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East Asia

China’s risky bets

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China’s infrastructure and energy driven US$1 trillion Belt and Road initiative involves risky bets across a swath of land populated by often illiberal or autocratic governments exercising power without independent checks and balances.

Seeking to reduce risk, China is bumping up against the limits of its own long-standing foreign and defence policy principles, foremost among which its insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, the equivalent of the United States’ preference for stability rather than political change.

If popular revolts in Algeria and Sudan as well as smaller, issues-oriented protests elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa are anything to go by, China appears to be betting against the odds.

Anti-corruption sentiment fuelled the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and are at the root of current anti-government protests across the globe in countries as far flung as Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Russia, Zambia, the Czech Republic, Albania and Romania

China’s risks were evident in the wake of the fall in 2011 of Col. Moammar Gaddafi when the post-revolt Libyan authorities advised China that it would be low on the totem pole as a result of its support of the ancien regime.

The risks are also evident with Baloch militants targeting Chinese assets and personnel in Pakistan.

To minimize the risk and expand its aggressive domestic anti-graft campaign, China’s top anti-corruption body, the Communist party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), is embedding inspectors in Belt and Road projects, who will be based in recipient countries.

The move helps China counter allegations that it exploits corruption in recipient Belt and Road countries to further its objectives.

Anti-corruption is a signature policy of president Xi Jinping and has allowed him to purge senior Chinese leaders as well as tens of thousands of low-level bureaucrats.

The CCDI is building on the success of a pilot project in Laos where it embedded in late 2017 inspectors in a US$6 billion railway project being built by state-owned China Railway Group. The anti-graft officials, working with the Chinese company, established a joint inspection team with their Laotian counterpart.

The question is whether the anti-corruption effort in countries like Laos or Central Asian nations that consistently rank in the bottom half of Transparency International’s corruption index will bump up against China’s non-interference principle.

Or in other words, can China successfully guard against corruption in Belt and Road projects without pressuring recipient countries to adopt broader transparency and anti-corruption measures?

How can you strike hard on corruption here at home and give a free hand to Chinese people and business groups [that are] reckless abroad?” CCDI’s director-general for international co-operation La Yifan asked in a Financial Times interview.

Mr. La said China had organized seminars with more than 30 countries to link up anti-corruption regulators. “That is my dream, that we create a network of law enforcement of all these Belt and Road countries,” he said.

Imposing transparency and anti-corruption in Belt and Road partners would be the equivalent of all kinds of environmental, safety and human rights criteria that the United States haphazardly and opportunistically maintains in dealings with foreign countries that have been severely criticized by China.

China has long prided itself on what it terms win-win economic situations in which it imposes commercial terms that often primarily benefit the People’s Republic.

The terms, coupled with the clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s province of Xinjiang, has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey and Central Asia with their close ethnic and cultural ties to the troubled Chinese region.

Turkish officials highlighted these sensitivities by denying Chinese media reports that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had praised the success of Beijing’s brutal approach in Xinjiang during a recent visit to China.

Muslim nations have largely remained silent about the clampdown that amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history or in some instances even tacitly endorsed it.

In the absence of democracy, “governments can manage their pro-Beijing stance without informing their public, but a pro-Beijing policy over the Uyghur issue can barely be sustained in Turkey. Turkey is still a functioning democracy and total control of the public is not possible. Besides, there is a very strong Uyghur lobby and public sentiment towards the Uyghurs in Turkey,” said Turkish Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies director Selcuk Colakoglu.

Taking its anti-corruption campaign global, raises the broader question of whether it would threaten a pillar of autocracy that China’s non-interference principle has de facto sought to perpetuate.

Political scientists Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw argue that what they call the instruments of global authoritarianism — an army of largely Western bankers, lawyers, brokers and intermediaries that park illicitly gained monies in off-shore accounts and manage the investment of those funds – help keep autocrats in power.

The success of the globalization of China’s anti-corruption effort as well as its campaign to significantly reduce graft at home, would establish autocrats’ ability to satisfactorily deliver public goods and services alongside brute power as the cornerstone of their sustainability.

In doing so, it would give greater meaning to China’s assertion that it does not want to fundamentally alter the established multi-lateral world order but rather make it more equitable and more a reflection of a world that is multi- not unipolar.

It would also cement China’s model of economic reform and state capitalism without political liberalization as the example autocratic and authoritarian regimes want to emulate even if the jury is out on whether autocrats can remain relatively clean without a system of independent checks and balances.

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.

East Asia

Standing up to China: Czech mayor sets a high bar

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Czech mayor’s refusal to endorse Beijing’s One China policy potentially sets a high bar as Western powers grapple with how to respond to allegations of excessive use of violence by police against Hong Kong protesters and the implications of leaked documents detailing a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang.

Prague mayor Zdenek Hrib rejected a sister city agreement between the Czech capital and Beijing in late October because it included a clause endorsing the One China policy, which implicitly recognizes China’s sovereignty over Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong and Tibet.

Mr. Hrib argued that the agreement was a cultural arrangement and not designed to address foreign policy issues that were the prerogative of the national government.

The mayor’s stance has since taken on added significance against the backdrop of US President Donald J. Trump’s signing of legislation that allows for the sanctioning of Hong Kong officials, embarrassing Communist party leaks that document repression in Xinjiang, the election of a new Sri Lankan government that intends to adopt a tougher policy towards China, and simmering anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia and beyond.

Mr. Hrib’s rejection was in fact a reflection of anti-Chinese sentiment in the Czech Republic as well as opposition to the pro-China policy adopted by Czech president Milos Zeman.

To be sure, Mr. Hrib, a 38-year old medical doctor who interned in Taiwan, was shouldering little political or economic risk given Czech public anger at China’s failure to fulfil promises of significant investment in the country.

On the contrary, Mr. Hrib, since becoming mayor in mid-2018, appears to have made it his pastime to put Mr. Zeman on the spot by poking a finger at China.

Mr. Hrib visited Taiwan in the first six months of his mayorship, flew the Tibetan flag over Prague’s city hall, and rejected a request by the Chinese ambassador at a meeting with foreign diplomats to send Taiwanese representatives out of the room.

Beijing’s cancellation of a tour of China by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in response to Mr. Hrib’s provocations forced Mr. Zeman to describe the Chinese retaliation as “excessive” and his  foreign minister, Tomas Petricek, to declare that “diplomacy is not conducted with threats.”

Perhaps more importantly, M. Hrib was taking a stand based on principles and values rather than interests. In doing so, he was challenging the new normal of world leaders flagrantly ignoring international law to operate on the principle of might is right.

“Our conscience is not for sale,” said Michaela Krausova, a leading member of the governing Pirate Party of the Prague city council. Ms. Krausova and Mr. Hrib’s party was founded to shake up Czech politics with its insistence on the safeguarding of civil liberties and political accountability and transparency.

While couched in terms of principle, Mr. Hrib’s stand strokes with newly installed Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intention to wrest back control from China of the island’s strategic Hambantota port that serves key shipping lanes between Europe and Asia.

Hambantota became a symbol of what some critics have charged is Chinese debt trap diplomacy after Sri Lanka was forced to hand over the port to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease because the government was unable to repay loans taken to build it.

“I believe that the Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects like Hambantota. The next generation will curse our generation for giving away precious assets otherwise,” Mr. Rajapaksa said.

Fears of a debt trap coupled with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which targets not only Uighurs, but also groups that trace their roots to Central Asian countries, have fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.

“Given that China is likely to continue to expand its presence, further irritating local publics, the temptation of opposition groups to exploit such anger will only grow. If that happens…the anti-Chinese demonstrations that have taken place to date will be only the prelude to a situation that could easily spiral out of control, ethnicizing politics in these countries still further,” said Central Asia scholar Paul Goble.

Beyond Xinjiang, anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asia is fuelled by some of the same drivers that inform Czech attitudes towards China.

The shared drivers include unfulfilled promises, idle incomplete Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, widespread corruption associated with Chinese funding, and the influx of Chinese labour and materials at the expense of the local work force and manufacturers.

Beyond Xinjiang, Central Asians worry about potential debt traps. The Washington-based Center for Global Development listed last year two Central Asian nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as risking China-related “debt distress.”

Warned China and Central Asia scholar Ayjaz Wani: “Chinese principles in Central Asia are hegemonic. China has always interacted with Central Asian states without regarding their cultural identities, but according to its own vested interests… However, the ongoing anti-China sentiments may be coming to a tipping point.

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East Asia

Old wine in new bottles: Chinese containment policy in South Asia

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A lot of discussion in international relations scholarship is concentrated upon how US maximizing its security presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It is trying to contain, growing Chinese Influence to protect its national interest.It was described by former US President Barack Obama as a pivot Asia policy. But in the case of South Asia, United States is strengthening its ties with India to boost it as a force to contain Chinese emerging influence. It was termed by John J Mearsheimer as buck-passing in which a world superpower will give power and authority to another state to try to contain the influence of an emerging world hegemon. The Indo-US nuclear deal and former President Barack Obama’s remarks about the inclusion of India inthe United Nations Security council demonstrates that the United States is helping India to rise as the regional hegemon. India considers itself as an important actor at international level.It is increasing its political clout internationally but in South Asia, it can face a new kind of isolation. This is evident from the three recent events that occurred in a span of only 10 days in the first half of October

On 07th October Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan visited China with high-level delegation. He met there with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other important officials, it was his third visit to China since he came into power. During the meeting, both leaders, Imran Khan and Xi Jinping, discussed strengthening bilateral relations which are already at a higher level in terms of military and economic partnership. China is already working on a project to invest more than $50 billion under the name of China Pakistan Economic corridor let alone the cooperation on strategic and political issues. During the course of the visit, officials from both sides discussed Free Trade agreement which will be helpful in solving the problem of trade deficit for Pakistan. Total trade volume between China and Pakistan is around $15 billion in which Chinese export to Pakistan is of 13 billion. This Free Trade Agreement will open up about 90% of the Chinese market to Pakistan and will reduce trade deficit. During his meeting with Imran Khan, Xi Jinping accepted Kashmir as a disputed region and asked both parties to solve it through peaceful means.

All this happened just a few days before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India.Although both countries have made some progress on economy-related issues, no concrete efforts have been made to solve more radical issues like Indo-China border dispute in the northern Himalayan region. However more astonishing for India was that Xi Jinping visited Nepal after India. Nepal is a landlocked country crammed between two South Asia giants India and China. India is present on three sides of Nepal and considers it as its backyard. Both countries did have very solid relations and 60% of total Nepalese trade is done with India. In 2015 when Nepal adopted new constitution, relations between both countries soured. Although it was the internal matter of Nepal, India put an unofficial blockade for Nepal, which stopped all the supplies including food and medicine. Blockade continued for more than two months and it created a severe crisis because Nepal was already damaged by a strong earthquake in early 2015 in which more than 9000 people died. This blocked proved decisive in changing behavior of Nepalese leadership though they were complaining of Indian hegemonic role for many years. Nepal turned toward China for their needs. China also responded in a very positive way. Besides reconstructing earthquake effected areas, China also provided 1.03 million liters of fuel. In 2017 Nepal signed China’s Belt and Road initiative and pledged to construct a railway line which will connect China with Nepal directly. This initiated a new beginning in China-Nepal relations.

When Xi Jinping arrived at Katmandu, China by this time was thelargest foreign direct investor in Nepal.It was the first visit by any Chinese president in the last 23 years.During the course of his visit, 18 agreements were signed between Nepal and China, including a railway link between China and Nepal.

These three important tours in less than ten days present the new geopolitical reality of the region. Although the Chinese president visited India but this visit was sandwiched between Imran Khan’s visit to China and Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal. Pakistan is an arch-rival of India in South Asia and Nepal which historically remained in the Indian sphere of influence,  is slowly slipping away from it.it clearly demonstrates containment policy by China in which China is progressively growing its influence in South Asian states. The Story does not end with Pakistan and Nepal but other South Asian states like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka now also have very strong ties with China.it represents in a new normal situation in which South Asian region is no longer dominated by India. Though India is showing to the world that it is solely protecting peace and stability in the region but reality has changed In fact South Asian states consider it as dominating power evident from its relation with Pakistan and blockade of Nepal. With growing Chinese influence in South Asia containment of India is now very much a reality.

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East Asia

How Australia is becoming China’s Australia

Sisir Devkota

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If it were not for China, Australia’s population inroad scheme would take a serious hit. Out of more than 0.7 million international students, more than 30% Chinese are pursuing degrees in universities. Australia lives along the values of  the Western culture, but when it comes to its economy, rather dishonourably; it has had to lean towards the East. Chinese consumerism compensates for a healthy Australian economy and while it stands stronger on its democratic values, Australia, now faces a paradoxical relationship with the Asian hegemon. For instance, it is quietly ignoring the protests in Hong Kong. During recent elections, the Australian Prime Minister was mocked on WeChat; his funny nuances were subject to ridicule in the Chinese social media.

Now, Australia is facing the task. It is fighting a battle to save its identity against a consumer band, governed by communist policies. China’s message is clear; an interference of any sort is not welcome, else the consequences are going to be economical. Emancipated Chinese students in Australia have been protesting against the government backlash in Hong Kong. Resultantly, back home in China, apartments were raided and their parents taught the lesson of conformity. A lesson of nationalism that has blossomed outside its territories. Australia is swallowing up the hypocrisy. On its own land, it cannot protect the values of freedom and democracy.

Wang LiQiang or as he would like to be known as “William”, took to the Australian authorities for his involvement in spying activities. In his own admission, William was conducting intelligence operations and most significantly, assassinations on Australian soil. William is only one among high profile spies that have been operating in Australia. Ironically, his testament sufficiently reflects the Australian attitude towards Chinese interference, which has essentially been negligent and non-conversational. Notably, William’s particular mention about operating a system of political donation will nevertheless disturb Australian administrators. They will realize that it is only about time when China will explicitly begin to reassert its influence. The police did not find Wang Li Qiang; instead, he volunteered to surrender. Especially, coming from a senior Chinese operative, the message could not be clearer.

On the outset, China and Australia maintain a well-documented “good relationship”. However, administrative hierarchies in Canberra are also accused of implying a very positive attitude towards presenting and defending bilateral ties. As much as economic interests have motivated the Australian behaviour of non-acceptance, politicians do not shy away from painting an over simplified picture of Chinese problems that are realistically, complex in nature. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison handled the allegations of a Chinese backed ring that was trying to plot a spy in the parliament; the government has tried too hard to overlook the obvious. Mr. Morrison urged his citizens to not draw anxious conclusions, instead; he suggested that Australia would need to be vigilant from the threats that it faced more broadly. The substitutability of discourse that is apparent in Australian politics, marks a rather gifted trade-off for China and its actions. Andrew Hastie, parliamentary head of intelligence and security, claimed that such incidents did not surprise him. As more evidences would suggest, Chinese interference was knocking at the doors.

In terms of China, there are two faces of Australian political rhetoric. One that is motivated by the larger interests in the administrative chairs of governance, overlooking the infiltration for personal benefits. Secondly, the critiques emanating from opposition politicians and the likes of intelligence chiefs, for instance ASIO’s former Directorate General, Duncan Lewis, warned that China would take over Australia in a matter of time. Elsewhere in the borders of the communist giant, two Australian MP’s were denied travel entry, citing largely undetermined reasons. With a population of merely 25 million inhabitants, 1.8 million Chinese students have migrated to Australia for education. The dragon is marching towards the continent, in a first, the troops are ready on site.

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