is having great impacts on the lives of millions on both fronts; the presence of China in Africa’s development cannot be questioned, China is visible on the continued march as evident by the hundreds of projects undertaking or completed, while new agreements have been consolidated for an effective implementation. China’s robust economic growth in the past 30 years, which has lifted 600 million people out of extreme poverty, offers lessons for other regions, especially Africa. China has been consistently supporting African regional and sub-regional organizations like OAU, AU, SADC and ECOWAS, in efforts to safeguard regional peace and security.
Sino-African trade and economic cooperation has been advancing smoothly. For long, China has provided within its capacity sincere assistance to the economic development of African countries, Liberia is a case study where China’s infrastructures are visible. China has provided aid to hundreds of projects in Africa which involved agriculture, road, infrastructure, health, education, animal husbandry, fishery, textile, energy, water conservancy, power generation and other sectors. China’s vastly increased involvement in Africa over the past decade is one of the most significant recent developments in the region.
China’s Africa interest is part of a recently more active international strategy based on multi-polarity and non-intervention. Increased aid, debt cancellation, and a boom in Chinese-African trade, with a strategic Chinese focus on oil, have proven mutually advantageous for China and African state elites. By offering aid without preconditions, China has presented an attractive alternative to conditional Western aid, and gained valuable diplomatic support to defend its international interests. China has educational relationships with 50 African countries and keeps increasing her assistance on training and education to African countries. In 2005, China also hosted the Sino-African Education Minister Forum. In 2007, there are around 5,900 students from Africa studying in China, with most of them receiving scholarships provided by the Chinese government.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, Sino-African trade reached over $126.9 billion since 2010, while the trade volume between China and Africa rose 30 percent year-on-year during the first three quarters of 2011, signaling a new record high (China Daily, 2016). In 2014, Premier Li unveiled an extra funding package totaling at least $12 billion for Africa, extending credit lines by $10 billion and boosting the China-Africa Development Fund by $2 billion.
Meanwhile, both U.S. and China’s relations with Africa should adhere to the principles of good governance which include sincerity, inclusiveness, respect for the rule of law, practical results, affinity and good faith and uphold the values of friendship, justice and shared interests.
Let us not forget that China and U.S. on one hand and Africa “have always belonged to a community of shared values and fruitful future” and “have always been good friends who stand together through thick and thin, good partners who share weal and woe, and good brothers who fully trust each other despite changes in the international landscape.

About the Author: Josephus Moses Gbala-hinnih Gray is an Assistant Professor at the University of Liberia Graduate Studies Program. He is a native born Liberian, hails from the Southeastern village of Kayken Chiefdom in Barclayville, Grand Kru County. He is an author, professor, journalist, diplomat and scholar with a wealth of rich credentials including a doctorate in International Relations and Foreign Policy Studies from Paris, France. He has authored two books, published Two Graduate Theses and a 600-page Doctoral Dissertation on the theme: “Geopolitics of African Oil and Energy: China and America New Strategic Interests in Africa”. He has written extensively and published over 60 articles on variety of contemporary issues. He can be contacted at Email: graymoses@yahoo.com

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About Cholo Brooks 11616 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL) since 1986, and several other international organizations of journalists, and is currently contributing to the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation as Liberia Correspondent.