Failed States

Beijing's Coalition of the Willing

For the West, failed states are a problem. For China, they're an opportunity.

You've probably heard by now that China, in its bid to lock in access to energy and mineral riches in far-flung corners of the world, is causing heartburn for the legions of do-gooders working to turn the world's most fragile countries into stable, prosperous states. Everyone from the president of the World Bank to Bono has blamed Chinese companies and government officials for threatening the hard-won progress the West has made in the global south, while warning of dire consequences for countries on the receiving end of Chinese largesse.

Commentators such as Zambian economist Bob Sichinga have even accused Beijing of "raping" Africa in its bid for natural resources. I call it the China effect -- the disturbing notion that Western-led development efforts could come to naught, cast aside by the allure of fast money and rapid economic progress. And it's easy to see the appeal: While U.S. and European gurus are busy lecturing Third World autocrats about good governance and transparency, Chinese engineers are building highways to the dictators' weekend homes.

What's less well known is the key role such states as Brazil, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, South Africa, and Venezuela are playing in China's international diplomatic game. Over the past decade and a half, while few in the West were paying attention, Beijing has built a coalition of countries -- a great many of them in Africa -- that can be trusted to vote China's way in an increasingly clogged alphabet soup of international fora. It's a bloc reminiscent of the one the Soviet Union assembled during the Cold War, though focused on economic and trade advantages, not security issues.

So far, China's strategy is working, and nowhere more so than with Beijing's campaign to delegitimize Taiwan as an independent state. In 2008, for instance, Malawi announced it had cut diplomatic relations with the island would-be nation; Taipei couldn't match China's offer of $6 billion in aid. Senegal broke relations in 2005, signing an agreement that reportedly included an initial $600 million in financial assistance from China. Chad followed suit after a series of secret meetings with Chinese officials and an undisclosed amount of aid. Today, just four African countries still recognize Taiwan as the one true China: Burkina Faso, Gambia, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Swaziland, down from 13 in 1994; the global number has declined from 68 states in 1971 to 23 currently. Even Panama and Nicaragua, two of the few Latin American states that still officially recognize Taiwan, abstained from a vote on its 2007 bid to join the World Health Organization. Taipei's list of friends is headed rapidly toward zero.

Not only is Beijing building a string of alliances across the globe with countries overlooked and sometimes shunned by the United States, but it also aims to alter, or at least complicate, the loyalties of those still in the Western camp. To U.S. officials, most of Beijing's new allies are decidedly third tier, mere afterthoughts in the West Wing and on the State Department's seventh floor (at least until a crisis breaks out). But to China, they are becoming an increasingly potent diplomatic weapon.

At the United Nations, support for Chinese positions on human rights jumped from 50 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2008, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations. The council also found that 41 countries that were Western-voting allies on human rights issues in the U.N. 10 years ago now support China and Russia. From Africa to Asia to Latin America, these include a notable list of Chinese commercial partners, some of the most undistinguished performers on the Failed States Index. Many of these same countries have joined to vigorously defend traditional sovereignty -- a notion deeply important to Beijing because it fears and resents Western meddling in its internal affairs. Support for China and Russia on this issue has exceeded 80 percent in recent years.

China has also deployed this winning formula at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Within the WTO, Beijing has already put together an African coalition large enough to torpedo specific rules it opposes. But the strategic prize China is seeking in Geneva is official status as a market economy -- a valuable legal and trade designation that prevents other countries from launching anti-dumping cases. Chinese companies stand to gain billions if Beijing's diplomats can outmaneuver the United States and the European Union, which accuse China of unfair competitive practices and inadequate bankruptcy and intellectual-property laws. Egypt, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela, and dozens of other countries have proved happy to extend this designation to Beijing on bilateral terms in return for Chinese engagement. Now, China's goal is to cobble together enough WTO votes from African and Latin American countries to see this protection expanded globally -- while teaming up with India to sink the Doha round of trade talks, which threatens to swamp Chinese farmers with a flood of cheap imports.

China is also making great strides within a host of smaller multilateral organizations that don't invite the United States and the European Union to join -- obscure bodies like the East Asia Summit, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In these venues, Chinese officials have not hesitated to combine soft power with a bit of muscle. African and Asian ambassadors have made off-the-record statements suggesting that China uses its aid and trade as leverage to make them tilt away from U.S. initiatives. If countries do not toe Beijing's line or don't abstain when asked, their economic projects could be put at risk.

China's goal is not to challenge the West militarily or even economically just now. The United States and Europe are, after all, the lifeblood of China's export economy. But we shouldn't dismiss China's efforts as merely a sophisticated reprise of the Soviet Union's failed bid for the loyalties of the global south. China is a capitalist dynamo, not a creaking autarky, and its market-authoritarian example is fast winning adherents around the world -- while marginalizing the values that have informed Western progress for 300 years.

NEXT: Blame the French

Illustration by Sean McCabe for FP

Failed States

Mr. Lonely

The twilight of Chad's paranoid tyrant.

Chadian President Idriss Déby is a lonely man. A member of the tiny Zaghawa tribe that makes up just 1.5 percent of Chad's 10 million people, he has been betrayed at various points over his two tumultuous decades in power by his army, his clan, and even members of his close family. His prodigal son Brahim, once considered his heir, was murdered in Paris in 2007, forced to inhale the powder from a fire extinguisher.

Years of defending himself from multiple simultaneous rebellions have left the president -- the "perfect Machiavellian prince," as one close observer of the country called him -- "overcome by paranoia." When he wants to pass through Chad's capital city, N'Djamena, residents say the government shuts down the roads for hours to let his convoy of blacked-out Hummers and pickups full of soldiers race through. At age 58, Déby is tall and thin with a haughty, unsmiling manner. But lately, observers say, he has been incoherent in public speeches, and there are rumors that his health is failing, which he has frequently denied. His foreign policy is isolated too, dominated by a series of quarrels with the international community.

Déby is not the most famous authoritarian ruler around, nor the most effective. But his staying power -- and the outside world's inattention to it -- is remarkable. Even as the hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees camping out on Chad's eastern border drew a rare burst of global attention to his impoverished desert country, Déby managed to avoid serious repercussions for his involvement in Sudan's internal conflict. If anything, Déby is a case study in what can go wrong when a lonely ruler is allowed to remain a little bit too lonely.

In 1990, when the newly formed Islamic-military government in Sudan backed Déby to overthrow Chadian President Hissène Habré, the young military leader may have seemed like a trade-up. "Déby was feared," said one senior African diplomat. "But back then … there was some hope he could lead the country to a better future."

It quickly became clear, however, that Déby's peacetime leadership was not as strong as his military talents. Members of his family ran state affairs, even forging his signature to appoint ministers, Chadian officials say, and the political opposition was slowly bought, divided, or repressed.

For years, Déby's actions appeared to go largely unnoticed by the outside world. Some governments -- the French in particular -- actively supported him. "The French would be looking for someone to keep stability, and Déby does that," said a former Sudanese government minister. Once Chad started exporting oil in 2003, the West accepted Déby as a business partner. Today, much of Chad's 150,000 barrels per day of oil goes to U.S. markets, and U.S. companies Chevron and ExxonMobil work with Malaysia's Petronas to extract the crude.

But 2003 was also when the Darfur conflict erupted, and Khartoum's brutal counterinsurgency campaign drove some 200,000 refugees into Chad's eastern desert. By 2005, the split between Khartoum and the Darfuri rebels was pulling Chad apart too, energizing the anti-Déby Chadian rebels in the east. As their attacks on Déby grew more audacious, the president abandoned his old loyalties to Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and began to openly support Darfur's insurgents. Soon Déby and Bashir were engaged in a proxy war, with Khartoum aiding Chad's rebels and N'Djamena aiding Sudan's.

Chad's rebels were a disorganized lot, however, agreeing on little but the need to oust Déby. After a surprise February 2008 assault on his presidential palace in N'Djamena, infighting ended up causing their downfall. "They could not agree on who would read the communiqué or who was to become the head of state," a source close to the rebellion recalled.

The attacks increased the feeling of insecurity in Chad's capital. Just three months later, Déby sent a heavily armed Darfur rebel group on a gonzo capture-the-flag mission all the way east to Khartoum -- a mission that would have been suicidal if Sudan's security forces hadn't responded weakly, leaving Déby with boasting rights, if little else strategically.

"Déby had to do this," one Western diplomat said. "The N'Djamena attack was a very powerful blow to his prestige -- it shook the regime's base."

Sudan is not the only issue on which Déby has gone his own way. In 2005 Déby's parliament defied the World Bank -- funder of Chad's crucial oil pipeline -- and voted to take more oil revenues into state hands. Analysts said the money went to buy arms, despite the bank's eventually fulfilled threat to withdraw funding. This year, Déby even threw out the U.N. peacekeeping mission in his country's east, there to protect the U.N. aid mission.

But still, Déby is practically untouchable, his mix of calculation and luck a powerful defense both from his internal enemies and, apparently, from the disapproval of the international community. Former allies call him a "warrior" who fears little, and Déby has brushed aside accusations of rights abuses. Many believe his main concern may be the long arm of international justice, prompting him to hold onto his privileged isolation for as long as possible. "His one fear is being pursued for the crimes he has committed … and there are many examples," said a former Chadian official. As one international observer put it: "People believe he will stay in power until he dies -- or is killed."

NEXT: Where Autocrats Don't Fear to Tread