China and the New African Great Game

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, China, and Africa
Conference Papers
May 13, 2013

There is a massive literature on China in Africa, and over the next few weeks I am going to be posting links to some of the better, more interesting resources in that regard. This particular Brookings conference paper, which frames a “trilateral” dialogue between the US, China, and Africa, is thought-provoking piece. Africa’s challenges are certainly large enough that they must be addressed by the locals and the world’s two largest powers, and even then, there is no guarantee that they would be addressed.

Despite points of light like South Africa, the continent seems to have fallen into something of a holding pattern. Progress remains, well, moderately paced. Poverty, AIDS, environmental degradation, and politics that put Byzantium to shame offer China a fertile field for political and commercial engagement, but the problems that hold the continent down remain intractable.

You could start a good fight at a cocktail party in Beijing by suggesting that China is just the latest boot on the collective neck of the people in Africa. Yes, the assertion is hyperbolic, but it raise the question of whether Beijing’s engagement has been any better for the people of Africa than colonial exploitation or the misguided foreign aid regime promulgated by the US since the 1960s. Indeed, a read through this paper offers the unappealing suggestion that just as we in the west are questioning the value of aid, China is doubling down on handouts. China, it seems, has not learned much about what works in Africa since its own ill-fated ventures there in the 1960s. If what China is practicing in Africa is not some variety of mercantilist neocolonialism, I would be pleased to know what to call it.

And the US is no white hat, here. In fact, it is starting to look like we have already passed the high-water mark of engagement with Africa beyond the ongoing terrorist hunt. The Obama-Hegel review of defense spending makes it apparent that the Department of Defense will gut the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the coming years, and I would bet on the DoD standing down the command before 2020. As it must be: given the resources available the US is arguably best off returning to a hemispheric strategy, allowing Beijing (and possibly Delhi) to fall into the Imperial Overreach trap.

As recent events in Libya and Mali demonstrate, Europe remains better positioned historically and otherwise to engage in Africa than the US. But ongoing economic issues – and Russia’s growing adventurism – means that the focus of European defense will most likely shift east again, even if the economies of Europe and Africa become increasingly interlocked through immigration and trade.

The real story for Africa will be how to balance the growing influence of China with that of India. The Middle East, while the destination of many African exports, is (as Europe) set on its own Via Dolorosa as the politics of the region evolve. India and China, with robust economies and growing competition, look to be the next players in the African Great Game.

The question now is what form that great game will take. Brookings is appropriately concerned that the continent will become increasingly dependent on its emerging market trading partners. The nations of Africa need political stability, economic growth, and a population able to spend money. Those things will not happen if Africa once again finds itself on the wrong end of a mercantile economy, in particular if corrupt elites and bureaucracies can lean on their opportunistic Chinese and Indian patrons for support.

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China’s Assertiveness: Seven Years in the Making (At least)

Imperialism with Chinese Characteristics? Reading and Re-Reading China’s 2006 Defense White Paper
Mike Metcalf
NI Press
September 2011

Flag ~ China - People's Liberation Army

Flag ~ China – People’s Liberation Army (Photo credit: e r j k p r u n c z y k)

Mike Metcalf, a member of the faculty at the National Intelligence University in the US, has spent a lot of time parsing China’s seminal 2006 Defense White Paper. China has issued such signalling documents in the past. What distinguishes this one, according to Metcalf, is that it points Beijing toward a national security posture that goes beyond territorial defense.

In the publication, Metcalf provides his own overview of the white paper, then offers two translations of the analysis of the paper by the man considered its pricipal drafter, Dr. Chen Zhou of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, as well as Metcalf’s own analyses of Dr. Chen’s point of view.

It is a rare treat to have an informed and scholarly discussion on Chinese source material made available in a format the rest of us can digest. All the more so given that the import of this book is to prove that China’s assertive nationalism is not a product of Xi Jinping’s making, but something that has been in the works for nearly a decade. As such, it is hard to expect this direction to be fleeting: we are looking at what is likely to be a lasting trend in Chinese international relations.

For the PLA, Has War Already Begun?

“China’s ‘Three Warfares’ and India”
Abhijit Singh
Journal of Defence Studies
October-December 2013
pp. 27-46

Cymraeg: Sun Tzu. mwl: Sun Tzu. Português: Sun...

Sun Tzu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The author, who is a research fellow at India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, offers up a highly readable paper with a fascinating proposition: China is already at war with India.

Singh calls out what he calls China’s “Three Warfares” (3Ws) strategy, by which China wages war against an adversary by influencing public opinion, conducting psychological operations, and laying the legal groundwork to support its territorial claims. The PLA, through “work regulations” issued in 2010, is now focusing that effort on India.

It does not demand much effort to see that China is pursuing the same approach in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. What is disturbing is that this effort is not directed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by the PLA. This is not diplomacy as far as the Party is concerned: this is asymmetrical warfare.

The paper is a fascinating, short, and essential read for those looking to understand China’s near-abroad foreign policy, and who inside of Beijing’s guarded compounds is actually running the show.

Africa Three-Way

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, Africa and China is the proceedings of a private conference organized in Beijing by the Africa Growth Initiative and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings, with the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research at the University of Ghana and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The question was whether there was room for cooperation between the three sides to address Africa’s challenges. The conference identified common interests. Will that be enough to drive cooperation?

A Glance at the World through the Dragon’s Eye

Shadow Monk

Shadow Monk (Photo credit: AkumAPRIME)

China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise
Lionel Vairon
CNTimes Books
August, 2013
160pp

As any follower of China, of global geopolitics, or The Peking Review will attest, the most troubling question about the future of China is whether or not the Middle Kingdom poses a threat to the security of its neighbors, or to any other country in the world. Ink aplenty has been split arguing both ways, and some authors (most notably Bill Gertz at the Washington Times) have made careers painting China as the inevitable adversary, our new foil in a new cold war.

For its part, China’s leaders have done little to clear the air, choosing obfuscation over transparency whenever possible. There are three possible reasons for this: Beijing may see fostering strategic uncertainty as a viable strategy while it builds national strength; the leaders may yet be unaware that it devolves on a major power to telegraph its intentions in the name of peace; or it just may be the case that there is yet no consensus or clarity in Beijing about China’s grand strategy.

Actions bespeak the same confusion. On the day after China injected itself into the fraught Mideast peace process, the People’s Daily escalated uncertainty on its doorstep by calling into question Japan’s claim of sovereignty over Okinawa.

It is into this fraught milieu that former French diplomat Lionel Vairon wades in his new book China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise. Vairon pulls no punches, but he is no panda-slugger. On the contrary, some readers will be tempted to brand him a Sinopologist after reading the introduction:

“The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with its toll of over 80,000 dead and over fifteen million displaced, was “karma”—well deserved—for crimes supposedly committed by the Chinese against the Tibetans. This statement by American actress Sharon Stone, made at the Cannes International Film Festival in France that same month, illustrates perfectly the level of insensitivity, propaganda, and growing, gratuitous hostility that characterized the attitude of some of the Western public in the face of the successes achieved by the Chinese and their leaders after thirty years of hard work.”

To quickly dismiss Vairon with such an easy ad hominem “j’accuse” would be unwise. There is substance to his argument that, if nothing else, invites a little honest self-examination from the rest of us. Harkening to Jean-Francois Revel and his parallel examination of the ugly roots of Anti-Americanism, Vairon probes whether there may not be a similarly-motivated Anti-sinicism growing in the West.

Paradoxically, the anti-Chinese frenzy that swept over Western media and politicians at the time, in anticipation of the Olympic Games in Beijing, seems to mark the beginning of a new historical period in light of China’s rise, which may comport to some extent with Revel’s statement. This exploitation of the visible manifestations of Chinese power achieved its aim, first planting a seed of doubt in public opinion regarding the true designs of Chinese leaders behind their usually appeasing discourse before the international community, then transforming that doubt into a growing conviction that behind this façade of cooperation lurked solid hegemonic ambitions.

And therein lies Vairon’s theme: are we reading into China’s words and behaviors a veiled intent, or is that interpretation merely the projection of our own fears of decline and irrelevance? Do we not come to the whole question of China with a mille-fuille of personal biases?

Fair questions. Yet Vairon dives into even more uncomfortable territory. Do we not fear China’s implicit challenge to our Western secular ethos of ultraliberalism and globalization? A half-century after the decolonization of Africa, do our criticism’s of China’s African ventures not taste faintly of hypocrisy?

Vairon peppers his essay – for that is what this book is, an extended essay – with a series of jarring, now-wait-just-a-damned-minute assertions that provoke the American reader almost to the point of turning the book/Kindle into a lethal projectile hurled across a room. There are moments where you want to say “hey, Lionel, mon ami, can we look at what China is doing beneath all of this?”

Slogging through ninety-thousand odd words of this is hard on the preconceptions, but for any of us who care about the role of China in the future and who pride ourselves in a degree of intellectual honesty, it is essential tempering. And Vairon provides an unusually well-articulated look at the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world from the other side of the table.

Barring the unthinkable, a long road lies ahead in the relationship between China and the West. The time to ask hard questions not just about how we percieve China, but also about the nature and roots of our prejudices, is now. If we re-emerge after an honest assessment and find Bill Gertz’s voice speaking most loudly in our heads, then at least we have asked. But if we come out the other end after encountering a card-house of ill-formed opinion, then we will have been driven back to, as Deng Xiaoping once said, seek truth from facts.

And, if nothing else, we will have had a precious opportunity to see the worldview from Beijing. That can only be a good thing as we move forward. It might provide the beginnings of the empathy necessary to cross the gap between East and West. Or, in the worst of all cases, we will at least better know our enemy.

Why TPP is Not a Four-Letter Word

Strategic Implications of TPP: Answering the Critics”
Ellen Frost
East-West Center 

July 9, 2013

The East-West Center’s Ellen West explains how TPP is a good thing not only for Japan and Korea, but for the entire region. In so doing she explains – concisely – why we shouldn’t be worried about Beijing’s reaction to the treaty.

Chatham House on the Xi Administration

 

Xi Jinping - Caricature

Xi Jinping – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

“The New Leadership in Beijing: Political and Economic Implications”
Kerry Brown
Chatham House
July 2013

If you have grown tired of reading analyses of Xi Jinping and his leadership program, you are not alone. The tea-leaf readers have been out in force this year, and anyone coming to the party at this point is somewhat late. But if you really care about what is going on in China, you are left with little choice but to keep reading. I do. Not necessarily because I expect a revelation with each new document, but because the better ones sharpen the definition of an incredibly fuzzy picture.

Many of my fellow China Condors and I are hoping to get some clarity about the next ten years following the coming plenum of the Party congress. The leaders have been chosen, the theory goes, and now it is time to lay out the policy platform that will guide the country over the next decade. There is much wishful thinking here: none of us are betting that we are going to be any clearer about the new leadership’s priorities then than we are now.

So we keep scouring the literature, and Kerry Brown’s paper is delightful in its brevity and clarity. Of all of his conclusions, the one that is likely to spark the most controversy (see the Eurasia Review link below) is this:

This is a leadership set up therefore for a domestic agenda and that will resist attempts to pull it more deeply into international affairs, which are seen as lying beyond what the elite define as in China’s national interests (preservation of stability, building up economic strength, safeguarding sovereignty), despite the very real pressures that will be put on it to that effect.

Comforting words, if true, particularly to China’s neighbors. Japan and the Philippines in particular are understandably worried about Chinese adventurism. Yet there is a limit implicit in Brown’s statement. The moment that China’s elite define the national interest as a plunge into international affairs – perhaps as a palliative to a restive populace, or in defense of the threatened assets of national enterprises – all bets are off.

A great read, and if you have read nothing else about the new leadership, Brown’s paper is an excellent précis of a vast and growing corpus of analysis.