Mon, Nov 21, 2005 - Page 4 News List

Beijing gains `soft power' training African diplomats


As the teacher, a career Chinese diplomat, spoke, his class of African diplomats scribbled furiously. At the UN, China opposed the US invasion of Iraq and has defended the right of Iran and other developing countries to use civilian nuclear power, said the teacher, Yuan Shibin. China, he noted pointedly, swept aside US objections to making an African the secretary-general.

There was nothing subtle about his message, which will be repeatedly hammered home to the African diplomats during their three month, all-expenses paid stay at the Foreign Affairs University here.

"China will always protect its own interests as well as those of other developing countries," Yuan said. By contrast, "US national interests are not often in conformity with those of other nations, including China."

The classes are one element in a campaign by Beijing to win friends around the world and pry developing nations out of the US' sphere of influence. Africa, with its immense oil and mineral wealth and numerous UN votes, lies at the heart of that effort. Since 2000, Chinese trade with Africa has more than tripled, reaching nearly US$30 billion in 2004. Beijing has signed at least 40 oil agreements with various African countries. Medical teams from China are training counterparts in numerous African countries and providing free equipment and drugs to help fight AIDS, malaria and other scourges.

"China is making a determined effort to make sure that its interests are represented," said Drew Thompson, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"They are making sure they have a seat at the table, and that their relationships are comprehensive and not just economic. It isn't competitive in the way the Cold War was. It's more a case of seeing to it that their message is on one of the many cable channels out there," he added.

China's attempts to cultivate African ties date to the earliest days of the independence era on the continent, when Beijing armed and trained liberation movements and sent its workers by the thousands to build roads, railways and stadiums. Today, Chinese bankers and oil executives are as common a sight as Westerners in many African capitals.

Meanwhile, several Chinese ministries, including science and technology, agriculture, commerce and education, are working with African governments to train officials and develop human resources.

While the aid seems aimed at winning African hearts, the classes in diplomacy, constantly refined over the past decade, seem aimed more at swaying African minds. Also, to impart a sympathetic view of China, they put forth a distinctly Chinese view of the world about everything from economic development and history to democracy.

"Soft power is said to be coercive, persuading people to do what you'd like them to do, as opposed to hard power, which means forcing them to do what you want to do," said Qin Yaqing, vice president of the Foreign Affairs University, a state-run school that trains China's own diplomats and works with foreign trainees. "In traditional Chinese philosophy we have something similar to this, and it is called moral attraction."

China's appeal to Africa and much of the Third World centers on the idea that nations will be drawn to an emerging superpower that does not lecture them about democracy and human rights or otherwise interfere in what Beijing construes as "internal affairs."

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