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China’s Civilizational Diplomacy

Summary:
IFRANE – China is quickly becoming a world power, capable of exercising considerable influence over other countries. And it is advancing to the center of the geopolitical stage just as – if not because – American and European leadership seems to be retreating into the wings. China certainly has a receptive audience. One reason is that the “darker nations,” as the international-studies scholar Vijay Prashad calls global-South countries, feel greater kinship with China than with the United States and Europe. They identify with China’s history of anti-imperialist struggle, and even with Chinese people’s physical appearance. If you are an emerging superpower, there is a distinct advantage to having the majority of the world’s population hold such sentiments. The way China plays its global role also differs notably from that of the West, because it emphasizes its similarities with the “rest,” to use the historian Niall Ferguson’s expression for the non-Western world. With this strategy, China has expanded its sphere of influence far beyond its immediate region. Sub-Saharan Africa is often cited as an example of a region where China’s influence has superseded that of Europe’s former colonial powers. And, more recently, the Chinese government has stressed its long-standing interest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and in Egypt in particular.

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IFRANE – China is quickly becoming a world power, capable of exercising considerable influence over other countries. And it is advancing to the center of the geopolitical stage just as – if not because – American and European leadership seems to be retreating into the wings.

China certainly has a receptive audience. One reason is that the “darker nations,” as the international-studies scholar Vijay Prashad calls global-South countries, feel greater kinship with China than with the United States and Europe. They identify with China’s history of anti-imperialist struggle, and even with Chinese people’s physical appearance. If you are an emerging superpower, there is a distinct advantage to having the majority of the world’s population hold such sentiments.

The way China plays its global role also differs notably from that of the West, because it emphasizes its similarities with the “rest,” to use the historian Niall Ferguson’s expression for the non-Western world. With this strategy, China has expanded its sphere of influence far beyond its immediate region.

Sub-Saharan Africa is often cited as an example of a region where China’s influence has superseded that of Europe’s former colonial powers. And, more recently, the Chinese government has stressed its long-standing interest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and in Egypt in particular. Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Cairo as part of a regional tour to promote China’s “one belt, one road” initiative, a latter-day revival of the legendary Silk Road – the ancient network of trade routes connecting the Far East to the Mediterranean.

An important feature of China’s complex regional strategy is its attempt to address partners on a more equal footing. In the case of Egypt, it has done so by appealing to a shared history – a tactic that resonates in both countries. When the Chinese travel site Kooniao recently showcased the geochemist Sun Weidong’s assertion that Chinese civilization may have originated in ancient Egypt, Chinese readers responded with excitement; they were happy to be considered on par with Egypt. This episode suggests a revival of earlier discussions among Chinese officials in the post-World War II era, which also situated the origins of Chinese civilization in the West.

It is tempting to ask if China...

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