Finding 9: Another strongly held but weakly supported claim is the notion that Chinese aid fuels conflict. We find that in some circumstances, the opposite is in fact true. Specifically, we find that sudden withdrawals of Western aid make civil conflict far more likely, but this effect disappears if an aid-receiving country also receives significant funding from China, or China steps in and at least partially fills the void. Chinese aid can effectively serve as a “shock absorber” for countries that face large-scale Western aid withdrawals.
Given that the U.S. often finds itself balancing two objectives—promoting political stability and encouraging just and democratic governance—that can cut in opposite directions, China’s willingness to step in when the West steps out may very well be a net positive.
Finding 10: Finally, new research at AidData has punctured the myth that Chinese soft power is rapidly eclipsing Western sources of influence in the developing world. Through a 2014 survey of nearly 6,750 policymakers and practitioners around the world, we uncovered virtually no evidence that the “Beijing Consensus” (China’s model of authoritarian, state-led capitalism) is achieving high levels of resonance and uptake with developing world leaders. When we asked host government officials in 126 low-income and middle-income countries to rate the usefulness of China’s policy advice across 23 different sectors, China Development Bank, China Ex-IM Bank and Chinese Embassies ranked 75th, 59th and 70th, respectively, out of 86 bilateral and multilateral development finance institutions. This suggests that much of the talk about the purported strength of Chinese soft power is just that—talk.
It remains to be seen if China will eventually “catch up” with the most influential (Western) providers of policy advice, as it establishes more rapport and experience working with leaders in other countries. However, our analysis suggests that even if China does want to boost its policy influence in the developing world, it will face an uphill battle. Western aid agencies have for decades employed so-called “local hires” (national staff based in their countries where they work) to help them design and implement development programs. Many of these local hires later assume positions of power in their governments. This matters because familiarity breeds favorability: we have found that the more extensive an individual’s work history with a given aid agency, the more favorably he or she will view that organization when he or she assumes office. Therefore, as Western aid agencies have employed, trained and professionally socialized a disproportionately large number of future policymakers over many decades, they have effectively stacked governments across the developing world with sympathetic interlocutors who share similar policy preferences.
If China wishes to overcome this challenge and become competitive in the marketplace of ideas that exists in its aid-receiving countries, it will need a vastly stronger “ground game.” Unless or until this happens, U.S. policymakers and pundits need not be unduly concerned.
Brad Parks is the Executive Director of AidData at the College of William & Mary.