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Forecasting Xi's Third-Term Diplomacy

The U.S. must take note of the CCP’s tangible investment in developing nations as part of a grand strategy.

President Xi Jinping Meets Foreign Leaders
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People on September 2, 2018 in Beijing. (Andy Wong - Pool/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the Chinese Communist Party began its quinquennial party congress, at which it will certainly and unanimously reelect Xi Jinping as Secretary-General of the party and so pave the way for him to serve a third term as China’s president. Xi has set out to reclaim what he sees as China’s lost preeminence in East Asia and leadership in the world. Thus, Xi has raised the stakes for both his leadership and his foreign policy.

To eclipse the United States, China must build up its military forces, not only for conventional but also for hybrid warfare, develop cutting-edge technologies, and shore up its alliances with other states. Based on Xi’s previous moves, he will seek to do all this through economic means. This means crowding rivals out of foreign markets and increasing the dependence of other nations on China’s manufacturing capacity and consumer market.

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China’s draconian Covid policies and its cozying up to Russia, however, have calcified its image as a heavy-handed, opportunistic, and exploitative power. This reputation threatens to undermine its diplomatic endeavors, meaning that Xi risks overpromising at home and overreaching abroad. The United States must learn how to read the tea leaves of these overextensions and take advantage of them to safeguard its interests around the world.

Under Xi’s leadership, China has perfected a diplomatic playbook that involves building rapport with other countries by bashing American leadership, promising to share the secrets of its post-2001 economic miracle, dangling a flashy investment or two as a gesture of goodwill, and finally signing an exclusive trade agreement or cultivating deep relationships with influential figures in the target country. This approach is effective because it plays upon some powerful psychological levers: inculcating paranoia, presenting China as the only entity capable of making things right, and capitalizing on humiliations to firm up commitment to the (anti-American) cause.

Watching Xi’s diplomatic blitz over the last few months, I realized I had seen the same process up close back in 2019, when I had the good fortune to study abroad in Ethiopia as part of an intensive seminar on the workings of the African Union. My visit preceded the devastating civil war in the country, but the tensions had already begun to bubble to the surface, leaving Ethiopia ripe for foreign engagement. Many of the issues I studied—from ethnic conflicts to the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to the African Union’s efforts to establish a free trade area and monetary union following the European model—remain relevant for Ethiopia, and indeed much of the world, today. Furthermore, they are good case studies for understanding the general pattern of political conflicts in developing nations that Chinese diplomacy works to exploit.

Indeed, during my time in Ethiopia, the ubiquitous presence of American, Russian, and Chinese power projection weighed on every discussion. In meetings with mid- and high-level officials from the African Union, United Nations, and continental NGOs, all parties stressed their overriding determination to ensure Africa and its communities do not fall into unequal power dynamics, be they military, economic, or cultural. A significant number of such officials referenced the Berlin Conference of 1885 and expressed the sentiment that Africa has more to offer to the world than the latest staging ground for the Sino-American hegemonic rivalry. Some of these officials expressed warmth toward Russia and China as economic and political partners because these states had not participated in nineteenth-century colonization. But today Russia and China make their presence felt in Ethiopia as they work to burnish their image in the eyes of policymakers, diplomats, and businessmen in Addis Ababa, which hosts both the African Union’s headquarters and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

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My seminar cohort had the privilege of meeting with a well-known American diplomat to an African country. This seasoned diplomat sketched out the competing visions of development represented by Russia, China, and the United States. These go a long way toward helping us understand the ongoing diplomatic standoff between China and the United States around the rest of the world, too.

Russia’s approach to development is to sell weapons and weapon systems, provide military training, and incorporate partner nations into its enormous military exercises. Russia’s development diplomacy sidesteps the expectations of flashy investments and instead provides tangible and immediate value to its partners by capitalizing on its historical ties and fearsome reputation. Russia has long leveraged its military relationships with African nations to project power on the continent, with a special focus on the Ethiopian armed forces because of Ethiopia’s strategic position between Africa and the Middle East. Ethiopia contributes more troops to the African Standby Force, the peacekeeping force of the African Union, than any other A.U. country, so Russian military advisors and the Russian state enjoy wide entrée to the African Union’s military circles. 

Ethiopia and Russia have historically had warm relations, bolstered by a longstanding military relationship that began during the reign of Emperor Menelik II in the late nineteenth century, when Russia vied with the British Empire for preeminence in the Middle East in the diplomatic confrontation known as the Great Game. In 2021, for a recent example, Ethiopia turned to Russia for military training and the purchase of military equipment after its setbacks against the Tigray Defense Force in the ongoing civil war.

Even Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not soured Russo-Ethiopian relations. In April of this year, Reuters reported that Ethiopians queued to volunteer for for the fight. Meanwhile, Russia has consolidated its position as the Ethiopian military’s largest supplier of expertise and materiel, followed by Turkey and Iran.

Unlike Russia, China’s development diplomacy focuses on the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects, from roads to highways and canals to ports. Where it cannot or does not want to build the infrastructure itself, as in the port of Piraeus near Athens and the Panama Canal, it buys whatever it can and proceeds to modernize it. Indeed, Chinese heavy machinery dots Ethiopia’s roads and Chinese civil engineering projects sparkle in the major cities. The headquarters of the African Union itself was donated by the Chinese government and built by Chinese workers.

Yet locals look on these investments with cynicism. Our tour guide, a native of Lalibela, wryly told us that a bumpy stretch of road is colloquially known as a “Chinese massage.” For all of China’s promises to upgrade and modernize the nation’s infrastructure, they make a big show of beginning projects but skimp on those in areas less frequented by power players. The diplomat we met relayed a stunning anecdote about attending a summit of delegates to the A.U. that coincided with the Chinese New Year: all the Chinese workers who managed the property had taken off of work, and no one even knew how to turn on the lights. The summit took place in the dark and without air conditioning.

The United States differs from both Russia and China in its approach by investing in less visible projects that it generally sees through to completion. Indeed, the United States sees development as first and foremost an investment in people, so its approach prioritizes goals such as the elimination of disease, the training of teachers, and the provision of expertise to solve problems of local market access or social isolation. Anyone evaluating either the sincerity or the effectiveness of American development diplomacy would do well to remember that neither Russia nor China has ever even attempted to emulate the Peace Corps or Fulbright English teaching assistantships.

President George W. Bush transformed African public health with the United States President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which since 2003 has invested over $90 billion to contain HIV/AIDS. That program alone is thought to have saved at least twenty million lives in Africa by recruiting both local health professionals and volunteers to take leadership of HIV testing, education, prevention, and care projects. Yet for whatever reason, American diplomats and policymakers do not celebrate this monumental and ongoing success as much as they should.

Simply, then: Russia sells weapons to its partners, China churns out sometimes gleaming feats of civil engineering, and the United States launches campaigns to solve complex problems of biomedicine or economics. In other words, whereas the actions of Russia and China are highly visible and easy to grasp, the involvement of the United States tends to be more subtle and takes years, if not generations, to flower.

As one Nigerian envoy remarked, “politicians want to plant full-grown trees, but you have to start with saplings or even acorns, otherwise the trees fall over.” Thus, while the U.S. quietly trains locals to plant an acorn here and a sapling there, China plants its own trees with its own workers and will not let anyone forget it. Meanwhile, we can imagine Russia is off somewhere teaching its partners how to militarize their trees. The fact remains that both China and Russia’s trees provide some value to nations whom the United States also wants on its side.

This gap between investments and their visible effects gives China room to insinuate itself into the affairs of its partners and lock down its advantages over its rivals. The takeaway from all this is twofold: the nations of the world are for the most part rational and intelligent about pursuing their own interests, and the United States cannot take their cooperation and partnership for granted. Although American media tends to present the Belt and Road as a predatory play, one cannot forget that its projects provide tangible benefits to many nations and their people.

This had long been the core of American foreign policy, too: to provide goods, services, investment, and training to earn the goodwill of both governments and their people. Increasingly, however, American foreign policy has become ideological, another arena in which the Republican and Democratic parties seek to advance their own views and agendas at the expense of the other.

In China, meanwhile, the twentieth congress of the Communist Party and Xi Jinping’s domination of party apparatchiks attest to the single-mindedness of the regime and the coherence of its geopolitical strategy. While American policymakers were pointing fingers, for example, over who was to blame for the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, Chinese policymakers showed up with their briefcases, drank tea with the Taliban, and hammered out a mining and trade deal. As the war in Ukraine goes on, China keeps bringing Russia closer into its orbit while pitching the advantages of its leadership to the other nations of Central Asia. The U.S. would be wise to take note.

While certain developments do portend widening disparities in technological capabilities at home and popularity abroad, China’s ascent is by no means assured. Moreover, China’s diplomatic gambits might well set the economic juggernaut back in its ambitions to supplant the United States as Asia’s kingmaker if it does not tread with caution. China runs the risk of souring its relationships with influential middle powers by alienating potential allies, overpromising and underdelivering on investments, or simply falling into exploitative patterns that will embitter its partners. What happens when African Union officials and other politicians across the world come to see China as a latter-day colonizer? China promises prosperity, but many developing nations are not willing to pay for it with their sovereignty, nor with their dignity.

At the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in Kazakhstan, Xi concluded his address with a bold claim: “At the 20th National Congress of the CCP we will stand at a new historical starting point and draw a blueprint for China’s future development. China cannot develop without the world, and the world needs China for its prosperity.” It now remains for the world to decide what price it will pay for prosperity, and from whom it wishes to buy.

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