How Would President-elect Weah Balance Diplomatic Relations With U.S., China?


Monrovia – George Manneh Weah would have to pullout a leaf from of the diplomatic playbook of his predecessor in order to efficiently balance relationship with both the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America.

“Work with China through the South-South cooperation, and then look at our traditional ties with the United States and hold them to the responsibility and obligation to ensure that Liberia develops”  – Dr. Augustine Konneh, Former Director General, Foreign Studies Institute, Liberia 

Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni, [email protected]

Outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf maneuvered to play around a relatively successful international policy despite some missteps along the way.

Sustaining ties with Beijing and at the same time staying on course with Washington had not been an easy for any Liberian leader.

Liberia enjoyed little diplomatic relations with influential nations outside of the African continent before Sirleaf’s election in 2005. Her predecessor, Charles Taylor had struggled to garner international support.

Following the second phase of the civil crisis, the interim government preceding Sirleaf’s regime severed ties with Taiwan and turned to Beijing on October 12, 2003. She cemented and deepened the bond.

“Diplomacy is based upon interest, so you have to have a package that will make the other partner see the interest that will make them buy into your relationship”, says Dr. Augustine Konneh, former Director General of Foreign Studies Institute at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Dr. Konneh, now Dean of the Graduate School at AME University, says the foremost challenge for every new government is “the question of diplomacy.”

He and several other diplomatic experts are now weighing in on the incoming government’s diplomatic strategy and how it would impact Liberia’s foreign policy in dealing with influential friendly nations.

“Everything bends around diplomacy and how are you’re able to coin your foreign policy to be able to sell it so that it can be bought by the others,” he told FrontPageAfrica in an exclusive interview.

As the experienced foreign relations expert puts it, diplomacy would surely be a nexus of the Weah-led administration after the President-elect mentioned that his government would also relied on foreign aid, at least for the short term. 

“Diplomacy always will win if you are able to package it properly and I think that’s where the next government has to work very hard because there will be challenges to make sure it’s done,” he said.

Balancing Ties With US and China

China, the world’s largest developing nation, says it has experienced similar development challenges like Liberia and wants to share its experience for mutual benefits without competing with the United States.

For the US, a traditional friend, it will continue to play its role in the development of Liberia.

But balancing the friendship with China and the US is no easy diplomatic task, especially as Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping show competing influence in global politics.

The formidable task for Weah, diplomatic experts say, is managing the interest of the two powerful nations and at the same time putting Liberia’s development priorities first.

“My suggestion is that we play mutual and dual role that we have played all along with regards to being a so-called developing nation for our own development,” suggests Dr. Konneh.

Trump’s White House is showing certain protectionism policy while Xi has embarked on a renewed globalization approach, which is steering the world’s second largest economy closer to a center stage of World governance.

“Work with China through the South-South cooperation, and then look at our traditional ties with the United States and hold them to the responsibility and obligation to ensure that Liberia develops,” said Dr. Konneh 

The ex-soccer star is taking over the leadership of Africa’s oldest republic at the time when Liberia’s traditional friend is threatening to cut aid to developing nations.

“I think we’ve done this before, if you go back during the William R. Tolbert’s administration, the administration came up with ‘Our World One’ policy, which coincided with the United States – promoting political, cultural and trade reasons,” he recalled. 

That policy, according to diplomats, allows Liberia to have diplomatic ties with both Washington and Beijing.  

And Liberia was able to link with other nations like China and as a result, the “United States have allowed us, in spite of the traditional relationship that we have with them to be able to link up with other nations for our own development stages.”

Observers of international politics assert that Liberia’s recent vote at the United Nations against President Trump’s decision to declare Jerusalem as capital of Israel would have ramifications.

“Trump’s White House might not hold back all its punches,” one diplomatic source said.

Nevertheless, US Ambassador to Liberia, Christine Elder assured Liberians recently that, “As ever, the United States stand behind you Liberia and also offer you continue support as you strengthen your nation and lift Liberians up.”

That was a reassured guarantee coming from Uncle Sam, although the Trump administration continues to present itself with uncertainties. 

But Dr. Konneh thinks Liberia’s good friends in Washington would not allow it.

 “Those who are in the legislature (US Congress) will not allow Donald Trump to take those kinds of drastic measures because no matter what happens, they (US) do have certain treaties that we signed with the United States that really obliged them and give them the obligation to ensure that Liberia is in a good footing,” he said.

However, he predicted that Weah’s administration would face “some challenges” with Trump but with the “right kind of diplomacy” to remind the US about their obligation to Liberia the challenges would be curbed.

Would lobbying be Key for Weah?

President Sirleaf’s lobbying strategy across the world ensured her rapport with the international community, branding her “A Darling of the West”.

Her critics lashed at her for woefully spending millions on lobbyists, which they asserted, only help sanitized her image at the detriment of several other competing priorities in the country.

On the other hand, she vaunted of pulling strings for the weaver of the country’s massive international debts after reaching the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) point – a club of very poor nations that can’t afford to pay their debts.

Although it is being speculated that the Weah led administration is expected to inherit huge foreign debts, he would be in a pretty good situation than his predecessor.

Lobbying will also be a significant diplomatic tactic for the next government, and the former Director of the Foreign Studies Institute says the transitional team must ensure ideas and policies of the outgoing administration is corroborated and transferred to the incoming administration.

He said ‘turnover notes’ should be given to the next government to allow them understand the diplomatic workings of the outgoing administration.

“It is important for this government to have the right kind of people and to know the right kinds of things to do,” he said.

“I think there are dividends in terms of lobbying and so if you have the right kind of people, the right kind of message and the right kind of approach lobbying plays a very important role – all other nations do that.”

One China Policy

Like lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C, upholding the ‘One China Policy’ is decisive for the next Liberian government. 

“I have no doubt that the next administration will maintain the One China Policy, given the fact that the country has benefited a great deal as a result of China appreciating us for having a one China policy,” Dr. Konneh said.

President Sirleaf recently described China as a “good friend” and a “partner, willing to demonstrate confidence in the future of Liberia.

Development projects sponsored by China in Liberia over the last 10 years show the Asian nation’s indelible footprints on soil of Africa’s oldest republic.

Large-scale infrastructures including schools, hospitals, roads, and hundreds of scholarships for Liberians to study at various Chinese universities have deepened people-to-people diplomacy between the two nations.

Outgoing Chinese ambassador Zhang Yue, describes the projects as “strong political support from China to the diplomacy of Liberia.”

“All these projects have laid a big milestone marking the friendship and cooperative relationship between Liberia and China,” Zhang said in December 2017 during the partial dedication of the RIA new runway and terminal building.

But Beijing has an uncompromising ‘One China policy’, which forbids its friends from recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Several Liberian diplomats have expressed optimism that the West African nation will uphold the ‘One China Policy’ because of the benefits it brings.

“Liberia cannot turn their backs on the “One China policy” because it is a legislated,” said one diplomatic source. “The benefits are enormous, so who would want to abandoned friends that have been so good to them.”

Dr. Konneh adds: “It’s become very apparent that the next government would ensure that we stay in that same mode so that we would continue to benefit because as a result of this appreciation from the Chinese.”

For Weah, he will have to play his cards well, perhaps taking a leaf from Ellen’s diplomatic playbook in order to advance the relationship by exploring means to deepen ties with China for mutual benefits and win-win cooperation.

The Chinese have emphasized win-win cooperation as a module of its foreign relations policy by focusing on developing nations, regardless the inklings about their economic and political maneuvering in Africa.

There are reports China wants to set up a steel factory in Liberia to process iron ore in the country instead of taking the raw material to China for value addition.

“So, what the next government needs to do is tap into this and gets China to provide some added value into what we’re doing right now. I think it’s a defining moment for the next government coming into power,” Dr. Konneh said.