March 1, 2006  

Monitoring China’s meddling

American strategists have, since the end of the Cold War, been a day late and a dollar short in appreciating the change in relations with the People’s Republic of China. The first presumption was that, since Beijing had been regarded an ally of convenience against Moscow — the old “triangular diplomacy” was often ranked as Henry Kissinger’s most subtle and successful bit of statecraft — that a “strategic partnership” would continue. This attitude took deeper root during the Clinton years, when “geoeconomics” was to have supplanted geopolitics. The world would remain peaceful because people now preferred wealth to power.

And so when China began to use its newfound wealth to buy Russian hardware at bargain-basement prices and to put its own ballistic and cruise missile programs on steroids, few paid attention. Those who did were mocked as warmongers intent on “turning China into a threat.” Even the missile “blockades” of Taiwan in 1995 and 1996 were pooh-poohed.

Having now discovered the extent and duration of the Chinese conventional military buildup, and translated a goodly body of People’s Liberation Army writings about cyberwar and similar “transformational” and futuristic imaginings, we seem to be missing the more mundane and likely more provocative aspects of China’s “rise.” Obsessing about the Taiwan Strait situation — the Fulda Gap of the 21st century — we miss the role Beijing is adopting as Third World “spoiler” of the American Imperium. Just as France was unwilling or unable to challenge Great Britain in every corner of the globe but delighted in twisting the British lion’s tail whenever and wherever possible, China cannot seem to resist playing footsie with a variety of rogue regimes.

On the theory that it must be true if the Council on Foreign Relations — the keeper of the flame of conventional wisdom among America’s foreign policy elites — says so, this month’s Must Reads come from two CFR sources. Both deal indirectly, but tellingly, with the issue of China’s out-of-area meddling. One is a monograph, “More than Humanitarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach toward Africa”; the other is a piece in the January-February issue of Foreign Affairs, the gray eminence of policy journals published by the council. Peter Hakim’s article, “Is Washington Losing Latin America?,” suggests that the “China card,” as Kissinger put it, is being played against the United States.

Begin with the monograph. “More than Humanitarianism” is a welcome call to American policy-makers to take Africa seriously in a strategic sense, to see it as a “normal” continent rather than through the lenses of our own domestic and racial politics or simply as a collection of peoples to be pitied. Naturally, it is hedged in the traditional CFR way, pulling most of its punches in recommending changes to U.S. policy. Indeed, several members of the study task force make this point in additional and dissenting views. Brookings Institution military expert Michael O’Hanlon chastises his colleagues for being “insufficiently precise and bold in what we should do” about the Darfur genocide, for example.

But the report also reflects CFR’s great strength in that its reporting on China’s various activities in Africa is quite thorough, given the space limitations of such a report and its broader focus on Africa policy. So, when the council says, “All across Africa today, China is acquiring control of natural resource assets, outbidding Western contractors on major infrastructure projects and providing soft loans and other incentives to bolster its competitive advantages,” it’s a pretty safe bet that this pattern is indisputable. And the report’s conclusion that it is “most disturbing to U.S. political objectives” that China is willing “to use its seat on the UN Security Council to protect some of Africa’s most egregious regimes from international sanction, in particular Sudan and Zimbabwe” is an understatement.

The report also goes beyond these relatively well-known Chinese actions. For example, it describes the “anarchic logging” practices of Chinese lumber companies. This is a political as well as an environmental problem: “China was a major importer of Liberian lumber during Charles Taylor’s rule,” the report says. “Taylor, who has since been indicted by the UN court in Sierra Leone for financing and fostering that country’s brutal civil war” — Taylor’s regional provocations sparked a response by U.S. forces in 2003 — “relied heavily on timber resources to support his own military efforts and to fund mercenaries in both Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.”

Hakim’s piece on political trends in Latin America is premised on the observation that, since Sept. 11, the Bush administration — which came to office promising a new emphasis on the region — has had its attention diverted to the Middle East. Yet, he also observes that American neglect has opened a door the Chinese already had begun to knock upon.

“China’s interest in Latin America is significant and expanding,” he writes. “The region has become a vital source of raw materials and foodstuffs for China.” Chinese imports from the region have risen 60 percent per year in the past six years. Chinese leader Hu Jintao has visited the region twice in the past two years, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales — the poster children of the new Latin left — have embraced Beijing as at least a rhetorical alternative to American imperialism. Even Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, a more moderate leftist in a more stable country, has spoken of a strategic relationship with China.

It will be awhile before the CFR and other mandarins of American strategy can bring themselves to contemplate that China’s global economic presence is matched by a global geopolitical influence. And it probably will be longer still before we dare to speak of the problems that might cause. In the meantime, it’s still possible to find Must Reading on China buried under the headlines of reports and articles that are intended to describe the festering problems of the world’s poorest countries. Keep particular watch, in an appropriately paranoid spirit, on those places plagued by weak governments but endowed with natural resources.

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• “More Than Humantarianism: A Strategic U.S. Approach to Africa,” can be downloaded at no cost, or a print version can be purchased, from the Council on Foreign Relations.

• A preview of “Is Washington Losing Latin America?” by Peter Hakim and information about foreign affairs are available on the Foreign Affairs Web site.