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Thesis & Antithesis

A critical perspective on energy, international politics & current affairs

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greekdefaultwatch@gmail.com Natural gas consultant by day, blogger on the Greek economy by night. Trained as an economist and political scientist. I believe in common sense and in data, and my aim is to offer insight written in language that is clear and convincing.

29 July 2005

Chinese diplomacy

Two moves by China this week underscore the dramatic effect that China’s diplomacy is having on the world stage; at the ASEAN meeting in Laos, the foreign ministers of the ASEAN countries announced the holding of an East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in December 2005; meanwhile, on July 26, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe signed a deal in Beijing that probably gave China access to platinum and other minerals (the details were not made public).

The first of these, the East Asian Summit, heralds yet another Chinese move to set up structures that exclude America from the Pacific Rim. Earlier this month, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, consisting of China, Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, called for US forces to leave Central Asia, evidence of China’s agenda in meetings that do not include the US. As the Wall Street Journal commented,

“The stated long-term aim of the summits is the creation of an—as yet undefined— ‘East Asian Community.’ That’s a goal which offers Beijing an opportunity—especially in the absence of a U.S. presence—to try to fashion and dominate a new regional power axis, and sideline the trans-Pacific organizations in which America currently plays an important role” (1).

China’s long-term strategy no doubt includes the gradual expulsion of US power from East Asia and its replacement with China’s own sphere of influence. Dan Blumenthal, of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank, catalogues China’s efforts in bringing this about in his testimony at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2), a speech worth reading. Suffice it to say that cultivating close relations with neighbors, and trying to establish the pre-eminence of their links to Beijing over Washington is integral to this strategy.

Which brings us to Zimbabwe. China’s agreement with Robert Mugabe is probably less strategically important than other deals Beijing has made and might even prove short lived; as Roger Bate, also of the American Enterprise Institute, writes, “China knows that Mugabe could fall from power any day and cannot assume that mineral rights deals done today will survive regime change” (3).

But this deal follows a pattern by Beijing of approaching those countries that the West has rejected. When Talisman Energy, a Canadian energy firm, was forced by activists to stop doing business in Sudan, the Chinese gladly picked up the tab; when Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan ordered a crackdown against protestors in the Andijan region (believed by opposition figures to have killed 745 people), he was censured in the Western press while “rewarded” by China with a $600m oil deal (4).

Myanmar, a country under Western sanctions for a decade and a half, has received “over $1.6 billion in military assistance and $200 million in economic assistance from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in recent years” (2). Not only is Myanmar a possible supplier of gas (though it recently signed a deal for a gas pipeline to India through Bangladesh), but China perceives Myanmar as a possible overland alternative to the Malacca Straits (2); even more, China has a military surveillance station in the Burmese Coco Islands in the Indian Ocean (between the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea).

In other words, China is acting as an alternative to Western power and increasingly tries to act as a substitute for it. As Robert Kaplan wrote, “China’s mixture of traditional authoritarianism and market economics has broad cultural appeal throughout Asia and other parts of the world. And because China is improving the material well-being of hundreds of millions of its citizens, the plight of its dissidents does not have quite the same market allure as did the plight of the Soviet Union’s Sakharovs and Sharanskys” (5).

China has yet to recognize the perils of propping up nasty regimes. For example, America’s bargain with Saudi Arabia (whereby the Kingdom’s security is roughly exchanged for Saudi intervention to stabilize the world oil market) has backfired, producing terrorists in one of America’s closest allies; The Economist thinks the same could happen with China’s support for Mr. Karimov: “Sooner or later, whether through revolutionary upheaval or the passage of time, Mr Karimov's rule will come to an end. When it does, Uzbeks will not remember China's support of the Andijan massacre kindly” (4).

Or, as the Wall Street Journal wrote, “By supporting states that brutalize their citizens and destabilizing their regions, China is protecting sources of political and economic instability” (6). This could undermine China’s own strategy; Holman Jenkins, Jr. notes, “China only makes itself that much more hostage to the maintenance of peace and a stable global trading system with its reliance on distant energy supplies” (7).

Nonetheless, the West needs a strategic re-think. America, in particular, cannot afford to pretend that it still occupies a unipolar world; its alliances with countries in Asia will need special care to be maintained; and its presumption that sanctions isolate countries from the fruits of the international community need to be updated—they merely substitute Western fruits for Chinese fruits, and the latter are less eager to judge the domestic policies of the tyrants the West is so eager to displace.

References:
(1) “China’s Power Play in Asia,” Wall Street Journal Asia, 29 July 2005
(2) Dan Blumenthal, “The Impact of China’s Economic Growth on North and Southeast Asia,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Testimony, 22 July 2005, AEI website (link)
(3) Roger Bate, “Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe Sells Platinum Rights to Chinese in Effort to Cling to Power,” Daily Standard, 27 July 2005
(4) An oil deal between China National Petroleum Corporation and Uzbekneftegaz. “The dragon and the tyrant,” The Economist, 2 June 2005
(5) Robert Kaplan, “How we could fight China,” The Atlantic, June 2005
(6) “Mugabe’s Asian Ally,” Wall Street Journal, 28 July 2005
(7) Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “China Joins the Club,” Wall Street Journal, 27 July 2005

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