How Public Perception Influences Foreign Policy: A Comparative Analysis of Liberia-China Relations

Thursday, July 31, 2008

By Varney A. Yengbeh, Jr.  

A recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey indicates that "Across Africa, favorable views of China outnumber critical judgments by two-to-one or more in every country except South Africa, where opinion is divided. The survey provides a trend only for Nigeria, where favorable attitudes toward China are sharply up, rising 16 percentage points in just the past year from 59% to 75%."

The survey further suggests that "Across sub-Saharan Africa, China’s influence is seen as growing faster than America’s, and China is almost universally viewed as having a more beneficial impact on African countries than does the United States. Clear majorities say America’s influence in their countries is generally good. But the perception that China has a positive impact is far more widespread."

In the International Herald Tribune Survey conducted in sixteen African countries, 76% of Africans hold positive attitudes toward the general image of China compared to 14% negative and 10% neutral.

In Liberia, public perceptions and attitudes toward China are generally favorable today. Liberia’s domestic and foreign policies are based on the following four key pillars: enhancing national security, revitalizing the economy, strengthening governance and rule of law, and building infrastructure and basic services. The situation context of post-conflict Liberia has played a major role in terms of the strategies and tactics the government has employed to advance the country’s domestic and foreign policy objectives.

But what is unclear is whether Liberia’s foreign policy is informed by clear understanding of the complexities or intricacies involved in the international environment of the 21st Century. Of particular importance is that there is no grand strategy. The process of formulating, implementing and evaluating the policy of a grand strategy is beyond the scope of this article. As a practical matter, it is an effective grand strategy, coupled with a bold, long-term vision, reason and principle that will determine the destiny of peace, security and prosperity in Liberia. Moreover, the vital role of foreign policy leadership will also be crucial in the balancing art or balance of power relations between America and China, which will be paramount for the promotion of global stability in this century. This would also require the consistency and continuity of foreign policy for the foreseeable future.

In the field of international relations, each country is freed to advance its national interests. Of great significance is the fact that the current Liberian government is pursuing her own interests through an economic and development diplomacy aimed at securing much-needed strategic partnerships in support of Liberia’s post-war reconstruction and development initiatives. While it is too early to predict precisely whether Chinese long-term engagement in Liberia will produce a positive influence, the recent impact of China is highly visible in infrastructure investments and development projects such as building roads, hospitals, schools, agriculture, and timber industry among others. China has agreed to rebuild the University of Liberia Fandell Campus, which was destroyed during the civil war. Chinese peacekeepers served in the 15,000-strong United Nations Mission in Liberia. All of these projects create opportunities for the Liberian government to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of a better life for the people. Therefore, the government and people hold positive perceptions and attitudes toward China. However, this belief is based on a false sense of so-called Chinese humanitarian aid and philanthropy.

A close-up examination of Liberia-China relations reveals a different but more realistic image based on a foreign policy perspective. The rapid growing Chinese presence in Liberia has much more to do with China exerting a unique combination of geopolitics, diplomacy, national security and business interests rather than humanitarian aid and philanthropy.

Over the past three or more decades, various Liberian governments have been aligned with either mainland China or the Taiwan Strait. President William R. Tolbert had established one China policy. President Samuel K. Doe continued close relations with China. Doe recognized the relevance of such strategic partnership and seized the opportunity for the implementation of the Tolbert doctrine by using the Chinese government to build the SKD Sports Stadium in Monrovia. President Charles Taylor switched ties to Taiwan. Taylor too realized that Taiwan could help by renovating a section of the John F. Kennedy Hospital. Charles Gyude Bryant, Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia, went back to China. Edwin Snowe, former speaker of the Liberian Legislature, who was loyal to the Taylor regime, met secretly with the Taiwanese government officials in the Gambia. This caused a forceful storm of disapprovals and negative reactions because many Liberians at home and abroad felt that his unilateral action undermined Liberia’s foreign policy. In February 2007, President Hu Jintao of China cancelled Liberia’s debt of 15 million dollars during a state visit. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf reciprocated in-kind by signing a joint agreement reaffirming Liberia’s commitment to the one China policy.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of the one China policy has been that Liberia supports China’s national reunification, while Liberia will not support Taiwan on major foreign policy issues such as declaration of independence and the proposed referendum of United Nations membership. China views Taiwan as an integral part of its territory, which means that such events would be considered provocative. China is happy to remain in Liberia as long as Taiwan is out. China sees a small window of opportunity to consolidate its influence and project its power. In principle, the fundamental implication is that China advances its geopolitical and national security interests.

On the one hand, China is further interested in Liberia to feed its growing need for energy and natural resources. Liberia’s vast natural resources will fuel Chinese economic growth. For example, Chinese companies have been working in the Liberian logging industry, construction, telecommunications sector and are now prospecting for the mining sector. Moreover, the Liberian government is working hard to secure their mutual economic interests. Today, some Liberian political and economic elites even believe that America and, perhaps, other Western allies cannot force them into deals they don’t want or cannot afford. In their view, China is not only a credible and willing international partner but also a strategic option for Liberia.

On the other hand, the Liberian market is relatively small in comparison to many African markets. Ordinary Liberians feel that Chinese-made commodities are not durable. Indeed, Liberians believe that Chinese made products for the American market are far better than those made for African markets. Liberians prefer American products.

Liberian consumers, workers and small businesses are worried about the economy. People are specifically concerned about the high costs of living, taxes, food crisis, transportation vis-à-vis gas prices, housing, and education for their children. Meanwhile, Liberians appear to be taking a wait and see attitude at this time. Because of the present severe economic conditions and mass poverty, negative feelings may not be isolated only to Lebanese and Indian business communities. In turn, these foreign business people, who have enjoyed a much longer commercial experience within the economy, are now feeling the squeeze and carefully studying the situation. Negative feelings will likely rise if government failure creates a self-fulfilling prophecy due to high unemployment, high inflation, costs of living, depreciation of real value of Liberian dollar, and economic depression. The general security situation is also declining at an alarming rate. Armed robberies and mob violence (or mob justice as it is sometimes called) are especially on the rise. All of these factors together will be key determinant of what will happen as China continues to exert her influence in Liberia.

In summary, after successive Liberian governments have danced in a seesaw fashion between China and Taiwan, Liberia has today exerted even more crucial Liberia-China relations. China has certainly emerged as a contender in global economic trend. China is also viewed as a serious threat to the West. America too is clearly concerned. Liberians must heed the lessons learned. History has shown that whenever a rising power, like China, creates fear among its neighbors and other great powers, such as America, that can be a cause of conflict. Applying Newton’s third law of motion to global politics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Consequently, the achievement of a successful foreign policy leadership within the context of the complexities of the 21st Century international environment implies the conscious application of a grand strategy. African leaders – particularly from either politically unstable environments or post-war countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo among others – must avoid relying on foreign aid, importing development and reducing poverty from abroad. Among the key policy level considerations are the following:

The importance of Liberians and their African brethren to inspire and expand the ideas and ideals of a freer society, free thinking and brighter future for their own people; and,

* The future prosperity of Liberia should take into account the uniqueness of the country in terms of encouraging and rewarding hard work, creativity, innovation, self-reliance, entrepreneurial spirit, and productivity.

Only through thy selfless labor, love for liberty and freedom, and destiny creed, the Liberian people shall truly achieve durable peace, security and prosperity for all. Now is the time to seize the opportunity of building a better future in Liberia. As Liberia celebrates her 161st Independence Anniversary, it would be unwise and naïve for Liberians and others to believe otherwise.