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The battle for the Iranian nuclear deal: China approaches a watershed

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Conventional wisdom has it that China stands to benefit from the US withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, particularly if major European companies feel that the risk of running afoul of US secondary sanctions is too high.

In doing so, China would draw on lessons learnt from its approach to the sanctions regime against Iran prior to the nuclear deal. China supported the sanctions while proving itself adept at circumventing the restrictions.

However, this time round, as China joins Russia and Europe in trying to salvage the deal, things could prove to be different in ways that may give China second thoughts.

The differences run the gamut from an America that has Donald Trump as its president to a Middle East that is much more combative and assertive and sees its multiple struggles as existential, at least in terms of regime survival.

Fault lines in the Middle East have hardened because of Israel, Saudi and United Arab Emirates assertiveness, emboldened by both a US administration that is more partisan in its Middle East policy, yet at the same time less predictable and less reliable.

Add to this Mr. Trump’s narrow and transactional focus that targets containing Iran, if not toppling its regime; countering militancy, and enhancing business opportunities for American companies and the contours of a potentially perfect storm come into view.

That is even truer if one looks beyond the Gulf and the Levant towards the greater Middle East that stretches across Pakistan into Central Asia as well as China’s overall foreign trade.

China’s trade with the United States stood last year at $636 billion, trade with Iran was in that same period at $37.8 billion or less than five percent of the US volume.

The recent case of ZTE, one of China’s largest IT companies, tells part of the story.

Accused of having violated sanctions, the US Department of Commerce banned American firms from selling parts to ZTE, bringing the company to near bankruptcy. Mr. Trump appears to be willing to help salvage ZTE, but the incident significantly raises the stakes, particularly as China and the United States try to avoid a trade war.

That is but one consideration in China’s calculations. Potentially, other major bumps in saving the nuclear agreement lurk around the corner and could prove to be equally, if not more challenging.

Tensions in the Middle East are mounting. The fallout of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and seemingly unqualified backing of Israel in its almost certainly stillborn plan for peace with the Palestinian is reverberating.

Discontent across the region simmers just below the surface, magnified by youth and next generations in countries like Syria and Yemen who have little to look forward to.

The bumps fall into three categories: the degree to which China feels that it can continue to rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf; pressure on China by Middle Eastern states to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being a great power, if not take sides; and change in a region that is in a process of transition that is volatile, violent and could take decades to play out.

Yet, as China takes stock of the Middle East’s volatility and China’s strategic stake in regional stability, it appears ill-equipped to deal with an environment in which its traditional policy tools either fall short or no longer are applicable.

Increasingly, China will have to become a geopolitical rather than a primarily economic player in competitive cooperation with the United States, the dominant external actor in the region for the foreseeable future.

China has signalled its gradual recognition of these new realities with the publication in January 2016 of an Arab Policy Paper, the country’s first articulation of a policy towards the Middle East and North Africa.

But, rather than spelling out specific policies, the paper reiterated the generalities of China’s core focus in its relations with the Arab world: economics, energy, counter-terrorism, security, technical cooperation and its Belt and Road initiative.

Ultimately however, China will have to develop a strategic vision that outlines foreign and defence policies it needs to put in place to protect its expanding interests; its role and place in the region as a rising superpower, and its relationship and cooperation with the United States in managing, if not resolving conflict.

To be sure, China is taking baby steps in that direction with its greater alignment with international moves to combat Islamic militancy even if its campaign in north-western China risks straining relations with the Islamic world, the creation of a military facility in Djibouti, work on a naval base in Pakistan’s Jiwari peninsula, and cross-border operations in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Those may be the easier steps. Dealing with partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that seek to establish regional hegemony by imposing their will on others at whatever cost may be more difficult. So far, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not pressured China to choose in their rivalry with Iran.

But it can only be a matter of time before they do, particularly if Chinese investment in Iran and trade were able to offset the impact of US sanctions to the degree that the Islamic republic is not forced to compromise. To evade that situation, China has offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an offer the kingdom was unwilling to take up.

China is not immune to Saudi pressure. To protect their Saudi and UAE interests, Chinese alongside Hong Kong and Japanese banks refused earlier this year to participate in a one-year extension of a $575 million syndicated loan to Doha Bank, Qatar’s fifth-biggest lender.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia in April forced major multi-national financial institutions to choose sides in the Gulf spat with Qatar. In response to Saudi pressure, JP Morgan and HSBC walked away from participating in a $12 billion Qatari bond sale opting for a simultaneous Saudi offering instead.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia in Iran are far greater than those in Qatar. Iran poses an existential threat to the House of Saud for reasons far more intrinsic than the accusations Riyadh lobs at Tehran. The more Iran is able to defeat US sanctions, the more Saudi Arabia is likely to push China and to reduce their support of the nuclear agreement.

That pressure can take multiple forms. With US-backed efforts at regime change in Tehran potentially on the horizon, Saudi Arabia has put building blocks in place over the last two years.

Large sums originating in the kingdom have found their way to militant, virulently anti-Shiite, ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan.

A Saudi thinktank allegedly backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has developed plans to stir unrest among the Baloch minority in Iran, partly in a bid to complicate operations at the Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 75 kilometres up the coast from Gwadar, a crown jewel of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, China’s $50 billion plus Belt and Road stake in Pakistan.

China, moreover, has so far relied on its economic clout as well as Saudi Arabia to remain silent about a crackdown in Xinjiang that targets Islam, putting the kingdom as custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities in an awkward position.

The long and short of all of this is that, in an environment in which the Middle East views conflicts as zero-sum games, China is likely to find it increasingly difficult to remain aloof and straddle both sides of the fence. Salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal could come at a cost China may not want to pay.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Chinese Communist Party and the path of “high-quality development” at Guangdong Province

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A night view of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on March 10, 2018. (PHOTO / VCG)

During the meeting of “Huang Kunming”, Secretary of Guangdong Provincial Party Committee mentioned that it is significant for Guangdong embark on a path of high-quality development fit for its own situation. According to my highly understand of China’s high-quality development and analysis to the nature of the Chinese society and the polices of the Communist Party of China regarding the development is meaning (all-round building a strong modern socialist country) and all-round rejuvenation of the Chinese nation still need to rely on development.

 With the continuous development of the Chinese economy and the deepening of reforms, China put forward a new expression of “high-quality development” for the first time at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, which indicates that China’s economy has moved from a stage of rapid growth to a stage of high-quality development.

 Changing China’s economic development strategy is an inevitable choice in line with the law of development and the demands of its development. Now, China is seeking to change its previous development pattern of relying on a large number of factors of production to focus more on quality and efficiency.  It has begun to adhere to the implementation of the new development philosophy that emphasizes innovative, coordinated, green and open development for all, and to build a new development pattern that relies on domestic trade and promotes integration between domestic and foreign trade to enable the Chinese society to complete the building of a strong modern socialist country in an all-round way, Chinese side should stick to advancing high-quality development as the top priority, as President Comrade “Xi Jinping” stressed in the report.

 High-quality development mainly depends on the economy’s vitality, innovation and competitiveness.  In order to improve these capabilities, China is accelerating the implementation of the innovation-driven development strategy, intensifying its efforts to achieve a high level of self-reliance in scientific and technological research, mobilizing forces and focusing on solving intractable problems in original and pioneering science and technology research to achieve breakthroughs in some crucial and pivotal technologies, which are guided by these strategies, China has achieved good results in manned space industry, lunar and Mars sounding, deep-sea and land exploration, supercomputers, satellite navigation, quantum information, electro-nuclear technologies, large-scale passenger aircraft, medicine, biopharmaceuticals and other fields over the past years, and joined the ranks of innovative countries in the world.

 Green development is an important symbol of the transition of China’s economy from the stage of rapid growth to the stage of high-quality development. In recent years, China has pushed the green transition to a development mode, implemented the comprehensive rationalization strategy, developed green and low-carbon industries, and advocated green consumption.

  The bright future of China’s economy stems from more flexible and high-quality development. In 2021, China calmly responded to changes in the world as well as the COVID-19 epidemic, took new steps to build a new development pattern, achieve new results in high-quality development, and achieve a good start for the 14th Five-Year Plan. China has maintained a leading position in the world in economic development and in epidemic prevention and control, accelerated the growth of national strategic scientific and technological forces, improved the flexibility of the industrial chain, continued to deepen supply-side structural reforms, and made solid progress in the green transformation of the low-carbon economy and prosperity subscriber.

  Here, with the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China, the significant advantages of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, the technological foundation accumulated since reform and opening up, the extremely large market advantage and domestic demand potential, and with huge human capital and human resources, the Chinese economy will continue to grow steadily on the path of high-quality development, enabling China to contribute in achieving a steady and stable progress in the recovery of the global economy.

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China’s Deflating Population: The Economic Marvel in Eclipse?

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So China’s population shrank last year. I admit my first instinct was … well, isn’t this a good thing? I mean, during the entire 1960s and 1970s, global discourse misted around how the world population kept growing beyond the finite resources of this world. And how food scarcity and poverty would create a social depression. China, with a population of roughly 1.4 billion people, was specifically a focal point of population reduction strategies. After the widespread catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, a debilitating social program orchestrated by Mao Zedong in the late 50s, China’s population was on the up and up in the following decade, to the point that the infamous ‘One-Child Policy’ was introduced in the late 70s to inhibit the burden of a growing population – and concomitant poverty. Since then, however, China has dynamically transformed into an economic powerhouse – a factory floor for global manufacturing. And here lies the answer to this population conundrum: Shrinking population in China is a problem now!

According to the data released by the Chinese government last week, China’s population contracted by circa 850,000 people in 2022; with 9.56 million births against 10.41 million deaths, it was the first time in more than half a century that deaths outnumbered births in China. The initial thought would be to blame it on the pandemic. But that would be a blinkered assumption without gauging the stunted birth rate. It was the sixth consecutive year that the number of births fell, down from 10.6 million in 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Many demographers and statisticians warned for years about a population decline on the cards, albeit much later in this decade. This presage was why the government reposed its one-child policy in 2016 and extended the limit to three children in 2021. Local governments offered tax rebates and outright cash handouts to couples having children. The source of anxiety was partly social and partly economic – or maybe socioeconomic is the correct juxtaposition.

China is a rising economic power, the world’s second-largest economy, and the strongest contender to dethrone American supremacy. But in listing all the superlatives, we sometimes forget that China is still a developing economy. Despite its phenomenal evolution from endemic poverty, its average population still earns less than the average earnings in advanced economies. And the shrinking population is a two-pronged issue that could constrict China, like other leading developing economies, into a middle-income trap.

Just by simple inference, we can judge that a declining population is also an aging population. Impressive modernity in China’s healthcare system has led to an increase in life expectancy. Meanwhile, a decades-long hiatus in birth-conducive policies and changed mores of young Chinese couples, often antipathetic to having children altogether, have led to a sharp decline in births. A combination of these factors has invited a conspicuous outcome: Shrinkage in China’s working-age population. In fact, China’s working-age population has been in decline since 2015; according to a government spokesman, it could fall to roughly 700 million (approximately 23%) by 2050. This factor would be particularly problematic for China, which has long been a competitive labor market for manufacturing heavyweights like Apple and Microsoft. But moreover, a bulging elderly population amidst falling tax receipts would pose a challenge to government finances, especially given the comparably underdeveloped social safety net programs in China. Therefore, either taxes ought to be raised sharply or state pensions to old-age dependents would hit the skids – a spartan policy dilemma either way.

We can draw apt comparisons from Japan – the world’s third largest economy – which has notoriously suffered from a lopsided aging population and accompanying anemic economic growth since the asset bubble burst of the 1990s. I mean, China’s real estate market does look like a financial crisis just waiting to happen. But post-boom Japan has tried virtually every bizarre economic strategy – from negative interest rates to yield curve control – yet has failed to spark demand-led inflation. Strangely, however, China has sustained its bustling economy on prohibitive rates of investment rather than consumer demand, which has remained relatively lukewarm due to policymakers’ reluctance to pass the complete scope of economic growth to households. Nonetheless, a contracting labor force would perhaps accelerate the exodus of manufacturing from China unless the government finds alternatives to sustain China’s unrivaled productivity levels.

We could blame China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy for strangling economic growth. It is no surprise that China’s economy grew by a modest 3% in 2022, its slowest rate in nearly four decades, barring 2020. Intermittent lockdowns and pedantic mass testing regimes cast a pall over economic activities. And higher interest rates imposed by the Federal Reserve and other central banks have dampened global demand and diluted appetite for Chinese imports. According to government officials, year-on-year Chinese exports fell by 9.9% in December. While an economic turnaround is widely expected later this year, a falling working-age population; a skyward old-age dependency ratio; and the ongoing trade tussle with the United States could cost China many more decades to supersede the American edge. However, China has been an iridescent success story, an economic miracle of sorts. And therefore, if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could somehow prioritize economy over national security; social reforms over governmental control; and collaboration over confrontation, I reckon China can again defy the odds and achieve its dream.

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Nepal-China Relations and Belt and Road Initiative

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Image source: xinhua

China appears to be more “functional” in Nepal recently. A new administration led by leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has acted on the same pitch initially also. The Rasuwagadhi border crossing, which had been blocked for three years, has been reopened for two-way trade, and the much-anticipated Gyorong-Kathmandu train project’s final survey has also begun as of January 1, 2023. The second phase of the 10-lane ring road project from Kalanki to Chabhil is anticipated to start soon as well. All these accumulatively demonstrate the current nature of friendship between them and the profound Belt and Road Initiative is the key rostrum for the current complexion of the relationship between them. Hence, the trends are indicating a greater form of cooperation even in the regional domain as well.

Meanwhile, China and Nepal have inked a six-point agreement to strengthen bilateral collaboration and exchanges on governance, legislation, and supervisory practices, in line with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). On September 12, 2022, in Kathmandu’s federal parliament building, Agni Prasad Sapkota, Speaker of the Parliament, and Li Zhanshu, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress, signed the agreement. According to the agreement, the nations would exchange information about each other’s legislative, oversight, and governance activities. Five years after BRI’s founding, on May 12, 2017, Nepal formally joined the process. Nine projects – the upgrading of the Rasuwagadhi-Kathmandu road, the construction of the Kimathanka-Hile road, the construction of the road from Dipayal to the Chinese border, the Tokha-Bidur Road, the Galchhi-Rasuwagadhi-Kerung400kv transmission line, the Kerung-Kathmandu rail, the 762MW Tamor Hydroelectricity Project, the 426MW Phuket Karnali were on the to do list. However, more than any other nation, China invested US$188 million in Nepal during the 2020–21 fiscal year. During KP Sharma Oli’s visit to Beijing in 2016, Nepal and China also ratified a transit transport agreement for commerce with other parties.

However, amidst the current global tension and the changing rapport of international politics, China remains as a key investor in Nepal. Besides, the recent activities from the Nepal administration showed a shift in policy domain from the previous regime which in some cases was rigid to Chinese projects. Meanwhile, the BRI becomes more eminent in the strategic, political and economic domain of the status quo. Against such backdrop, the next sections will discuss current trends of the BRI in Nepal.

Nine Projects: Token of Continuation of the Initiative

Nepal put forward nine potential projects to be undertaken under the BRI at the beginning of 2019. These included setting up a technical institution in Nepal, building new highways, tunnels, and hydroelectricity dams, as well as conducting a feasibility assessment for a trans-Himalayan railway that would connect Jilong/Keyrung, a Chinese port of entry, with Kathmandu. This enhanced the significance of the project which will direct to more prosperous China- Nepal relations.

Nepal, the “Pillar”

Hou Yanqi, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, stated in April 2022 that Nepal was one of the BRI’s most significant pillars and that projects were still moving forward despite the “speed of pragmatic collaboration” slowing down because of the coronavirus pandemic and Nepal’s changing political climate.

Transit Through China: Better Connectivity and Trade

Kathmandu protocol agreement with Beijing, Nepal will import and export goods from a third country through China through Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang seaports and land ports of Lanzhou, Lhasa and Shigatse. They will also get the facility of transporting goods through six dedicated transit points of the two countries. It will boost the trade for improved connectivity.

Extended Cooperation in Domains Except for BRI

In addition to the BRI projects, China is currently making significant investments in Nepal’s infrastructure, including ring road expansion, dry ports at the border crossings of Larcha and Syabrubesi, the establishment of China Study Centers, a new international airport in Pokhara, and optical fiber cable connectivity from Kathmandu to the Chinese border.

Energy Exploration: New Domain of Cooperation

China is also looking into the prospect of discovering gas and oil deposits in Nepal and is building a border river crossing at Hilsa, Humla. It will open a new domain of cooperation based on mutual interest.

Poverty Reduction and Generating Newer Income Sources

Currently, roughly six Chinese airlines offer regular flights to Nepal. Nepal has the fastest-growing Chinese tourist industry. Nepal granted China access to choose 16 Himalayan regions that border China to develop as part of a program to fight poverty.

Security: Bringing Peace

Joint military drills between China and Nepal are also a new development in security cooperation. It will bring peace in the region since the image of Nepal is very clean.

Increased Diplomatic Connectivity

The BRI appears to be one of the three priority pillars for the Chinese government’s organizing principles of foreign policy, along with the Global Development Initiatives and the Global Security Initiatives, in terms of developing successful international relations rather than just an economic endeavor. It will bring a fresh start in the diplomatic domain of both countries and the future prospects of ties in the diplomatic arena can be discussed robustly.

No More Landlockedness

Under BRI and the Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network, which will transform Nepal from a landlocked country to a land-linked one, there are multiple road, sea, and corridor networks throughout the world. It will boost the relationship to a great extent while there will be a surge in the arena of export and import.

Regional Connectivity

The extension of the Qingzang railway from Tibet to Nepal and the border with India is among the most significant BRI projects. Three routes are being considered for this railway. The first would connect Shigatse to Kathmandu via Kerung and continue on to Pokhara and Lumbini before reaching the Indian border. The second would run from Shigatse to the Burang border and connect Humla and Darchula districts in Nepal with Pithoragdh, Uttarakhand, while the third would link Shigatse to the Yandong border of Sikkim, India.

As China and India have no trade disputes with one another, India would gain from this project as well after trading through this route. In comparison to other industrialized parts of the world, South Asia could see an increase in commerce and investment if this project is carried out on a win-win basis between China and Nepal.

Challenges

Additionally, loans are typically provided on commercial terms through the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), both of which are led by China (SRF). Due to project site clearance delays and the nation’s political instability, along with its comparatively short repayment time, Nepal’s big projects have raised concerns that they may not get off the ground.

Besides, three primary issues with China are of particular concern to the Nepalese government. First, instead of commercial loans, the nation favors grants and lenient loans from China. Second, it wants the interest rate and repayment period to be comparable to those of multilateral funding organizations like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. Thirdly, it thinks that bid competitions ought to be allowed for the BRI projects. But the Chinese authorities are not responding on the same page.

The Inception of a Recommenced Cooperation

Pradeep Gawali, Foreign Minister in the KP Sharma Oli’s government, said that from the perspective of Nepal, the BRI projects were the way to be connected to the trans-Himalayan multipurpose connectivity network. Nepal had been able to select the nine projects included in the BRI with great success. However, Chinese authority said on December 26 that it looks forward to cooperating with the new government to advance projects under the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a day after the Maoist party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda was named as Nepal’s new prime minister (BRI). China aims to develop initiatives under the Belt and Road collaboration, according to Mao Ning, the official spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, who congratulated Prachanda on his appointment. Beijing claims that as a longtime ally and neighbor of Nepal, China cherishes Nepali relations very highly. China is prepared to collaborate with the new Nepalese administration to broaden and deepen friendly relations and cooperation on all fronts, pursue high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, strategic cooperative alliance marked by enduring friendship for growth and prosperity new impetus, and bring more benefits to peoples from both sides.

Hence, it is evident that China’s policy toward Nepal is generally stable and uncomplicated, and the two countries’ bilateral relations have been cordial and shaped by Nepal’s strategy of balancing the divergent impact of China and its southern neighbor. Through BRI projects, Nepal could gain better connectivity relations with its northern neighbors, but in order to do so, Nepal must enhance its negotiations with China.

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