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East Asia

China: Team Players or Team Captains?

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As China, projected to be the dominant state of the next century, continues to grow exponentially, many regional and global powers are concerned about China’s economic, political and military trajectory.

China’s global laundry list does lend to concern: its long history of isolation; 30 years of communist rule under Mao Zedong; relationships with unsavory regimes; policy towards Taiwan; involvement in the Korean War; insistence on clinging to its communist one-party rule; activity in Africa and South America; negative attitudes towards human rights; and isolated incidents like Tiananmen square in 1989 have all contributed to the international community’s mistrust of China, making many suspicious about the country’s future intentions. While some are not as pessimistic about China’s future, the unique relationship between China and the United States has been a source of confusion and quiet discord. Because they are clearly headed in two different directions – despite their economic dependence on one another – many analysts find themselves wondering whether the increasing competition between the two global powers will cause disruption to the current international order. Is Chinese foreign policy really based on an attempt to increase Chinese influence within the international sphere? Is it really an effort to upset the global balance?

From a realist perspective, China’s foreign policy is based on three assumptions about how the world works: survival in a competitive and anarchist environment; acquiring and safeguarding its own self-interests at any cost; and ensuring it has the necessary control and resources it needs to maintain the appropriate balance of power. To remain relevant on the world stage, China has departed from its traditional foreign policy of isolation and self-imposed alienation to one that has allowed itself to adapt to the modern world, transform economically into a prosperous and industrious society, and ultimately, emerge as an elite global power.

China’s newest incarnation of foreign policy was first introduced in 2005 and is built around an idea dubbed “harmonious world” by former President Hu Jintao. The idea behind this new policy is about lasting peace and common prosperity in a world where “all civilizations should coexist and accommodate each other.” Chinese leaders expressed the desire to “close the wealth divide and ease growing social tensions,” both internationally and domestically, by implementing four distinct features: embracing multilateralism, economic cooperation, preserving diversity through equality and democracy, and reforming the UN in a rational way when necessary. China, however, has not yet matched these lofty ideals with explicit courses of action.

China’s leaders have claimed they believe it is morally wrong to interfere with the domestic affairs of another sovereign country, that interventions are historically unsuccessful, and that it is in no position to criticize others because, domestically, it is similar to many other “developing” countries. Militarily, China appears to be more concerned about keeping the “barbarians” out rather than encroaching on the territory of others, South China Sea controversy notwithstanding. This theory does have some merit because China indeed lives in a rough global neighborhood. In any case, Beijing is no doubt aware that these practices are causing friction between China and the United States. However, its need to sustain a rapidly growing economy and maintain rising standards of living for its immense population – by obtaining precious resources like oil, metals, and water – may be the most powerful driver behind China’s foreign policy than anything else.

China still embraces the Marxist/Leninist model of authoritarian rule and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the only political party allowed within China. Its authority is basically unchallenged. Even though China has abandoned the formal socialist economy so characteristic of old communist societies and has embraced a “controlled” Western-style system of capitalism, China’s government has made it clear that any organized challenge to its one-party rule will not be tolerated. While many Chinese people are experiencing a new degree of personal, economic, cultural, and intellectual freedom, it is understood – to the concern of the United States – that these new freedoms are contingent on whether the party’s jurisdiction and power remains unchallenged.

Perhaps China’s leaders are motivated to reform their foreign policy in an effort to reclaim what they view as their rightful place among world powers, a position that slipped precipitously during Mao’s reign. Maybe the harmonious world foreign policy is an attempt to appeal to the United States and other international actors and to prove it has no intention of challenging the existing U.S.-centric international system. Perhaps the constant threat of economic sanctions serves as a reminder that China is vulnerable due to its reliance upon the markets of more advanced countries. It may be the case that the country fears a resurrection of an American containment policy. Despite all of these plausible perspectives, it is more than likely that Chinese foreign policy is heavily shaped by its concern that it is not yet a true global power, much less a global leader. This is self-imposed inferiority concern seems to hold great sway within influential corridors in Beijing.

While the United States does, at times, express anxiety about China’s future intentions, it no longer regards China as a bitter enemy. Since the Cold War the two have become close trading partners and have become dependent on one another economically. Despite these economic, military and political ties the two countries share, the United States simultaneously holds deep reservations about China’s relentless economic growth which is partly fueled by China’s economic espionage activities and theft of intellectual property. Paradoxically, despite fears that China might one day become a more aggressive and expansionist international player, the United States finds itself frustrated with China’s unwillingness to become a more “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. It is not so much, therefore, that America does not want an active China on the global stage so much as one that listens to the directing of the United States as concerns the entire play.

China’s distrust of these paradoxical American attitudes stems from the viewpoint that the United States is often defined by the terms containment and double standards. It is a widely-held belief among the Chinese that the U.S. wants to weaken China by obstructing its economic and military development and that it plays by two differing sets of rules. They feel America fails to live up to its own standards by promoting ‘interventionist democratization’ abroad, continues the war on terror, and critiques human rights conditions in other states. Needless to say, this apprehension creates an unclear partnership that is expected to continue deep into the future. History tells us that as a state increases in power and influence, the temptation to expand its dominion in order to modify the international system in accordance with its own set of interests becomes irresistible. Certainly, China has the potential to use its wealth, military assets, and sheer manpower to become the next global colossus. It is only natural the current global colossus might take issue with this.

While it remains highly unlikely that China will use its vast reserves to flood world markets, call in the many loans in which it has invested, or decide to stop financing American debt, the fact that the international community has to even worry about this possibility is highly disconcerting. While it is not yet clear in what direction China’s leadership wishes to move, those in favor of the so-called ‘Pax Americana’ can for now take a collective sigh of relief: while China focuses on its own domestic growth and stability, the status quo shall continue to rule.

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East Asia

Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China

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image source: chinamission.be

There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.

Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.

By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.

The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.

China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.

Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.

The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.

A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.

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East Asia

Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question

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image credit: kremlin.ru

The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.

Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.

Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.

However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.

Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.

During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.

Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.

Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.

If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.

From our partner RIAC

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East Asia

Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?

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Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.

One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.

In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.

To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.

The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.

Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.

Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.

From our partner RIAC

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