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The Sudden Ubiquity of China

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It’s not just a western obsession: Beijing really is ramping up diplomatic engagement all over the world.

charm offensive.jpgCharm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World, by Joshua Kurlantzick (Yale University Press, May 2007)

The indestructible Chinese economy, the inscrutable Chinese military, China in Sudan, China in space, China in your pet food: China is everywhere. Starting in around 2004, Western policy and media circles realized that China was establishing durable commercial, political, and even military relations in parts of the developing world where it had previously exercised little influence. Now even Bono has noticed: “If you spend any time at all in the bars or hotels of Africa, you see a lot of Chinese doing deals there,” he said earlier this year.

The great merit of Joshua Kurlantzick’s path-breaking new book is to show that this is not an accident or some unconscious process, but rather carefully sculpted Chinese foreign policy. The undeclared target of the policy is the United States, which China wants to discreetly shoehorn out of Asia. China is also keen to control access to energy supplies on other continents that the U.S. could not cut off in the event of a war—for example over Taiwan. This drives Beijing’s reluctance to entrust its energy security to global markets, and its willingness to endure the damage to its reputation that its embrace of the Sudanese government entails.

After the massacre of students in Tiananmen in 1989, China felt hemmed in by the opprobrium of the West, upon which it totally depended for investment, trade, and technology. It began to deepen its relationships with less critical governments, first amongst neighbors in Asia, then further afield. The first leader from the Western hemisphere to visit China after the massacre was Argentinean president Carlos Menem. China even patched up relations with Cambodia, whose leader Hun Sen had declared in 1988 that “China is the root of all that is evil in Cambodia”—a reference to China’s support for the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Today China is Cambodia’s closest ally and biggest aid donor, and Cambodian journalists and opposition politicians think twice before criticizing China. The post-Tiananmen generation of Chinese youth is also less liberal and more nationalistic. Because of such relationships and because of popular support, China today has much less to fear from Western criticism about domestic repression.

Above all, China puts money and technology on the line by funding infrastructure projects that international donors steer clear of because of environmental or corruption worries.

After a series of setbacks in the mid-1990s when it attempted to strong-arm its neighbors, particularly over disputed islands in the South China Sea, China realized that such tactics drove countries closer to the United States and enhanced American influence in Asia. Beijing decided to try a softer line. It has dramatically increased its engagement across a range of sectors: Chinese language training, study visits to China for government officials, journalists, and professors, skilful cultivation of the formerly pro-Taiwan Chinese diaspora in Asia. Above all, China puts money and technology on the line by funding infrastructure projects, such as a massive rail line in the Philippines or new roads in Burma and Laos, that international donors steer clear of because of environmental or corruption worries.

Kurlantzick, a South East Asia specialist known primarily through his prolific writing for The New Republic, has also done an excellent job of showing how China has extended its reach beyond Asia. China has made billions of dollars in investment in Venezuela’s oil sector. It provided logistical support to the Robert Mugabe re-election campaign in 2004. It extended a $5 billion oil-backed loan to Angola, after which Angola broke off negotiations with the IMF. As the Senegalese finance minster opined earlier this month at the annual meeting of the African Development Bank—held in Shanghai, naturally—“the Chinese treat us like adults.”

The possible success of China’s new foreign policy has far-reaching implications for the United States. The diplomatic tools that the U.S. honed for a bipolar and unipolar environment are ill-suited for the emerging world where polarity matters less than it used to, because everyone is richer and there are more direct connections between nations of the former Third World that do not require European or American mediation. The U.S. may have to adopt some of China’s tools in order to preserve or rebuild its influence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. But there is no reason to despair: China’s surging “soft power” does not derive from any inherent love for China or its culture. No one in Africa is listening to Chinese pop music. China’s influence comes from its ability to dispense no-questions-asked largesse, and it would decline sharply if China experienced an economic downturn. The appeal of America as a nation is more enduring and less dependent on what the U.S. government does or doesn’t do.

The landscape of power and influence in the developing world is changing rapidly. Kurlantzick occasionally overestimates the world’s love for China and hatred of America, and places perhaps too much faith in what a new American “public diplomacy czar” could accomplish. But his book is the first and best place to get a glimpse of what the future holds.

Mauro De Lorenzo is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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