Cultural Revolution: How China is changing global diplomacy.

Joshua Kurlantzick – The New Republic

Copyright The New Republic
June 27, 2005
At a major Asian security conference this month, Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld was typically blunt. Discussing China’s military
modernization, Rumsfeld said that China’s upgrade of its military
technology was a threat to countries across Asia. “Since no nation
threatens China, one wonders: Why this growing investment?” Rumsfeld
Unfortunately, he is focused on the wrong problem. China is indeed on
verge of posing a major threat to U.S. power and could potentially
parts of the developing world. But the real concern is not that China’s
armed forces will challenge the mighty U.S. military, which soon may
more on defense than the rest of the world combined.
No, China’s rising power is reflected in a different way. In late 2003,
Australia hosted back-to-back state visits by two world leaders. The
to head down under was George W. Bush, a staunch ally of Australia,
along with the United Kingdom, was a major provider of non-U.S. troops
the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. On arrival, however, Bush was
treated like a boorish distant cousin; his official reception was
but barely so. He stayed just 21 hours, and, speaking before the
parliament, faced protests outside and inside the chamber, where Green
Party senators repeatedly interrupted him with catcalls.
The treatment was far different when Chinese President Hu Jintao
for a more extended stay. Though, less than a decade ago, fear of being
swamped by Asians was a potent electoral issue in Australia, now
threw open its arms to the Chinese leader. For days, Australia’s
and political elite feted Hu at lavish receptions. And, at China’s
Australian lawmakers barred potential irritants–like Tibetan
activists–from parliament, as Hu became the first Asian leader to
the Australian legislature, receiving a 20-minute standing ovation.
this differing treatment shouldn’t have been surprising. Australia’s
leaders were simply following their people’s lead. Recent polls suggest
that, despite decades of close American-Australian relations,
generally have a more favorable view of China than of the United
China has also scored diplomatic successes in Latin America, long
to be within Washington’s sphere of influence. During a highly
twelve-day Latin America trip, which, like his visit to Australia,
coincided with a brief Bush trip to the region that received a cool
reception, Hu signed some $30 billion in new investment deals and
staked a claim that the United States was failing as the major power in
region. Hu stopped in regional giant Brazil, where President Luiz
Lula da Silva upgraded bilateral trade ties with Beijing and decided to
send Brazilian advisers to Beijing to study Chinese economics. During
earlier trip to China, Lula had cooed to Hu: “We want a partnership
integrates our economies and serves as a paradigm for South-South
Most important for Beijing, in oil-rich Venezuela, a nation
shunned by the United States–which tacitly condoned a 2002 coup
against Venezuelan leader Hugo ChAvez–Chinese officials are
solidifying an
alliance with Caracas while providing ChAvez an opportunity to point
Washington’s failures in the region. While ChAvez talks of slashing oil
deliveries to the United States, he promises Beijing a long-term supply
petroleum. “China is a world power. She doesn’t come here with
airs,” announced the Venezuelan leader, leaving the distinction with
another world power unsaid. ChAvez also plans to send advisers to Iran
help Tehran funnel its oil to Beijing. (Iran has inked deals to supply
China with natural gas and to provide the Chinese state oil company,
Sinopec, with a stake in one of Iran’s biggest oil fields.)
Beijing’s inroads with Australia and Latin America, two vastly
regions of the world, signify aspects of the same sea change. For the
time in centuries, China is becoming an international power, a nation
global foreign policy ambitions. In fact, China may become the first
since the fall of the Soviet Union that could seriously challenge the
United States for control of the international system.
As it develops, China has several key interests in the world. Because
China’s booming economy and lack of domestic resources, securing stable
supplies of oil, natural gas, and other natural resources–as well as
passage for these resources–is of primary interest to Beijing. Second,
China’s leading companies continue to grow and improve the quality of
products, Beijing clearly needs access to foreign markets. Less
but no less significantly, China seeks to demonstrate that it is an
international power, worthy of the same respect as the United States
capable of projecting enough power to limit U.S. intentions in Asia and
other parts of the developing world. And, perhaps most important,
wants to bring its own socioeconomic and political models to other
developing countries, just as the United States historically has been
committed to–at least rhetorically–the spread of democracy.
Beijing is pursuing these interests through a two-pronged strategy. On
one hand, China appears to be building a string of alliances across the
globe with nations shunned by the United States–nations like
Iran, Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe. At the same time, China appears to be
wooing non-rogue developing nations–both democracies like Brazil and
stable pseudo-authoritarian states like Malaysia. Beijing does so by
championing a vision of international relations centered on national
sovereignty–one that contrasts sharply with recent U.S. doctrine, by
leveraging China’s economic successes to win over foreign leaders and
using Chinese soft power to win hearts and minds even in places like
Australia, once considered firm American allies.
China’s rise may have significant positive effects. As China takes on a
larger role in the world, it may come to assume a large role in
peacekeeping, global aid disbursements, and other responsibilities
currently handled by the United States and other wealthy nations. China
even contributed funding to elections in Iraq. Because it straddles
the rich and the poor world, China could also help mediate between
developed and developing countries at institutions like the World Trade
Organization (WTO).
Yet China’s more prominent international footprint is likely to
U.S. interests seriously. Beijing’s quest for natural resources will
it into competition with the United States, particularly in crucial
like West Africa and the Middle East. China’s emergence as a growing
could threaten America’s role as the primary guarantor of stability in
Asia. Its increasing access to international markets could damage U.S.
corporations, especially if Chinese businesses were subsidized by
through soft loans that would allow them to operate unprofitably, at
for a time, and squeeze competitors’ margins. And China’s power could
damage one of the most important U.S. interests of all: the spread of
democracy, which will ultimately enable us to win the war on terrorism.
Despite stumbles in Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, and other places where
White House continues to choose stability or cooperation on
counterterrorism over liberalization, the United States remains the
force for democratization in the world.
Though hawks have been warning of a “China threat” for over a decade,
usually focus on China’s military capabilities, not its diplomatic
The view elaborated in Rumsfeld’s speech will likely be reflected in an
upcoming Defense Department report on China’s military intentions,
programs, and strategies. Hawks have pushed to make the report as dire
possible, portraying China as a military threat that has sized up the
weaknesses of the U.S. Armed Forces. Similarly, a recent Atlantic
piece by Robert Kaplan forecasts a military showdown with Beijing. Yet,
while China probably has the world’s third-largest military budget, in
respects, Beijing badly lags the U.S. military. The Chinese military
relies too heavily on conscripts and wastes time and resources forcing
troops to study political doctrine. Beijing probably spends less than
billion per year on its military, according to a rand study, in
contrast to
over $400 billion that the White House requested for the Pentagon’s
year 2006 budget. (China’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP is
smaller than that of the United States.) In fact, a 2003 report on the
Chinese military by the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that
was at least two decades from closing the gap on the United States.
In reality, an insecure Beijing, weakened by 150 years of foreign
incursions into China, historically pursued a relatively nonaggressive
foreign policy, focusing on defending core interests but rarely seeking
influence over issues outside its borders and usually abstaining from
important debates at the United Nations. In launching China’s reforms
the late ’70s, Deng Xiaoping pushed the country to develop its domestic
economic and social resources, and not to focus on foreign affairs. In
fact, Deng often explicitly warned China not to be a world leader–at
not for now–and, during Deng’s time, China remained a poor,
That has begun to change. In May alone, China ran a trade surplus of
$9 billion, and it sits atop the second-largest pile of currency
on earth. High growth–combined with intensive inculcation of
via the Chinese press and education system–has created a
populace more insistent that China play a major role in the
system, as University of Colorado Sinologist Peter Hays Gries notes in
book, China’s New Nationalism. And, though this nationalism sometimes
dormant beneath the surface of Chinese society, it can explode with
warning, as with the anti-Japan protests this spring–when I witnessed
Beijingers, who normally brag about their Sony DVD players, scrambling
each other to try to smash up the Japanese embassy.
Meanwhile, two decades of development have also sharply raised the
education level of Chinese leaders and diplomats. As former Time
editor Joshua Cooper Ramo notes in a fascinating new essay called “The
Beijing Consensus,” “In 1982 only 20 percent of China’s provincial
had attended college. In 2002, this number was 98 percent.” The Chinese
government has made a concerted effort to upgrade its diplomatic corps,
boosting their language fluency and other important skills. As a
today Chinese leaders and diplomats are savvier and more knowledgeable
about the outside than the men of Deng’s generation. As one former
diplomat in China told me, Chinese officials can now describe in detail
splits within the U.S. neoconservative movement, a grasp of nuance
lacking in Beijing just ten years ago.
Richer, more worldly, more confident, China’s mandarins have begun to
reassess their place in the world. As Ramo writes, China is pursuing a
deliberate policy to bolster its role in the international system and
project its development model abroad. It is enunciating a new foreign
policy doctrine, just as a young United States once did. The China
has several components. One is the idea of “peaceful rise”–that China
growing into a preeminent power but would never use its strength
unilaterally to threaten other countries, supposedly a sharp
from U.S. policy. Second is the notion that China has created a model
socioeconomic development that can be applied elsewhere–what Ramo
the “Beijing consensus” of development for poor nations. This model
that developing nations must pursue innovation-led growth by obtaining
latest technology; must control development from the top, so as to
the kind of chaos that comes from rapid economic opening; and must rely
links with other developing nations to counter the economic advantages
Western states. In controlling development from the top, of course, the
Beijing model implicitly rejects both the free market and the idea that
ordinary citizens, not a small elite of rulers, should control
China then wields its policy doctrine, along with other weapons like
and aid, to draw developing nations to its side. Beijing focuses in
part on
countries like Iran and Sudan, which are shunned by the United States,
it also aims closer to Washington’s heart, seeking, if not to win over
allies, then at least to complicate their loyalties by emphasizing that
gains for developing nations come at the expense of arrogant Western
powers. Playing off Western powers works: As prominent Indian economist
Jayanta Roy said after visiting China, “I was happy to see that there
is a
hope for a developing country to outstrip the giants in a reasonably
period of time.”
The Chinese challenge is most obvious in three areas of the world:
Latin America, and Africa. Asia is China’s natural sphere of influence
the one with the largest number of ethnic Chinese living outside
borders. Asia is also the area in which China has made up the most
on the United States. At first, China concentrated on Asian nations
alienated from Washington. Since 1997, the United States has enforced
severe sanctions against Burma’s dictatorship. China has unsurprisingly
paid the sanctions no mind. Instead, Beijing has sold Burma’s military
junta over $1 billion in military equipment. In return, Chinese
have gained access to Burma’s valuable natural resources, while Chinese
diplomats have become almost the only foreigners with insight into the
workings of the secretive Burmese government. Today, wealthy Chinese
businesspeople cruise the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s impoverished
in late-model Mitsubishi jeeps, gabbing on ultra-pricey cell phones.
In Laos, until recently blocked by Congress from enjoying normal trade
relations with the United States, China has become one of its largest
partners. In Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s poor human rights
record–including alleged involvement in a grenade attack that maimed
American citizen–has led to frosty relations with Washington, China
given Phnom Penh at least $200 million in loans. Likewise, after the
Uzbekistan crackdown on demonstrators, China quickly welcomed Uzbek
autocrat Islam Karimov to Beijing. Across the Pacific Ocean, meanwhile,
China has become a major aid donor to countries like Fiji–countries
could be crucial to U.S. military basing and missile defenses but that
Washington has essentially ignored.
But, in the past five years, Beijing has also honed in on countries
close relationships with the United States, nations like South Korea,
Thailand, and Mongolia. Again, understanding that leveraging Beijing’s
policy doctrine is crucial, Chinese diplomats repeatedly contrast
“peaceful rise”–and its supposedly nonthreatening posture–with an
aggressive, unilateralist United States. “We Asian countries” must work
more closely together, at this time of “new manifestations of power
politics,” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Southeast Asian leaders at a
2003 summit, using typical Chinese coded language to refer to the
States. What’s more, Chinese diplomats emphasize that China does not
foreign nations to pursue political reform or market-driven economic
liberalization. This reassurance is popular among Asian nations–such
Cambodia or Thailand–that have poor human rights records, that resent
criticism of their domestic affairs, and that have a history of
economic planning, which makes China’s Beijing consensus economic model
The response to Beijing has been overwhelming. As Southeast Asia
Carlyle Thayer has reported, China has inked long-term bilateral
cooperation agreements with Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.
Philippines, a former U.S. colony, has, for the first time, accepted
military aid from China. At the same time, while progress on several
prospective trade pacts between the United States and Thailand have
stalled, trade between China and Southeast Asia is growing by nearly 20
percent per year, and ten Southeast Asian nations have agreed to join a
free-trade zone with China. China’s trade with the rest of Asia is also
expanding. Even India, which has a long-standing border dispute with
has established new trade ties with Beijing.
Asian leaders increasingly look to China for economic and political
cues as
well. Though, less than a decade ago, Beijing maintained icy relations
Jakarta–strained by periodic attacks on Indonesia’s ethnic
Indonesia’s president publicly praises China’s emergence as a leader in
Asia. Singapore’s senior minister, Goh Chok Tong, has expressed similar
sentiments, saying, “China’s extraordinary development sets the example
other Asian countries to follow.” Ramo has reported that Vietnam, which
fought a border war with China only 25 years ago, is now studying
economic models for clues to faster development. In South Korea,
Roh Mun-Hyun has led Seoul toward Beijing’s orbit, looking to China for
help handling North Korea. In Thailand, which, during the cold war, was
probably America’s staunchest ally in Southeast Asia, Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra has said that China and India are now the “most
important countries for Thailand’s diplomacy.” Meanwhile, Central Asian
nations have formed a regional security group with China, the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization–an organization in which China takes the
pushing the group to focus on issues of concern to Beijing, such as the
restive ethnic minority Uighur population in western China.
As they look to China, Asian leaders are increasingly willing to do
Beijing’s bidding. Nations from Nepal to Singapore have restricted the
activities of Tibetan and Falun Gong activists. Presumably at China’s
insistence, Malaysia’s deputy prime minister publicly warned Malaysian
politicians to avoid official visits to Taiwan, while Thailand tried to
deny a visa to a top Taiwanese labor official.
Average Asians, too, look to China, which is building up its soft power
the region. In one poll, three-quarters of Thais said they considered
Thailand’s closest friend, while less than 10 percent picked the United
States. Asian businesspeople covet invites to the Boao Forum for Asia,
conference about Asia’s future held on a Chinese resort island to which
Beijing invites thousands of business and political leaders. Asian
increasingly seek out education in China, rather than the United
and Chinese-language schools are gaining popularity in South Korea,
Malaysia, and other countries. Meanwhile, ethnic Chinese living outside
Chinese mainland, once afraid to showcase their heritage for fear of
singled out as a wealthy minority, have become increasingly outspoken
their roots. In part, they are more comfortable with their heritage,
because China has begun actively promoting Chinese culture through new
cultural centers and TV stations. (By contrast, the United States has
back on its cultural centers in Asia, many of which used to be
with the United States Information Service.) “It looks like being
is cool,” publisher Kitti Jinsiriwanich told The Wall Street Journal,
explaining his decision to produce a glossy magazine about ethnic
life in Bangkok and why advertisers were lapping up his copy.
In Africa and Latin America, where postindependence economic models
by Western international financial organizations have failed to raise
living standards, China’s ideas, its companies, and its emphasis on a
multipolar international system are also increasingly welcome. Beijing
signed trade deals with 40 African states. In many resource-rich
countries–including pariah nations like Sudan, where Beijing covets
Sudanese oil–China has dramatically bolstered its diplomatic and
presence, as Stephanie Giry has reported in these pages (“Out of
November 15, 2004). In Zimbabwe, Beijing has become a major provider of
military hardware, including fighter jets. “Suffering under the effects
international isolation, Zimbabwe has looked to new partners, including
China, who won’t attach conditions [to aid],” one Western diplomat told
Christian Science Monitor.
Hu’s 2004 trip to Latin America highlighted China’s growing power there
well, even as the Bush administration neglects the region. As Ramo
China’s enormous consumption of natural resources, such as steel, oil,
copper, makes it an essential ally and trading partner of nearly any
in Latin America and Africa. Indeed, not only did Hu sign $30 billion
new investment deals during his Latin trip, but China has become
second-biggest trading partner. By comparison, during his 2004 Latin
America swing, Bush spent little time anywhere other than Colombia and
Chile (and almost got in a fistfight in the latter). Furthermore, the
American president has failed to persuade Latin nations to back his
proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas pact, one of the White House’s
main goals for the Western Hemisphere.
As in Asia, China’s education system and culture– components of its
power–have become attractive to African and Latin American elites.
has developed a proposal to bring over 10,000 African professionals to
China for human resources development. And, as in Asia, key African and
Latin leaders, awed by China’s economic success, praise Beijing’s
policy doctrine and development model. “China is doing a wonderful
Muyingo Steuem, a Ugandan government adviser dazzled by China’s big
told The Financial Times during last year’s World Bank conference on
poverty alleviation, held in bustling Shanghai. “In developing
China is regarded with a mixture of envy, admiration, and awe,” U.N.
Development Program chief Mark Malloch Brown told the FT during the
In some respects, China’s new foreign policy assertiveness is only
and it could benefit the developing world. Until 150 years ago, China
one of the world’s most powerful nations, and Beijing is, in many
regaining the position in foreign affairs and global trade it enjoyed
centuries. As China engages more with the developing world, it is
to project its power for the good of others. It has been expanding its
participation in U.N. peacekeeping operations. Beijing has also started
playing a larger, more positive role in global trade talks and could
to bridge the gap between richer nations and the developing world on
issues like agricultural subsidies; China has also lived up to its WTO
commitments, in some cases more so than the United States. After the
tsunami, China offered significant aid disbursements to affected
(though Beijing’s pledge of roughly $85 million in initial government
was dwarfed by the U.S. offer). China also has become more of a player
the U.N. Security Council, a role it traditionally abdicated–Beijing
backed antiterrorism resolutions and avoided blocking the U.S.-led war
Iraq. As China becomes more powerful, it may take on a more beneficent
at Turtle Bay.
But, despite significant political opening over the past two decades,
remains a highly authoritarian state, one in which individuals who try
form national political organizations are suppressed. In recent months,
government has launched a new strike against dissent, detaining
intellectuals, upping its crackdown against the Uighurs and other
minorities, increasing press censorship, and bolstering its Internet
firewalling. China also canceled an international human rights
due to be held in Beijing and arrested a Hong Kong-based journalist for
Singapore Straits Times and a Chinese researcher for The New York
Today, China has the largest number of journalists in jail of any
This is hardly an ideal political model for developing
the Chinese model might forestall democratization. Indeed, African,
and Latin American democrats certainly can take no comfort in their
moving closer to Beijing, since China places no priority on human
rights in
its decisions about its allies. Beijing’s aid and trade prop up the
Burmese and Sudanese regimes, allowing them to ignore Western
and Beijing reportedly has helped prevent the U.N. Security Council
taking tougher action against genocide in the Sudanese region of
What’s more, China’s talk of noninterference may be just that–talk. As
University of Colorado’s Hays Gries writes, China historically has
practiced a politics defined by the term biao li bu yi–“surface and
reality differ.” After all, Chinese academics at government-linked
tanks say that, ultimately, China will surpass the United States in
and control the region. Some foreign leaders recognize that China’s
face abroad may mask a desire to increase Chinese power across the
developing world. A classified report by the Philippine armed forces
captures the difference between Beijing’s statements and actions. It
“China’s actions are widely viewed as a doubled-edge[d] diplomatic
aimed at furthering its strategic goals in the region.”
Unfortunately, though some nations may resent China’s growing power,
often they resent the United States more. The United States has all but
abdicated its presence in parts of the developing world, and Washington
seems unprepared for China’s emergence as a more aggressive foreign
actor. Washington lacks enough diplomats who truly understand China’s
foreign policy intentions and how it executes its ambitions on the
Foreign Affairs editor James Hoge has noted that the workforce at the
Embassy in Beijing is half the size of the one assigned to the new
in Baghdad.
At the same time that China’s influence has grown, the U.S. means of
leverage–aid allocations, trade deals, academic ties, popular
weakening, undermined by everything from new restrictions on student
to the prisoner abuse scandals at GuantAnamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Worse,
when dealing with longtime allies like Thailand, Washington too often
about little other than terrorism. Asians find the American “obsession”
with terrorism tedious, Karim Raslan, a prominent Malaysian writer,
The New York Times. “We’ve all got to live. We’ve all got to make
he said. “The Chinese want to make money, and so do we.”
Savvy American officials are beginning to understand how China is
from a defensive to an offensive foreign policy. During an important
to Southeast Asia earlier this year, new Deputy Secretary of State
Zoellick, a former trade negotiator, tried to recapture lost ground. He
emphasized not only counterterrorism cooperation but also economic
aid disbursements, and other issues of importance to Asian nations. The
mild-mannered Zoellick was a hit. “The Zoellick road show was an
signal from Washington that Southeast Asia was not being ignored by the
world’s No. 1 superpower,” enthused the Singapore Straits Times.
Meanwhile, administration hawks–who concentrated on China early in
first term–are beginning to refocus their attention on Beijing. Even
Rumsfeld talks about China’s military power, other hawks are trying to
effectively leverage key foreign allies against China. They are doing
so by
drawing important nations more tightly under the U.S. security
Washington appears to have convinced Tokyo to move closer to the U.S.
position on Taiwan–as reflected in a joint statement issued in
February–and the Bush administration is reaching out to India, with
Rumsfeld calling for closer ties with New Delhi.
But these are only initial steps. Is Washington up to the task of
reorienting foreign policy to handle a competitor like the cold war-era
Soviet Union, one with a defined foreign policy doctrine and allies
the globe?
Too often, official Washington, whether focused on China’s military or
by China’s booming economy, simply disregards the gravity of China’s
changing foreign policy. During a private luncheon last year for the
American ambassador to Thailand, one person asked about recent unrest
southern Thailand, where the United States closed its consulate a
ago–and where the region has become a potential hotbed of Islamic
extremism. The ambassador mentioned that the United States was still
to exert influence in the south and had reopened a program in southern
Thailand, a small “American corner” where Thais could read
books to learn about the United States. What happened to the U.S.
consulate, asked someone else in the audience. The ambassador paused.
think it’s the Chinese consulate now,” he said. Everyone in the room

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