The Loneliest Superpower

Posted on August 21, 2012

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How did China end up with only rogue states as its real friends?

The rare foreign visitor to China during the Cultural Revolution often saw a huge placard at the airport boasting the farcical claim, “We have friends all over the world.” In truth, Maoist China — a rogue state exporting revolution and armed struggle around the world, and a bitter foe of the West and the former Soviet bloc — was extremely isolated. It had a few friendships with countries like Ceausescu’s Romania and Pol Pot’s Cambodia; for a few bleak years, China’s only true ally was tiny Albania.

Forty years later, a powerful and assertive Beijing has a lot more friends. Its economic presence is warmly welcomed by many governments (though not necessarily people) in Africa; European countries regard China as a “strategic partner,” and China has forged new bonds with leading emerging economies like Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa. Yet besides Pakistan, which depends on China for military and economic assistance, and which China supports mainly as a counterweight against India, Beijing has a shocking lack of real allies.

Real strategic alliance or friendship is not a commodity that can be bought and bartered casually. It is based on shared security interests, fortified with similar ideological values and enduring trust. China excels in “transactional diplomacy” — romping around the world with its fat checkbook, supporting (usually poor, isolated, and decrepit) regimes like Angola and Sudan in return for favorable terms on natural resources or voting against Western-sponsored resolutions criticizing China’s human rights record. And the world’s second-largest economy will remain bereft of dependable strategic allies because of three interrelated factors: geography, ideology, and policy.

For one thing, China is situated in one of the toughest geopolitical neighborhoods in the world. It shares borders with Japan, India, and Russia; three major powers which have all engaged in military conflicts with China in the 20th century. It still has unresolved territorial disputes with Japan and India, and the Russians fear a horde of Chinese moving in and overwhelming the depopulated Russian far east. As natural geopolitical rivals, these countries do not make easy allies. To the southeast is Vietnam, a defiant middle power which has not only fought many wars with China in the past, but is apparently gearing up for another contest over disputed waters in the South China Sea. And just across the Yellow Sea is South Korea, historically a protectorate of the Chinese empire, but now firmly an ally of the United States.

That leaves countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal, weak states that are net strategic liabilities: expensive to maintain but that yield minimal benefits in return. In the last decade, China wooed more important Southeast Asian nations into its orbit with a charm offensive of free trade and diplomatic engagement. While the campaign produced a short-lived honeymoon between China and the region, it quickly fizzled as China’s growing assertiveness on territorial disputes in the South China Sea caused Southeast Asian nations to realize that their best security bet remained the United States. At the last East Asian Summit in Bali in November 2011, most of the ASEAN countries spoke up in support of Washington’s position on the South China Sea.  

China may be North Korea’s patron, but the two countries dislike each other intensely. Beijing’s fear of a reunified Korea motivates it to keep pumping massive aid into Pyongyang. Despite having China as its gas station and ATM, Pyongyang feels no gratitude towards Beijing, and rarely deigns to align its security interests with those of China: Consider North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has dramatically worsened China’s security environment. Worse still, Pyongyang repeatedly engaged in direct negotiations with Washington behind Beijing’s back during the China-sponsored Six-Party Talks, illustrating that it was always ready to sell its “friend” and neighbor out to the highest bidder. Yet China has little choice but to smile and play nice, as its ties with a reunified Korea would be worse: If the democratic South absorbs the North, the new country would almost certainly continue and possibly strengthen its security relations with the United States, instead of growing closer to China.

Of all its neighbors, only Pakistan has produced genuine security payoffs for China. But as internal turmoil weakens the Pakistani state, the net benefits of this relationship are decreasing. China’s expanding trade and security ties with the Central Asian autocracies face competition from Russia (their traditional protector) and the United States; these states may need China to balance against the other great powers coveting their resources and strategic locations, but they are too fearful of falling deeply into China’s orbit to form genuine alliances with it.

If geography conspires to deprive Beijing of durable security allies, the Chinese one-party system also seriously limits the range of candidates that can be recruited into Beijing’s orbit. Liberal democracies — mostly prosperous, influential, and powerful — are out of reach because of the domestic and international liabilities of forming an alliance with a dictatorship. China and the EU wouldn’t forge a security alliance; the rhetoric elevation of their relationship to a “strategic partnership,” is immediately made hollow by the existing EU arms embargo against China and incessant trade disputes.

Electoral democracies now constitute roughly 60 percent of all the states in the world, making the pool of potential political allies for China much smaller than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Newly liberal democracies like Mongolia, a neighbor of China, are loath to be tied to an autocratic behemoth, particularly a neighboring one. Instead, they seek alliance with the West for security (and one imagines that Beijing wasn’t thrilled at Mongolia and the United States recently holding joint military exercises). Today, China’s much-vaunted Cold War ties with Romania and Albania have collapsed. Although their democracies are deeply flawed, both countries’ leaders seem to understand that hitching their wagons to China would hurt their chances of being part of the West. Doing business with China is one thing — and perhaps it’s inevitable in a modern, globalized economy, but seeing eye to eye on foreign policy is another matter entirely.

Beijing’s foreign policy strategy in the last three decades has not focused on building strategic alliances. Instead, the emphasis has been on maintaining a stable relationship with the United States and capitalizing on a peaceful external environment to promote domestic economic development. Chinese diplomacy post-Mao went into overdrive only twice: squeezing Taiwan when a pro-independence government was in power (1995-2008) and the occasions when it rallied developing countries to defeat the West’s human rights campaign against China. These were the times when Beijing had to rely on its friendship (and veiled threats) to get its way, such as when it convinced states such as Algeria and Sri Lanka to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize Award ceremony in December 2010 honoring Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. But otherwise, Chinese leaders have firmly stuck to their belief that the most dependable way for a great power to safeguard its security and interests remains expanding its own capabilities while ignoring the rest of the world. 

Like other great powers, China has client states, such as North Korea and Myanmar.  If North Korea has shown how a vassal can become a dangerous trouble-maker, Myanmar illustrates why a patron should never take its charge for granted. Until the recent political thaw in Myanmar, China thought it had the isolated military junta in its pocket. But the generals ruling Myanmar apparently had other plans. They abrogated a contract with China to build a controversial dam and, before Beijing could make its displeasure known, released political prisoners and invited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Yangon for a historic visit. Today, Myanmar appears to be slipping away from the Chinese orbit of influence.

Farther afield, China may have a few countries with which it is truly on friendly terms, such as Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the Castros’ Cuba. But these are, by and large, states headed by political pariahs that are skilled manipulators of great powers. Besides access to natural resources and backing at the U.N., important as they are, good relations with such states generate little value for Beijing. In any case, the rulers of these states are old and ailing. When new, better democrats take their place, the relationship with China may cool.

Russia is the closest thing China has to a powerful quasi-ally. Their shared fear and loathing of the West, particularly of the United States, has brought Moscow and Beijing ever closer to each other. Yes, their common economic interests are dwindling: Russia has disappointed China by declining to deliver advanced weapons and energy supplies, while China has not lent enough support to Russia in its feud with the United States over missile defense and Georgia. But in a strictly tactical sense, China and Russia have become partners of convenience, cooperating at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to avoid isolation and protect each other’s vital interests. On Iran, they coordinate closely with each other to moderate the West’s pressures on Tehran. On Syria, they twice jointly vetoed UNSC resolutions to protect the Assad regime. Yet any honest Russian or Chinese would tell you point-blank that they are no allies; their strategic distrust of each other makes genuine alliance impossible.

The growth of Chinese power has created the dreaded “security dilemma”: Instead of making Chinese more secure, its growing power is striking fear among its neighbors and, worse, has elicited a strategic response from the United States, which has pivoted its security focus toward Asia. The emerging strategic rivalry will severely test Beijing’s diplomatic skills. The strategic choices available in terms of strengthening its alliance structure are few. Most Asian states want the United States to maintain its critical balancing role in the region; friends China can make in other parts of the world bring nothing to bear on this rivalry. There are, however, two difficult but promising paths China can take. One is to resolve the remaining territorial disputes with its neighbors and then throw its weight behind a regional collective security system which, once in place, could alleviate its neighbors’ fears, moderate the U.S.-China rivalry, and obviate the need for China to recruit allies. The other is to democratize its political system, a move that will once and for all eliminate the risks of a full-fledged U.S.-China strategic conflict and bring China “friends all over the world.” The first may be a reach, too little, too late — and don’t hold your breath for the latter.

Minxin Pei

China: A Superpower Without Allies

The Vietnamese National Assembly in June passed the Law of the Sea. Just ask China if there is any littoral state on earth is going without law of the sea. While the Chinese have not issued a law of the sea, they make do by seven other acts to dominate and to maintain their territory at sea, including Maritime Law, Basic Line Law, Ocean Law, etc. So Vietnam adopts the Law of the Sea is “exactly like when you own a house with a garden, and you have to fence the garden”, explained General Le Van Cuong.

Reporter: In the recent tension [in the South China Sea], Chinese media has been reporting a lot of misleading information on Vietnam. It seems China is trying to use its state-controlled media machine to incite the people, isn’t it?

Major General Le Van Cuong: Some Chinese journalists and scholars write on the Global Times, a newspaper under the People’s Daily, calling for a war against Vietnam, claiming it as the only way to solve the South China Sea issue, blaming Vietnam to be the only invader and the most aggressive country in the world. They portray Vietnam as a criminal and a deceiver who cheats their army and the whole world.

But I believe that the vast majority of China’s three million troops do not want to provoke hostilities. They want fellowship instead. The 1.3 billion people of China are benevolent and kindhearted, too. They want fellowship rather than a war from which they gain nothing. They are just playing cards which are sacrificed and deceived. Turning to more than 20 members of the Politic Bureau, it’s not that all of them want to provoke a war. The ones who want a war account for just a tiny portion.

Things go the same with the 1979 war against Vietnam. The Chinese press has published thousands of articles misleading audiences, cramming into their mind the notion that it was a glorious victory of China’s People Liberation Army over Vietnamese invaders. Thus far the people aware of the true nature of the war account for only 1%.

Chinese President Hu Jintao on August 17th told African leaders in Bejing that China “is determined in opposing rich countries that dominate poor ones, big countries that bully small ones.” What is said is rhetorical, but what is done is on the contrary.

There have been opinions that Chinese media provides misleading information that “deteriorate people.”

It has been a Chinese tradition to deceive since the Eastern Zhou dynasty. People are moulded into sheep that simply obey with the superior. Chinese media has so far been the planet’s biggest system of lying that operates just at the wills of the political elite. In this aspect, China outdoes the United States.

In 1979, China invaded Vietnam in the daytime, not at night. But so far in every anniversary, the Chinese press releases up to 700 or 800 articles in average that run similar titles, “Glorious victory of the PLA over Vietnamese invaders,” “The victorious strategic counter attack,” etc.

Ready to use cruelty

People often talk about Chinese expansionism. How popular do you think expansionism is in the world today?

Scientifically, every big nation to no small extent has some element of expansionism. Not just China, but so are the United States, Russia, Germany, Japan, and India. This is an universal characteristic [of big nations] just as wealthy people tend to look down on indigent ones. It is true to an individual, a community, and a nation also.

Therefore peaceful evolution is not unique to the United States. Although peaceful evolution of modern time traces its root to the United States, China is truly the father and the world’s master of manipulating a nation to make sure its government acts at their will. 2600 years ago, in the Spring and Autumn period, Guan Zhong of the Qi state was the inventor of peaceful evolution as he used manoeuvres of sowing division, employing economic coercion, exaggerating conflicts, and hawking slanderous news so that the king would punish the loyal and leave only the fawns and the inefficient. The nation would thereby decline and he would dominate the five neighbouring states within just several years. The United States is just an imitation of China in this aspect.

So how different is Chinese expansionism so that China is resented the world over as you’ve mentioned?

Chinese expansionism is characterized by two distinguished traits. First, it is more vigorous and vicious than other countries.

Second, China is ready to use whatever cunning trick regardless of its seriousness. The United States, Japan and EU never send their people to Vietnam to lead on local farmers in amalgamating mud and tea before taking the mixture back to China for filming and televising to the entire world. Neither do they purchase from Vietnam buffalo hooks, cinnamon roots, and leeches; nor sell low-quality, even toxic products into Vietnam. That’s why the world keeps vigilant eyes on China. China is a super power without alliances.

When does China use force?

Looking back on armed wars launched by China since 1949, how would you view the factors that got Chinese leaders use force as a solution to international relation issues?

There has been a confluence of two streams, expansionism and short-term interests. The 1969 war against the Soviet Union was a sacrifice of China to prove to the United States that China was not an ally of the Soviet Union. In February 1979, by sacrificing Vietnam, once again Beijing proved to Washington that it was not in any alliance with Hanoi. Before attacking Vietnam, Deng Xiaoping even visited Washington, wearing a cowboy hat, telling US President Carter, “we are Eastern NATO.” Vietnam was the victim in China’s exchange with the United States.

Between 1979 and 1991, China colluded with the United States and international hostile forces to choke Vietnam, blocking and sanctioning the country. This pulled Vietnam thirty years backward. That was a black age in Vietnam’s history, when all the ways out to the world were blocked by China and the United States.
Expansion is China’s long-term strategy, but whenever force is needed to deal with short-term interests relevant to that strategy, China will be ready to use force.

The fact that big countries, with their mindset of expansionism, shake hand with each other at the expense of small countries, has been seen many times in history. What about the relations between Vietnam, China and other big nations?

I believe that Vietnam was sold down the river a total of five times.

The first sellout of Vietnam was made in 1954 when China made a bargain with the United States and France. The boundary between the two regions of Vietnam should have been the 13th or 15th parallel rather than 17th. However, to win the heart of the United States and the West, China made concessions by designating the 17th parallel. It was France who later told us about this.

The second time was in 1972 when Vietnam was about to win the anti-US war. Henry Kissinger had previously initialed an agreement with Le Duc Tho and the two had reported to their superior in preparation for the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accord. But Mao Zedong invited US President Nixon to China to sign the Shanghai Joint Communique of February 27th 1972.

On March 1st 1972, Kissinger held a press conference in Tokyo, in which he gave a famous statement, “now we only look to Moscow to crush Hanoi.” Following the signing of the Shanghai Joint Communique, Nixon succeeded in doing shocking things that his previous presidents had failed to do, including blocking the Hai Phong port, the only sealane connecting Vietnam to the world, commanding airstrikes very close to China-Vietnam boundary, then launching the twelve-day campaign of “Dien Bien Phu in the air”. Loss of human lives and property caused by US air raids in the north of Vietnam since March 1st 1972 until the conclusion of the Paris Peace Accord equal the total damages in the six previous years. In the south, blood was shed. So the Shanghai Joint Communique was actually written in the blood of the Vietnamese people.

In its third time betrayal, China took over Paracel Islands in 1974. It would never had launched any attack but for the approval from the United States.

For the fourth time, China became the perpetrator behind the massacre of over two million Cambodians. China supported the Khmer Rouge with almost everything from food to arms, from ammunition to medicines. In the southwestern border war of 1976-1978, China used the Khmer Rouge to fight Vietnam. Subsequently when we liberated Cambodia, China hyped up to the world that Vietnam was plotting the establishment of “the IndoChina Federation.” It is ironical that the perpetrator of a massacre could calumniate those who saved the Cambodian people from a holocaust.

The fifth time was the border war of 1979. So there were five times China made a sellout of Vietnam.

Interview by Hữu Long  – Translation by Đoan Trang

With Friends Like These: China’s ‘Pariah’ Problem

On August 3, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelminglyapproved a non-binding resolutioncondemning the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad for its human rights violations against opposition rebels. The West, the Arab League, and most other UN member states voted to censure Assad’s government, while China, Russia, and an array of authoritarian states—including North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Iran, Myanmar, and Cuba—voted against the resolution. Though China’s vote is not unexpected, it does little to enhance Beijing’s efforts to be considered a responsible power.

China, along with a vocal Russia, has often stated that the Syrian conflict should be resolved diplomatically with as little external interference as possible. Just two weeks before the August 3 vote, China and Russiajoined forces to veto a July 20 Security Council resolution that would have authorized economic sanctions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter should the Assad government fail to implement former UN-Arab League mediator Kofi Annan’s peace plan.

There are several reasons behind China’s current stance. For one, Beijing is adhering to its long-standing foreign policy principles of sovereignty and non-intervention. A recent People’s Daily opinion piecereaffirmed that “External forces should not intervene in the regime change of a state….” By adhering to its policy of non-intervention, China has often found itself at odds with the West, supporting repressive regimes such as North Korea, Sudan, and Iran.

Moreover, China’s foreign policy principles appear to have gained increasing resonance in the wake of the NATO and Arab League intervention in Libya. Chinese international relations specialist Shi Yinhong, for example, has stated, “China’s worry about the resurgent Western ‘liberal interventionism’ is playing a substantial part” in determining Beijing’s stance on UN actions in Syria; part of China’s insistence on non-intervention is likely due to its fear of possible international intervention to support separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet. Some analysts even suggest that China’s support of Assad is rooted in fears that Iran would be in danger of Western intervention should Syria’s regime fall.

Finally, even when China acquiesces to Western precepts, as it did in Libya by abstaining from UNSC Resolution 1973, some Chinese experts contend that (pdf) Beijing’s actions did not improve its image and led to sizeable Chinese economic losses. Thus, Beijing would gain little if it were to abandon its principled stand in Syria.

China has argued it is following a different path than the West—pursuing the same goal of peace and stability but without the need for military intervention. The Chinese leadership has publicized its attempts to engage both the Syrian government and the opposition, and it has been supportive of Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. Chinese analysts have praised Beijing’s active diplomatic role in the Syria conflict, maintaining that their mediation efforts will help solve the situation if given enough time. As Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang has indicated, “To promote the political solution to the Syria issues, China has always actively balanced its work between the Syrian government and the opposition.” Western news outlets, though, have been quick to dismiss these efforts, stating that they are intended “to defuse criticism of [China’s] policy on Syria’s violence….”

Thus far, China’s diplomatic entreaties have proven fruitless, and Beijing is likely to face an increasingly untenable geopolitical position. Its relations with Arab nations, most of whom support the anti-Assad rebels, may well suffer. Though these countries have not denounced China directly, they are clearly of a different mind on the issue; Syria’s government has already been suspended from both the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Moreover, China is hurting its international image by opposing harsher measures against the Assad regime. For some time now, Beijing has taken great pain to be seen by the world community as a great power and earn the political respect that accompanies economic success. One such example is China’s efforts to have the EU lift its arms embargo on China (initially a response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown). Ironically, China has argued that it is degrading to be put in the same category as other EU-sanctioned countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Myanmar—the same countries with which it often allies.

Beijing cannot expect to be seen as a responsible world power while it associates with pariah states and defends a Syrian dictator engaged in a bloody civil war to keep power. By affiliating itself with countries on the edge of the current world order, China is undermining its own strategic aspirations. It will not be able to gain the respect of the international community or inject its ideas into the global conscience. China’s leadership would be wise to remember the old adage, “You are known by the company you keep.”

Will Piekos is a Research Associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also a blogger at “Asia Unbound” where this piece initially appeared.

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