Post #98: Reality Check on China

Will the real China please stand up?  In the US media, most stories about China raise questions that amount to threat-mongering.  How can China’s “aggressiveness” in the South China Sea be stopped?  Is China forming a new alliance with Putin’s Russia?  Has China hacked its way into the most sensitive US industrial and military secrets?  Is China on the verge of displacing the West from Africa and even Latin America?  Are the Chinese about to become a military rival of the US in terms of naval and air power?  At the same time, we now see pictures of an historic meeting of the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents in Singapore, and of a trilateral get-together among Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean finance ministers in Peru to consider a free-trade agreement.  The images of China that emerge from these diverse stories are clearly quite opposite.

China without question has a powerful new-found presence in world affairs.  It is now one of the world’s great trading nations, and it has become the top trade partner with countries such as South Korea and Japan whose trade once was dominated by the US.  China provides loans and grants to numerous developing countries, where its currency is slowly becoming a rival to the US dollar.  In fact, according to one recent report, “The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China now provide more loans to the [Asia-Pacific] region than the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank combined.” But the Chinese leadership’s most important accomplishments may be in China. It has become the world’s foremost example of poverty reduction.  It is a leader in solar and hydro energy technology.  President Xi Jinping has taken aim at official corruption in the party and army, though not in his own family and inner circle.

Abroad, besides the diplomatic initiatives with Taiwan and Japan mentioned above, China has become the most active major power in Africa, dispensing loans and making investments that have contributed to public health, local employment in manufacturing, and transportation.  The Chinese military is becoming an important part of UN peacekeeping operations, for the first time including those that involve combat.  China’s voice at international conferences on climate change is influential, and its agreement with the Obama administration on reducing carbon emissions will be noteworthy if both sides follow through.  And its influence in North Korea may be critical to any prospect of reaching a new agreement with Kim Jong-un on nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, as I’ve written in Will This Be China’s Century? China’s growing international impact is not (yet) equivalent to leadership.  On some of the major international issues, such as the Middle East conflicts, the refugee crisis, military spending, human rights (religious, ethnic, political), development assistance that promotes human security and civil society, and Iran’s nuclear program, China follows the lead of others and has little to say, much less proposing pathbreaking ideas and practices.  The so-called China Model may be attractive to some developing-country leaders because aid is not conditioned on the austerity or structural adjustment demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  But the essence of the model is support of the strong state, that is, centralized authority, and the quid pro quo of China’s aid and investment often is free rein for Chinese companies to extract valuable resources, notably minerals, food, and tropical forests.  Little wonder that nongovernmental organizations, such as unions, environmental groups, and small business, are among the strongest critics of Chinese development assistance in (for example) Brazil, Peru, Sri Lanka, Niger, and Kazakhstan.  We hear the charge of Chinese “neocolonialism” with increasing frequency.

In some cases, China is a free-rider, dependent on others yet not paying for the service—for example, its mining operations in Afghanistan that rely on the US military for protection, and its oil imports from the Middle East that are secured by the US Navy.  China is clearly bent on having a modern military establishment, a blue-water navy in particular, that can protect vital nearby interests.  But it still lags well behind the US in all military capabilities and seems mainly intent on having a reliable deterrent to the US in East Asia.  Unlike the US, which has a worldwide network of security alliances and basing arrangements, China has no formal allies— its seemingly tight relationship with Putin’s Russia hardly qualifies as a reliable security partnership.  But Beijing does have deeply troubled relations with several neighbors, including India, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

The real China lies within—the one that, like any other large and dynamic country, has a wealth of problems as well as problems of wealth.  An insecure leadership worries about challenges to its authority, hence is busy arresting lawyers, journalists, and activists while concentrating power around Xi Jinping.  Environmental protection is weak: water quality is declining, forests are being destroyed, deserts are expanding, fires and floods are increasing, and threats to public health are multiplying, casting doubt on the much-touted GNP figures.  Economic growth claims are further questionable because of weaknesses in the banking sector, state enterprises, and stock markets.  The rich-poor gap and protests by workers and ethnic minorities reveal the limits of growth to quell popular dissatisfactions. Employment is a major challenge because of limited opportunities for university graduates and mounting numbers of rural migrants.  China has just abandoned its one-child policy in urban areas, but that may be too little, too late to affect its ability to cope with a rapidly aging society and demands for skilled labor in coastal industries.

If we try to put all this together, what kind of China emerges?  For one, it is a country whose leaders must, by force of both history and current circumstance, pay foremost attention to domestic problems. If those problems are reasonably well addressed, leaders will have the resources and time to devote to international matters. But if they are not solved, or handled with a strong emphasis on police power, as now seems most likely, China’s leaders will continue to be preoccupied with social unrest and challenges to the party-state’s legitimacy.

Second, China’s rise has not occasioned a new grand strategy or even a clear direction. What may appear to be aggressive Chinese moves abroad may have a less ominous context, including defensive reactions to others. For example, in the South China Sea, China’s land reclamation and port and airport construction in islands under its control, and its refusal to submit the territorial dispute to international arbitration, deserve criticism.  But the US has helped raise the level of tension in those waters by announcing a “pivot” of US military power to Asia in 2011, conducting military surveillance flights and cruises close to Chinese territory, gaining military access points in the Philippines and Vietnam, sending ships on “show the flag” missions on the pretext of upholding freedom of the seas, and failing after all these years to sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So there is plenty of blame to go around, on that issue as on others.

The world today is extraordinarily insecure, and appears to me to be on the precipice of enormous upheaval.  US-Russia relations have all the look of another Cold War. The refugee crisis in Europe has created the basis for a deadly right-wing reaction (Germany 1933, a European said the other day) as well as an uncontrollable humanitarian situation. The US has military forces in three Middle East countries on missions impossible. And we may already be beyond the tipping point in global warming.  The last thing Americans, Chinese, and everyone else needs is blindness to the necessity (and opportunities) for cooperative engagement, and instead the tendency to see every move by the other as threatening.

When China’s President Xi Jinping asks for a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, he wants recognition from Washington of China’s equal status, in keeping with his emphasis on strengthening the nation, overcoming past humiliations, and thus fulfilling the “China dream.”  His historic meeting in Singapore with Taiwan’s president on November 6 may be interpreted not simply as a clever way to influence Taiwan’s upcoming elections or as a component of smile diplomacy, but as a message to the US and others that China can take care of its “core interests” peacefully and without foreign interference.  The South China Sea dispute would fit that frame of reference.  The current and future US president should evaluate Chinese actions with Xi Jinping’s notion in mind, even as it reserves the right to criticize.  US-China differences will persist for some time, but they need not become the basis for dangerous miscalculations.

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  1. Hi, Mel no problem with your Email. i will see you, afternoon, Dec.,9 at Fudan Byong Moo

  2. Thank you Mel, for this most important post that arrived during the night here in China. Tears are welling up as I read it and the morning’s news about the terrorist attacks in Paris, occurring I imagine shortly after you wrote the piece. We are all seeing in this tragedy, and also in explosive migration problems in every corner of Europe, the shades of 1933 that you reference. Add more collapsing of national economies as in Greece, and the comparison gets scary. Also begging for comparison is 1916. If there were to be any build-up of antagonism among governments similar to early last century, coupled with toppling of key stabilizing personalities such as Merkel, unresolved tension (West vs. Russia; Shiites vs. Sunni; Turkey vs. Kurds; North Korea and Iran vs. everyone, etc.) might lead to the catastrophic destruction of world order. Pre-Sarajevo tension might have been resolvable, but the situation in Europe and the Mid East in the current era seems impossibly difficult to manage, especially because of continuing policy making by great powers derived from self-not human-interest.

    Compared to Europe and the Mid-East, and in spite of US news reports critical of China, including finger-pointing over tension in XinJiang and the atolls of the China Seas, the Far East is at the moment a relative island of stability. This is due to what I see as a Chinese historical and cultural mandate to find harmonious solutions (tempered by what you note is pragmatic use of methods to keep the CPC in power). It is also because of the American fixation on manipulating the Chinese and others in Asia in favor of further US trade / currency hegemony: we don’t want to give the largest of cash cows any indigestion. But in both cases this is strategic thinking organized essentially around self interest. Odds are, the two viewpoints will not always coincide. Because it contains the elements of increasing superpower conflict, we could be looking at at the ultimate threat to world-order, an actual tipping point. There needs to be far stronger _coordination_ of both strategy and tactics coming out of Beijing and Washington when they address regional political and global environmental issues. Both powers MUST stand shoulder to shoulder with a steel-willed determination to resist the tide of chaos represented by all the issues threatening to sweep our civilizations away. I dream that this is what President Xi, Premier Li and other world leaders focused on at seminal meetings the past couple of months in DC, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Hanoi, etc. The joint US-China carbon reduction agreement might represent just such a movement towards rapprochement. If not, if further substantial merging of goals is not about to happen and if we continue going our mainly separate ways, deadly violence is certain to continue spreading. Parisians and the rest of us will be facing in coming years a nightmare threat to our very existence. We ought to wake up.


  3. Hey Mel,
    This is your quote that makes me ponder: “For one, it is a country whose leaders must, by force of both history and current circumstance, pay foremost attention to domestic problems. If those problems are reasonably well addressed, leaders will have the resources and time to devote to international matters.”
    If all states reasonably addressed their domestic problems, maybe there would be fewer international matters of which to attend. In a discussion with colleagues today about Paris, it got heated when talking of whether to keep borders open in Europe. The group was split, with a some saying Europe and Western countries should shut their borders to all Muslims and not try to parse the ‘moderates’ from the ‘radicals’. I couldn’t help but wonder if the question itself would be moot if states (foremost the US) would deal with their internal inequalities first, based on a broad definition of human security and dignity, and simultaneously not meddle in other states’ affairs. I am not disavowing internationalism, but really, if people were happy at home, would they travel to cause problems somewhere else? And if people in other states were fairly content, would people travel to fight the cause of equality and dignity for people who already have it? (Granted, this assumes that people are less radicalized when content, but for the majority that does not seem like a great leap.) I’m not naive, but how much better would the world be for all if more money was spent on education, health care, employment and leisure time than on guns and pillaging the weak or vulnerable. No matter what, I agree with Joe that the Far East with its relative stability right now is an enjoyable place to pass the time.

    1. Surely the world would be better off if governments minded their own business and devoted resources mainly to social well-being. This would not preclude a healthy internationalism focused on human-security assistance. Too bad the richest and most influential countries have reverse priorities.

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