Two political science professors recently conducted a study comparing the sale of arms to African countries by China and the US.
Here are the claims they were testing:
Liberals, and those affiliated with the global NGO sectors see a resource-hungry China engaging itself globally out of purely self-interested motives, threatening to undermine recent liberal gains in Africa and Latin America, since Chinese business and aid offer a viable alternative to Western influence. Bad rulers who do not want to liberalize might garner Chinese support, weakening the movement towards further democratic gains.
In other words, is China a greater threat to democracy in Africa than the United States?
Our findings indicate that Chinese arms transfers, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa go more to democracies than autocracies, particularly in comparison with the US. Our findings thus falsify the liberal hypothesis we presented at the beginning of our paper, namely that China’s rise is bad for fledgling democracies and for human rights in Africa and other developing regions. These results also show that the foreign policy rhetoric of the US does not seem to match its actions when it comes to transferring arms to autocracies, which is an indicator of material support to ‘important’ allies, reinforcing conclusions made by others using different observations and arguments (Krasner 1999; Perkins and Neumayer 2010; Root 2008).
What’s important to note is that this does not show that the US actively tries to undermine democracy wherever it can, though some on the Left may believe that (and some on the Right may characterize the Left that way). Instead, it shows how states are amoral actors, driven not by noble principles of human rights and freedom but by the dominant centers of power within them. The leaders of a given country or a given corporation may be perfectly fine, moral people, but they are forced to act within the boundaries of the amoral institutions in which they work. There is only so much wiggle room.
Another way of expressing this phenomenon is through the language of realism:
In short, our findings appear to lend support to the basic realist power-seeking hypothesis, especially for the US. US concern with maintaining geo-strategic dominance in Africa and the Middle East, and securing access to resources and markets, appears to be driving the US to often align with authoritarian and repressive states, 40 in contrast to China’s less ambitious but more economic objectives.
Or, in a nutshell, “National interest, not ideology is driving US and Chinese weapons exports to Africa.”