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Society, Politics & Law

Panda huggers and China hawks

Updated Friday 23rd May 2008

Dr Giles Mohan and Dr May Tan-Mullins visit Washington and find that China is a major topic of conversation, with some wide divergences of opinion.

May and I were in the US for our research project to interview policy makers in Washington DC. The last time I was there was 20 years ago when I was an impoverished backpacker able only to wander the streets and visit the wonderful Smithsonian Museums, which are free to enter. This time, we had a cosy hotel near Dupont Circle and - given that we were interviewing ex-ambassadors - I had a suit and tie.

Obviously I knew Washington was a political city, but I hadn’t prepared myself for the pervasiveness of politics. Everywhere we lingered people on either side of us were discussing politics. Clearly the Democratic primaries were on many peoples’ lips, but I heard excited interns discussing health policy, a campaigner extolling to his colleague about Burma, and someone who had returned from Afghanistan. 

Then there were the Democratic campaign teams rushing around with clipboards and a student protest outside the White House to raise awareness of Darfur. Although the speakers at the latter event gave a balanced assessment of the Darfur crisis, not surprisingly the Chinese role I discussed in my earlier blog was high on the agenda. It was good to see students so fired up about world issues even if the White House’s occupant may not have been so impressed.

The research interviews went well and we will be positing edited versions of these on the website soon. We wanted to find out what the policy community in Washington thought about China’s role in Africa and what moves, if any, the US were making to respond to this. 

One commentator has described Washington as divided between ‘Panda huggers’ who welcome China’s role in the world and the ‘China hawks’ who see it as a direct threat to US interests. The media has tended to pick up on the hawkish pronouncements and so May and I were prepared for strong anti-China sentiments from the people we interviewed in the World Bank, IMF and various think-tanks. 

But while these respondents weren’t exactly panda huggers they were interested in a considered engagement with the Chinese rather than the knee-jerk containment of the hawks. In the main they see China as a legitimate world player and most of what it is doing in Africa is not much different from what other countries are doing there. They all seek the oil and minerals, but China has a slightly different way of winning hearts and minds in Africa, which disturbs some rival policy makers in the west. Not, I would argue, because they care deeply about Africans, but because China is winning markets they would like to capture. 

And talking of market access, we've recently witnessed a Chinese ship with weapons destined for Zimbabwe being refused entry into various ports in Southern Africa. Given the electoral problems in Zimbabwe, and the more general political crisis, the various countries denying entry are at last making some kind of stand against the Mugabe regime. So far these countries have been wary of condemning him and have let the western powers do all the sabre-rattling. Which, paradoxically, has only added fuel to Mugabe’s claims about a western conspiracy against him. The Angolan government said they’d let the arms be unloaded there. Not only is Angola a close ally of Mugabe, but the Chinese are huge investors in Angolan oil. So, it appears that in the rush to gain Chinese investment and appease neighbouring countries the Angolans will accommodate the ship. It seems we’re all making accommodations for a piece of the Chinese pie.


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