Will the US-China Rivalry Fuel Corruption in Poorer Nations?

December 5, 2021 Updated: December 6, 2021


During the Cold War the leadership of developing countries—or the third world—used the rivalry between the West and the Soviets to enrich themselves.

Both the Soviets and the West poured billions into badly governed developing countries in the form of aid and sometimes military assistance. An incredible misuse of global resources resulted from this.

Yet resources continued to flow even when it was clear that development aid failed to produce any development; humanitarian aid failed to deal with poverty; military aid propped up bad governments, and much of the aid ended up in the pockets of corrupt elites.

The big power rivalry could not be blamed for many issues which now plague developing countries, but it did however prolong the life of bad governance.

Why this occurred can be explained by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s comment on America’s support for Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza: “He may be a son of a [expletive], but he’s our son of a [expletive].”

When the wellspring of aid finally dried up with the fall of the Berlin Wall it inadvertently produced a number of positive outcomes.

Corrupt and incompetent governments in the developing world collapsed, and the huge development aid industry which had grown during the Cold War withered.

Dismantling these aid bureaucracies exposed their decades of failure in producing the “development” they had promised, it also saved Western taxpayers billions of dollars.

Epoch Times Photo
Children enjoy clean water from a well built by Water Wells for Africa in Lupapa Village, Malawi, on July 6, 2021.(John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

But two events in November—one in Senegal, another in the Solomon Islands—seemed to signal that developing world elites once again believe they can cash in on big power competition.

This time it is the rise of competition between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and democratic nations, which appears set to fuel a revival of the aid industry.

The competitive landscape between Beijing and Washington, D.C. was on display during U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s November visit to Senegal, and then again during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Dakar a week later.

Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall pointedly said Africa could, and would, play the West and the CCP off against each other, telling U.S. officials that: “We have a diplomacy of sovereignty. There is not only one choice. We have many choices.”

FOCAC’s Senegal meeting revealed much about Beijing’s approach to competing with the West in the African context. The CCP successfully pushed their key agendas at FOCAC but balanced these with an understanding of African perceptions.

Beijing empathised with the belief among African leaders that the rest of the world did not take the continent seriously, stressing that FOCAC was a meeting among equals.

Beijing effectively played its own version of the race card, talking up China as a developing country in Asia in tune with the frustrations of African leaders.

The meeting also promoted the importance of Chinese capital, skill, and aid for African interests. It also saw Chinese leaders promise new markets for African agriculture, offer free COVID-19 vaccines, and access to global capital.

Chinese leaders also know that while African elites may speak of sovereignty, they are more than willing to sign it away for development projects—say, under the Belt and Road Initiative—to ensure Chinese funds continued to flow into their pockets.

The CCP, as a new imperial player, showed how it had learned to play the same negotiation games as earlier European leaders did.

Epoch Times Photo
Security officers walk past a banner at the entrance of a conference hall during the China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting at the Diamniadio in Dakar, Senegal, on Nov. 29, 2021. (Seyllou/AFP via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, tensions still exist between CCP and African goals.

While African leaders wanted more local labour involved in Chinese-backed development projects, Beijing stopped short of making this pledge. Chinese projects have focused more on facilitating the export of resources away from the continent rather than internal development.

Further, while some African leaders seek a return to “Cold War-style” aid being funnelled to their pockets, Beijing actually needs its projects to succeed.

Only time will tell if FOCAC can deliver the CCP’s neo-colonial empire or whether it will create another legacy of failed states and corruption. Neither is good for the world.

On the other side of the planet, political violence flared in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. An example of how development aid can be highly destructive.

The Solomon’s violence was caused partly by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to switch formal diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing—one of the few countries in the world to retain formal diplomatic ties with the Republic of China.

Beijing offered Sogavare’s government $500 million of development aid to cut ties with Taiwan.

In microstates, $500 million can easily shift the balance of power between local political players through empowering one patronage network over the other.

The Taipei-to-Beijing shift destabilised the political makeup of the nation because the closure of Taiwan’s Embassy also saw an end to Taiwanese aid.

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An anti-government message adorns a burnt-out building in Honiara, Solomon Islands, on Nov. 27, 2021. (Charley Piringi/AFP via Getty Images)

The losers were those tied to the patronage network of Malaita Province, Premier Daniel Suidani.

Suidani’s network lost Taiwanese aid, while Sogavare’s network won with the shift to Beijing aid.

Unsurprisingly Suidani called for a restoration of relations with Taipei and for an end to relations with Beijing. Political violence began when Suidani’s supporters took their grievances onto the streets.

The Solomon’s violence demonstrates how development aid tied to international competition can play out in highly destructive ways.

Events in both Senegal and the Solomons carry a warning. It shows that leaders in the developing world may once again be keen to cash in on big power competition.

If allowed to fester, this could see billions or trillions poured into the developing world, exacerbating already corrupt countries. This, in turn, could drive a wave of migration to the developed world.

The final message for democratic nations is: beware.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Eric Louw
Eric Louw is a retired professor in political communication with a career spanning South African and Australian universities. Prior to that, he was a former activist, journalist, and media trainer under the African National Congress, where he worked on South Africa's transition into the post-Apartheid era. Louw is an expert on affirmative action, and Black Economic Empowerment policies. His Ph.D. was in the study of Marxism and its postmodern developments. He has authored nine books including "The Rise, Fall and Legacy of Apartheid" and "The Media and Political Process."