China’s Challenge: Being a donor and a developing country at the same time

April 28, 2011 By John Glenn

A recent report from the Chinese State Council’s Information Office revealed that nearly half of China’s total foreign assistance went to African nations in 2009, calling attention once again to China as a potential competitor and alterative to U.S. and Western development donors.   Visiting Beijing last week for a conference comparing China’s 2010 Defense White Paper with the 2010 NATO Strategy, I found myself struck by the challenge of relations with a country that is both a donor and a developing country at the same time.  While the Maserati luxury car showrooms and modernist skyscrapers in Beijing speak of China’s growing wealth, the unpaved streets in small villages we drove through and chronic pollution reminded me that many of the 1.3 billion Chinese are still far from being wealthy or healthy.

Chinese foreign assistance to Africa has sparked a virtual cottage industry of concern about growing Chinese influence in the development world at the expense of the United States.   According to the recent report from China’s Information Office, its foreign assistance has been increasing at an average of 29.4% every year from 2004 to 2009.  The report notes that it has cooperated with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to send more than 700 agricultural experts and technicians to Africa, the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific area by the end of 2009.  In a distant echo of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, China has apparently even recently established a new inter-agency coordination mechanism to improve management of its foreign assistance.

Yet the human development figures create a different picture of China.  In the 2010 U.N. Human Development Index, China ranked 89th, behind Turkmenistan and the Dominican Republic.   One of the conference participants observed that China is an aging society as a result of its one child policy and may grow old before it becomes rich.  China is also the fourth largest recipient of funds from the Global Fund, having received nearly $1 billion in grants to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.  This has led some, such as Jack C. Chow, former-U.S. ambassador on global HIV/AIDS from 2001 to 2003, to argue that China can afford to pay its own global health bills and should not be eligible for funds that could otherwise go to poorer African countries.

Warnings about China’s rise will surely continue to tempt American political campaigns as the 2012 presidential election approaches.  Yet, seeing China just as a competitor masks the more complicated reality that it is deeply concerned about the economic development of its own people.   It risks heightening tensions between the United States and China, as well.  As Dan Drezner recently noted, treating the Chinese as if they are more powerful than they perceive themselves to be “provokes confusion and anger in China as Beijing is being asked to accept a burden it is not yet prepared to shoulder.”  All this means that, just as “smart power” uses all of our tools of national influence in today’s world, managing relations with China will require American policymakers to understand both sides of this complex country – a rising economic power and developing country at the same time.