China may be Africa's biggest trading partner and one of its biggest investors, but you wouldn't know that from the size of its contribution toward fighting West Africa's Ebola outbreak.
In fact, the contrast between its assistance and that of the U.S. is instructive: Today, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would raise the total of U.S. personnel now in Africa dealing with Ebola to 3,000; the U.S. has committed more than $175 million in aid. With much fanfare, China has said it will increase the number of its medical personnel in Sierra Leone to 174 and raise its total amount of assistance to roughly $37 million.
I know, I know: Relative to the U.S., China remains a poor country, and its growing willingness to extend humanitarian assistance outside its borders is a good thing. But consider this: China has close to 20,000 citizens working and living in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Setting aside U.S. money flowing into Liberia's lucrative shipping registry, China's investment in those three countries dwarfs that of the U.S. (In fact, China's trading relationship with Africa overall is twice that of the U.S.) It recently signed deals for iron ore mining in the region that collectively run into the billions of dollars.
Yet Chinese generosity hasn't exactly wowed the locals. Consider this article from one Liberian newspaper about an Ebola relief donation by China Union, a mining company with operations there:
Receiving the items on behalf of the citizens, the Clan Chief of Zeakomu Clan Fuamah District, lower Bong County; Mrs. Farta Yassoh expressed disappointment in China Union and said the citizens of Fuamah District have always been disappointed when it comes to donation and development to the people of Fuamah District, lower Bong County, by China Union. Chief Yassoh said since the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the district, this is the first time China Union has made donation to the people of Fuamah.
Mrs. Yassoh has a point: Set against the $2.6 billion agreement that China Union signed with Liberia in 2008 to mine iron ore, those "12 preventive Ebola buckets" and 10 25-kilogram bags of rice don't look like much.
Chinese foreign investment has been a powerful force for African economic development (and, sadly, for the retirement funds of African kleptocrats). But China isn't not going to build up its soft power unless its government and state-owned enterprises in Africa are willing to dig a little deeper. Meanwhile, the paltriness of China's assistance relative to both its commercial presence and to the U.S. also raises a difficult question for American strategists and bean counters: Especially in Africa and the Middle East, how do you get China to stop free-riding in a way that still protects the prerogatives of an aging hegemon?
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. The opinion expressed is his.