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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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Taiwan: The First and Oldest ‘Thorn’ between China and the West

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Over three hundred and fifty years ago, when the West lost its first war with China over Taiwan, the technological level between the two sides was fairly even. But the Dutch, then the most dynamic colonial power, paid a heavy price for misbelieving “China might have invented gunpowder but we possess superior guns.” Today, the world is witnessing China’s rapid rise and the US is in decline. The question is, will Taiwan once again bust the Western (aka US) superiority myth?                                                                         

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In 1662, the West fought its first war with China and lost. The Sino-Dutch War, as it is called now, was fought when a Chinese admiral dared the Dutch East India Company to give up its little under half century ‘rule’ over Taiwan. The defeat resulted in the island falling under Chinese rule for the first time in history. It is not so important to know it was China’s first great victory over Europe’s most dynamic colonial power. In the words of the Dutch historian, Tonio Andrade, what is more significant is the first Chinese victory over the West broke the myth of Western superiority as it had been achieved on the basis of “Chinese advantage in strategic and tactical culture.” (Emphasis added) The Chinese victory also broke another myth which the Western historians held on to until as recently as in 1970s, i.e., the Chinese might have invented the gunpowder but didn’t know how to use it as weapon, Andrade, the author  went on to add.

Fast forward to the present-day tensions in the Taiwan Strait. As China embarked on the path of Reform and Opening-up, relations between Beijing and Taipei too started improving in the early 1980s. Seen as a remarkable political development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait in 45 years, the KMT government in Taipei declared in 1991 “an end to the war with the People’s Republic of China on the mainland.” However, since the election of Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000, political headwinds in Taiwan have been moving in the opposite direction to Beijing. Alarmed by Chen’s backing of demands for Taiwan’s independence, Beijing was quick to pass anti-secession law a year after Chen was reelected in 2004.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s victory in US and the victory of Ms. Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s president respectively, Beijing’s fear of Taiwan declaring itself an independent country has reached unprecedented levels. In fact, Beijing is feeling seriously threatened by the US role in creating conditions for Taiwan to declare independence. Immediately upon assuming office, President Trump held telephone conversation with the Taiwan president – something which no other US had done in the preceding forty years. This was the beginning of a new trend in US-China relations and which grossly undermined the “One China” policy.

During the past decade (between 2007 and 2019), the US warships made over one hundred trips through the Taiwan Strait. No wonder Beijing has been describing Taiwan as “the most important sensitive issue in Sino-US relations.” According to New Strait Times, in 2020, the year of Coronavirus pandemic, the cross-strait faced its worst crisis in the past two decades. Without denying that the PLA fighter planes crossed maritime border with Taiwan, China however dismissed Taipei’s claims of “incursions” by the mainland. Beijing even maintained its warplanes, bombers and anti-submarine aircrafts “conducted normal exercises on September 18 and 19 respectively and that the median line never existed.”

However, according to experts, the median line is the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and China, and was demarcated by US Air Force General Benjamin Davis Jr. in 1955, before the US pressured both sides to enter into a tacit agreement not to cross it. Media reports originating from Taipei, Hong Kong and Singapore claimed the forty or more PLA incursions last October, were prompted by two US top officials visiting Taipei during August-September period last year. “U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach arrived in Taiwan on Thursday for the second visit by a high-level American official in two months. The first visit was by the US Health Secretary Alex Azar in August 2020.” The visits by Krach and Azar respectively were first highest-level US Cabinet visits to Taiwan – in gross violation of the US commitments to China – since the US switched formal relations from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979.

This year, especially within hours following President entered the White House, the new US administration lost no time in announcing “our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid.” Two days earlier, the State Department invited and officially received Taiwan’s unofficial ambassador in Washington to Biden’s inauguration – the first envoy from the island present at a presidential swearing-in since 1979. Both the statement of commitment to Taiwan and the presence of Taiwanese envoy at the presidential inauguration respectively were interpreted by strategic affairs experts in Washington and Beijing as moves to provoke China towards making a strategic mistake leading to military conflict.

Further, Taiwan has returned as “thorniest” issue in US-China relations under President Biden – since perhaps it is easier to violate “One China” policy than to either rally European allies against China or to announce a decisive Washington position toward Beijing. As President Biden gears up to embark on his maiden in-person visit to shake hands or bump elbows with his European allies, the US administration has further escalated tensions over Taiwan. Last Sunday, a bipartisan contingent of three US Senators – Tammy Duckworth and Christopher Coons, both Democrats, and Dan Sullivan, a Republican – briefly visited Taiwan on a US military aircraft.  According to media reports, the Chinese Defense Ministry described the visit as “extremely vile provocation.” Reuters citing Chinese sources said China believes that “Biden administration is challenging one-China principle and trying to achieve the so-called goal of ‘using Taiwan to control’ China.” 

Experts in Beijing point out, Biden is accelerating the pitch of what started under Obama and was intensified by Trump, i.e., to use “the US economic and military might to pressure Beijing and force it to accept US hegemony in the region.” Elsewhere, first the joint statement following Biden-Suga summit in April and then in late May the statement released after the summit meeting between European leaders and Japan’s Prime Minister Suga, are being interpreted as “belligerent stances towards Beijing initiated and encouraged by President Biden.” The EU-Japan post-summit statement called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Similar to several moves initiated by Trump and Biden challenging one-China policy, the EU-Suga joint statement too is the first time that Taiwan has been included in such a statement. 

A scholar in Tianjin, who writes a column for ftchinese.com, the daily online Mandarin version of the Financial Times, thinks Biden has intensified the so-called Thucydides trap. In a recent article, he has actually put forward a solution for Beijing to not only avoid falling into the trap, but also steer clear of having to choose between using force to reunify with Taiwan and being forced into military conflict with the US by striking first. To sum up Li Yongning’s rather long thesis, he prescribes that China fight out Thucydides trap with economic growth and people’s prosperity. To prove his point, Li flashes the example of de-escalation of hostility between China and Japan. Remember until a few years ago, heightened tensions between the two over Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of late, especially since the middle of Xi Jinping’s first five year tenure, belligerent provocations between Beijing and Tokyo have almost ceased.

How did China under Xi achieve this? According to Li, Xi’s strategy to strike peace and tranquility with Japan was simple and practical. “China’s GDP exceeded Japan’s in 2010 and by 2019 it became 2.8 times more than Japan’s, which put an end to Sino-Japan competitiveness. Likewise, once China achieves one and a half times or twice bigger GDP of the USA, the China-US competitiveness will be rendered as joke,” Li contended. In 2017, in PPP terms China had already exceeded the US economy. Li cited a Brookings Institution report which predicted China’s GDP will cross America’s in 2028. “Once China reaches there, higher GDP will act as shock absorber for all Sino-US conflicts,” Li wrote.

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China’s know-how on becoming the oldest society in the world

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china bicycle

For decades, China had a “one-child policy” that permitted families to have only one child. A few years ago, this restriction was changed to a “two-child policy”, and now the Chinese government has allowed the Chinese people to give birth to three children.

The main reason for this is the concerningly low birth rate and the impending demographic crisis. China is still the country with the largest population (1.41 billion), but UN forecasts indicate that India will soon surpass it, since India has a much higher birth rate.

Statistics show that last year approximately 12 million babies were born in China, which is the lowest birth rate China has had in many years. For instance, in 2016 when the “two-child policy” was implemented, the number of newborns reached 18 million.

Chinese demographers argue that it will be difficult for China to boost birth rate in the near future because the number of women in the reproductive age is decreasing. This was caused by China’s “one-child policy” that was in force from 1979 to 2015.

Chinese families could give birth only to one child, and many families chose to “spend” this quota on a boy, since in China boys have traditionally been valued more than girls. If a family were told they were expecting a girl, the mother would often decide to have an abortion.

This caused an unexpected outcome – the number of men exceeded the number of women. Although it was not allowed to find out the sex of the baby during pregnancy, there were several ways to do so which lead to numerous late abortions. That is why currently there is a disproportion between the number of men and women in the Chinese society.

As a result, modern China is overproducing men and is in a grave lack of women. Statistics indicate that there are 35 million more men than women – leaving many men with no chances of finding a spouse.

Moreover, the beliefs and values of the Chinese people have also changed over the years, i.e. many women wish to pursue a career first and only then to establish a family. The recent years have seen a rapid decline in marriages in China.

These trends are particularly prevalent in Chinese cities, leading demographers to predict that the gap between the situation in cities and the situation in the countryside will only widen in the future – people in the countryside still prefer larger families, while city dwellers have a hard time giving birth to a single child.

“Now, we are allowed to have three children. The problem, however, is that I don’t even want one child,” a user of the Chinese social media network Weibo wrote in his account.

Many are asking the question – will the “three-child policy” change anything if the “two-child policy” wasn’t able to do so? That’s why people are happy about the government’s decision to provide other incentives and motivations in this regard.

For example, education costs – which were twice as high in two-children families – will be cut, people will see additional support on tax and housing issues and working women will be granted more rights. In addition, the government also has plans to educate young Chinese people on the issues of marriage and love – now, state propaganda will not only deal with shaming the West, but also teach people how to love correctly and “make children”.

This leads to believe that the Chinese government has taken quite a peculiar approach to identifying mistakes in their previous policies, but it isn’t truly admitting these mistakes – as is the case in all authoritarian regimes. If the previous plan fails, simply improve it a bit and relaunch it anew.

The “one-child policy” has led to one-and-a-half generation where there are six people from the non-working population for each person in the working population, i.e. the person’s parents and two sets of grandparents. This is the Chinese Communist Party’s know-how.

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Global Health & Health Silk Road: The Other Side Of Picture

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The new world order is a twisted maze of political, economic and cultural ambitions. China’s obscure political economy presents an unparalleled challenge to those unfamiliar with the cultural and historical undercurrents driving Beijing’s global movements. Following the onset of the CoVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the global society observed one of the hasty economic convulsion since World War II. Nearly all nation states sealed their borders and placed global supply chain and trade in limbo as the spread of the virus continued unabated. As Beijing’s flagship investment project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was similarly disrupted. The BRI initiative has formed the cornerstone of President Xi’s approach to strategic diplomacy and challenged the traditional concept of development. Key rhetoric underlying the initiative, such as “the community of common destiny for mankind”.

Nevertheless, there is a “Digital Silk Road”, and “Space Silk Road”, so it should come as no bombshell that China is also building a “Health Silk Road”. China’s HSR first appeared in a speech given by President Xi in 2016. At the first BRI Forum 2017, a Beijing Communique of Belt and Road Health Cooperation and Health Silk Road was signed by China, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, OECD, GAVI and other participating countries. Since then, China made a significant move towards the consolidation of its role as a major player in global health. Similarly, it is no secret that China is making a boost for global health leadership during CoVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic spread across the world, China sought to provide aid packages and medical assistance to partner states within the BRI under the name of “Health Silk Road”. The ongoing CoVID-19 pandemic is not only going to fundamentally transform the global politics, but also the foreign policy priorities of many countries. Since the outbreak, the CoVID-19 pandemic has exposed the significant weakness of public health infrastructure of developed and developing countries alike.

There is widespread understanding among scientists, heritage and history writers that one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, black death, originated in China and spread along the old silk road to central Asia, northern India and Europe. It exhibited a blueprint that is as old as human history, – when people and goods travel, so do viruses and bacteria. Today, there is some speculation about whether CoVID-19 circulated along the “new silk road”, and it has been criticized that the BRI contributed to the spread of the virus. These kinds of debates are pointless because, even without modern means of transport like trains, cargo-ships, and planes, the plague can reach the most remote places in the world and kill a large portion of the global population. Highly criticized for covering up and not preventing the virus from turning into a global pandemic, China is making an efforts to reinstate its persona as a symbol of support, strength and leadership. Opponents have also alleged that Beijing rationalized itself as a global health champion at a time when Washington had abdicated its responsibilities.

Regardless of misgivings, China has been promoting the institutionalization of health cooperation within HSR framework by organizing and sponsoring a number of health-themed forums. For example, the Silk Road Health Forum, China-Central and Eastern European Countries Health Ministers Forum, China-ASEAN Health Forum, and the China-Arab States Health Forum. Beijing also initiated a series of supportive programs on disease control and prevention in alliance with its neighbors in Central Asia. All these efforts were made as part of China’s broader global health diplomacy and leadership before the CoVID-19 pandemic hit the world. With the spread of  CoVID-19 across the world, the Chinese government extended support to countries from East Asia to Europe. It has given 20 million dollars to the World Health Organization (WHO) for assisting developing countries in coping with the pandemic, build up their epidemic-prevention abilities, and building a stronger public health system. China also handed out concessionary loans and played a coordinating role in multilaterals like G-20, ASEAN, the SCO and the African Union, established itself in a leadership position by promptly responding to the crises and catering to the needs of the countries all over.

In contrast with the advance economics, what China has contributed to the global pandemic combat becomes even more admirable. Statistics show that China has provided considerable amount of medical assistance to the rest of world, including approximately 70.6 billion face masks, 225 million test kits, 115 million pairs of goggles, 340 million protective suits, 96,700 ventilators, and 40.29 million infrared thermometers to 200 countries and regions in 2020. China’s medical professionals have also played a vital role in the global pandemic battle by contributing their knowledge and experience on the frontlines in many virus-impacted countries. China has shared medical best practices with a multitude of international organizations, including the ASEAN, EU, African Union, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Caribbean, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, as well as some of the hardest-hit countries such as South Korea, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Germany.

Concisely, with all these notable endeavors and substantial contributions, is it still premature to presume that China has taken over the leadership role in terms of global health? China’s engagement in global health, especially during CoVID-19, has positioned itself as a johnny on the spot in global health leadership. The HSR undoubtedly will allow China to re-establish its national repute on the international stage, in particular by contrasting it with the inelegant responses of the United States and other European nations. China’s global aspirations, efforts to present itself as a global health leader should not be considered as surprise. It is still too early to tell the magnitude to which China’s global health sprint will transform its international profile, but there is no reason to be cynical that it will be revolutionary. As an old Chinese saying goes, it takes a good blacksmith to make good steel.

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