Beyond the Beijing and Washington Consensus

by on Tuesday, 30 December 2008 Comments
The "Beijing consensus" is an expression that has often been used during the last ten years to characterize the Chinese way of dealing with Africa and other areas: The "Beijing consensus" is seen by many as a way to counter U.S. supremacy by not imposing on developing countries constraints usually set up by the U.S. policy (transparency, greater respect for human rights, gradual democratization..), while other analysts see it as a pragmatic alternative to the now defunct "Washington consensus", rejected by developing countries after the experiments imposed by international financial organizations and the impasses of "forced democratization". The term "Beijing consensus " should not dissimulate the fact that the countries to which the Chinese strategy apply do not correspond to a "coalition", but rather to a loose alliance of partners intent on defending "national sovereignty" against the infringement of international law.


Mercantilism or Tributarism?

The United States often summarize their criticisms against the Chinese strategy by using the term "mercantilism". A passage of the revised National Security Strategy in April 2006, says:
"(Chinese leaders) are expanding trade but acting as if they can somehow "lock up" energy supplies around the world or seek to direct markets rather than opening them up - as if they can follow a Mercantilism borrowed from a discredited era ... "

The word mercantilism is highly controversial and for a long time, well expressed the frustration of American leaders in front the accumulation of trade surpluses by China. However, the American Treasury itself always stopped short of accusing the Chinese authorities of "manipulation" of their currency but spoke simply of the "misalignment" of the Renminbi (RMB). The expression was to implicitly assign international financial organizations the heavy task to convince the Chinese authorities in accepting a regime of flexible change.

An entirely different way of looking at China’s international policy towards developing countries has been one provided by the "Tributarism" paradigm. China sometimes knows how to use the political asset that a trade deficit can constitute: with most neighboring countries and African countries that China wants to attract into its sphere of influence, China develops favorable commercial trends in exchange for political allegiance. Already, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Chinese emperor would give more favors to tributary states or kingdoms than he received from them; for this generosity, the emperor obtained their respect and goodwill. Indeed, it is clear that China carefully differentiates its commercial strategy according to the political areas it deals with, following strategic considerations.

Shaping a New Consensus

Recent political and economic developments have weakened both the Washington and Beijing consensus. The Washington consensus has been broken by the excesses of extreme liberalism. The Beijing consensus now suffers from the international outcry on some aspects of China’s African policy (Darfur), backlash against Chinese interests in some African countries, and the weakening of China’s position along with the worsening global crisis.

The Time of a "Global Consensus" Partnership between China, Europe, India, the United States and Africa should help this continent to achieve the right balance between economic development and political reform. This cannot be done in the same way in all countries. Africa, on the long run, does not gain anything in being the battlefield where the great Powers confront their strategies. Rather than making Americans, Europeans and Chinese compete among themselves for a slice of African’s resources, leaders of this continent should call for a "Global Consensus for Africa" in which all partners would cooperate in making Africa a showcase of sustainable and peaceful development. Will the current crisis teach us at last some common sense, in showing the global community that cooperation serves everyone’s interests much better than strategic competition?
 
Photo: B.V.
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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