China initiates international geopolitical change

Saturday 1 May 2010 by CEPRID

Alberto Cruz


The financial crisis is calling the existing world “order” into question. The weakness of the United States, the marked decline in its hard, military power and in its soft, diplomatic power is being exploited by China so as to begin a change in international geopolitics. While one cannot say yet that China has assumed the place formerly occupied by the Soviet Union as a super-power, one can indeed assert beyond any doubt that China has decided to bang hard on the table and play a more energetic, protagonist’s role in international politics.

China had not foreseen taking such a significant step before 2027 (1), a date by when it reckoned it would have reached strategic parity with the US in every aspect – political, economic and military. To that end it has been weaving a cautious web of influence around the world – in Africa, Asia, Latin America – via what Chinese academics call “the Beijing Consensus” which is nothing less than the practice of a political and diplomatic model that prefers using soft power – diplomacy, non-interference and multipolarity – in contrast to the traditional US model of military intervention, unipolarity and political interference.

However, the arrogance of the US in pushing through a significant arms sale to Taiwan (US$6.4bn in modern weaponry) and the reception in the White House of the Dalai Lama has exhausted the patience of the Chinese - now nothing will be the same.. Nor should one lose sight of the conflict with Google (which has received open support from the Obama administration in its denunciation of Chinese “censorship”) as an indication of China’s view of series of US multinational technology businesses that it accuses of “infiltrating and subverting” the country. Forgotten are the first declarations by high level US officials at the start of the Obama administration like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said, “China and the US are in the same boat” or of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner when he suggested “a G-2 to manage the world economy” (referring to China and the United States).

The People’s Liberation Army behind China’s hardening

We are facing a new Great Leap Forward, this time in international geo-politics, that is going to change the rules of the game in the medium and long term. As Yang Li, a general of the People’s Liberation Army and member of the National Defence University, has said, “China has been pushed by force of circumstances onto the world scene and, once there, it is better to take the initiative because when China faces challenges and provocations, it should show the flag and strike hard.” (2) This is especially so in Asia which is very much China’s “backyard”.

He is not the first to speak out in that way. Another military officer, Colonel Dai Xu thinks that the US will do all it can to start a war within 10 to 20 years in Asia - or in some other Chinese area of influence, like Iran - so as to stop China reaching strategic parity with the the US and so China should be prepared for that eventuality. Xu has just written a book, published by the Chinese Air Force in which he proposes responding to the US in kind, “If the US can start a fire in our back yard, we also can do the same in theirs.”(3) This would be no more than just another opinion were it not that Dai Xu is a United Nations military analyst and an expert in China’s presence in UN operations.

The fact that it has been respected military officers who have spoken out is not an accident. The People’s Liberation Army is especially upset by the sale of US weapons to Taiwan and is pressing the government to increase defence spending and extend the deployment of military forces, especially in terms of submarines, counting on the possibility - and here China’s role as a protagonist in the new international geopolitics is important – of one or more naval bases outside Chinese territory. And moreover, the PLA has not forgotten that during the war against Yugoslavia, the US bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade, an affront that could not be avenged then because China “was unable to return the blow” as another general, retired now, Xiong Guangki, former chief of military intelligence, recognised, “but now it can”. (4)

These opinions of leading representatives of China’s army have been mistakenly interpreted by the US, which thinks that those opinions, coming mostly from retired military officers now no longer represent majority opinion within the PLA. To the contrary, the Chinese army is conscious of the discontent in the population caused by economic policy and the favouring of foreign capital, for which reason it is necessary to “change course” by adopting a more nationalist discourse at the same time as the political and economic power of the military becomes more visible. One has to remember that those articles published on military matters, written by military officers, have the approval of the Military Committee of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party, which means we are not dealing with mere worthless opinions.

In that sense, it is significant that the only measure adopted by the Chinese government as a result of the US arms sales to Taiwan has been the indefinite cancellation of the visit that was to have been made by the Chief of the PLA High Command, Chen Bingde to the US. Other threats, like the application of sanctions to companies involved in those arms sales, like Boeing, have yet to materialize.

The first front : North Korea

Chinese politicians seem to have understood the military discontent, given that the army is responsible for protecting energy supply lines and the delivery of raw materials which ensure that China continues growing while the rest of the planet is in recession due to the economic crisis. That is why the politicians have begun a policy of hardening their position in international relations and they have done so where it most hurts the US, in Korea and in Iran.

China has just approved significant economic aid for North Korea when it has also stopped pressing the Koreans to return to the negotiating table on de-nuclearization. That issue has disappeared, without further ado, from official Chinese statements and nor for the last two months has there been a return to talk of the need for another meeting of the so-called Six Conversation Table to discuss the matter. Therefore, North Korea is no longer under obligation to make “substantial concessions” as it did with the agreement, not kept to in full by the other signatories, which lead it to destroy the main tower of the Yongbong nuclear reactor in July 2008.

Simultaneously, China has announced that the North Korean Pesident Kim Yong-il will visit Beijing this year and that relations between the two countries “will increase their ties of friendship and upgrade the level of their relationship”. This has translated already into the fact that North Korea has just approved leasing the use of two islands for 50 years to large Chinese companies so they can transfer part of their production there. (5) And according to South Korea – in comments by that country’s ambassador in Washington – the agreement supposes China’s intention to invest US$10bn in the North Korean economy. That agreement, according to the Yonhap agency, will have already been sealed during a visit to Pyongyang by the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international relations section (6), the first by a Chinese leader of that level since December 2008.

China has decided to rescue North Korea from economic collapse and render ineffective US pressure on the North Koreans with regard to nuclear issues. Thus, China is reinforcing North Korea’s role in the region, turning that country into a strategic ally and a counterweight to the role played by Japan and South Korea, the traditional US allies in that geographic area.

The second front : Iran

But it is Iran where China has much more to say. In the first week of March this year China made public its rejection of the sanctions policy against Iran, which lead the US to have to withdraw from the UN Security Council a project for a very hard resolution which practically declared war on the Persian country. The daily Wall Street Journal (7) recalled the Chinese position in a tough editorial which virtually accused the Chinese of encouraging Iran’s nuclear programme. What had happened is that the Chinese had roundly refused to accept the sanctions proposal that the US and its European allies (France, Great Britain and Germany) were trying to get approved through the Security Council of the UN and which, in summary, effectively closed international airspace and international waters to the Iranian State, thus increasing Iran’s isolation to unprecedented levels. The aim was to stop Iran, in the event of a US-Israeli attack on the country, from closing the Straits of Hormuz, as it had done when it had hardly any resources during the first years of the war against Iraq in the decade from 1980-1990. At that time, Iran’s resources were practically non-existent, whereas now it has a trained and powerful army.

China has won time for Iran, given that the US-European hope was to get the sanctions approved in April this year. Now they have to draft another proposal which means that the issue is unlikely to return to the Security Council before the summer. But the Chinese attitude has not been only to upset the US or to make it see that a new international geopolitics is firmly under way but to show that China feels the obsession with Iran is a strategy of harassment of its own national interests.

China is at the moment Iran’s main partner. It has taken over steadily but constantly the vacuum left by the Western countries who have been abandoning Iran by absurdly following up the sanctions imposed by the US. In fact, in 2009 China officially became Iran’s leading commercial partner with bilateral trade at US$21.2bn, practically doubling the trading volume of just three years earlier. One of the sectors in which China predominates is the oil and energy sector. Although China only buys 11.4% of the oil it needs from Iran – behind Angola and Saudi Arabia for example – investment in oil and gas contracts is growing substantially through the Chines National Oil Corporation, China’s biggest company, and through its subsidiary Petrochina, to the sum of US$9bn (about Euros 7bn). The Chinese have a presence in Juzestan, in the south-east of the country and in South Pars, on the Gulf, where they have substituted the French Total company. For 2010, Chinese companies are committed to invest in a series of important projects like an auto-highway between Teheran and the Caspian Sea through the Alborz mountains.

Admittedly, these are not such significant sums as China’s bilateral trade with the US (See Martin Hart-Landsberg’s article in CEPRID) which is reckoned at roughly US$400bn, but they point to a growing trend and an appetising market that will help the Chinese reach their objective of strategic parity by 2027. China is not going to vote a new round of sanctions unless it sets aside its own national interests in Iran, given that sanctions, as drafted for approval in April this year would have added up to a “concealed sanction” against the Chinese.

China has not used its right to a veto in the UN except when the issue in hand directly affected its national interests. Altogether, it has only used that veto six times, the last time on the issue of Myanmar. Far removed, this, for example, from the attitude of the US in the UN’s senior body. Nor is it probable that China will use its veto on the issue of Iran, but they are certainly showing that either they get taken into account or it will be impossible to do anything.

For the moment China is sending clear messages to the US and its European allies on a matter that affects it : Iran is being used as a wedge against China’s interests and that is unacceptable. By extension, China considers that the policy of the US and its allies in the Middle and Far East only seeks to prolong Western influence in that area and that is how it interprets the latest Western moves with the Arab countries in the Gulf, as much with reference to the sale of arms as to the organization of an anti-Iranian pressure lobby so as to “neutralize” any hypothetical negative vote by China in the Security Council. This and no other was the aim of the tour by Hillary Clinton of those Arab countries a few weeks ago.

China criticises the fact that while there is talk of the threat of war in Iran’s position, no account is taken of of the sale of US and EU arms to Arab countries in the Gulf, which in their turn foment the arms race and encourage the propensity to war.

And China argues too that “there are more and more signs of a common consensus in the West as regards the need to reduce dependence on China as a financial,economic and geopolitical factor”, which is why either they bang hard on the table – as general Li has said – or else China may become a kind of hostage to Western strategy.. This is something that has been published in no less than the People’s Daily, the official organ of the Chinese government. (8)

The paper mentioned a little known fact, but a defining one for the maintenance of the anti-China campaign in the West : the pressure on China to accept a revaluation of the renminbi (the official name of China’s currency, the yuan), which has moved another step forward with the acceptance in the US Senate of a bill on the “insidious trade practices” and “undue manipulation” of China’s currency, while Nobel prize-winning economists like Paul Krugman push for tariff increases of up to 25% on Chinese imports for that reason. (9) The Western argument is that artificially propping up the dollar is good, but doing likewise with other currencies, as in the case of the renminbi, is bad. And this they call “fair play in international trade”, according to the US Treasury Department.

China has responded immediately to these accusations giving the US what for. The People’s Daily accuses the Obama administration of following its predecessors strategies, “Sufficient evidence demonstrates that the United States, which frequently accuses other countries of manipulating exchange rates and applying constant pressure to change the value of its currency is precisely the biggest ’country manipulating exchange rates’ in the world”. (10) And it adds that for this reason a new Western strategy is under way, once free of the economic crisis, to reduce dependency on China as a an economic, financial and geopolitical factor. The Chinese are well aware of that and are acting accordingly.

The third front : Latin America and Africa

One example, is its increasing presence in Latin America. The establishment of the Latin American and Caribbean Community last January has also caused a new twist in international geopolitics. The fact that neither the US nor Canada form part of that organization is in itself significant. It remains to be seen how this Community will get under way but what does appear with it is the confirmation of a certain loss of power by the United States in the region while China has pushed on consolidating its presence.

In less than 10 years, China has established diplomatic and economic relations with 21 of the 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and Chinese investment in the different Latin American countries is already US$50bn (some Euros 35bn) But in Latin America, China has done something special by starting to give credits for development. That implies a profound long-term commitment with the Latin American continent.

In an era of weak economic development, of a fall in the price of basic goods and with restrictions on access to credit, China’s presence has been warmly welcomed by countries like Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina. The cases of Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina are especially significant. In these countries China is investing in the area of exploration of natural resources and in their exploitation. China has become, furthermore, Brazil’s biggest trading partner, surpassing the US.

The same can be said of Africa, where China has moved in strongly since 2005 and with the difference from its presence in Latin America that, in Africa, China is not just present in the economic sphere but also in the military sphere. Chinese soldiers form part of the UN in the region which gives China more knowledge of the social-political reality and it has used that to be a “favoured partner” when it comes to promoting investment in agriculture, water and irrigation systems and, above all, in health, areas that had always occupied second place for the US and the Europeans. That reality obliged the World Bank in 2007 to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China so as “to deepen and improve mutual collaboration” in three countries, Uganda, Ghana and Mozambique.

The West accuses China of exploiting its investment programmes to extract raw materials and energy from Africa, even talking of “neocolonialism” - the same countries that until 1990, when Namibia won its independence, had kept Africa under a system of political, economic and social servitude. In fact, it is the West that exploits African oil, to give one example (30% of the total), while Africa’s trade in this product with China is about 13%, in particular from Angola, as was mentioned earlier.

The new context of international relations is becoming torrid thanks to China’s presence as a protagonist. Although the first steps (like the G-20 and Copenhagen summits) have not seen a clear alliance of China with the countries of the South, in the degree to which the US and the EU tighten their encirclement of the People’s Republic, China will without any doubt activate its presence in the countries of the South so as to accelerate international geopolitical change. A new era is being born.


(1) Zhang Xiaotong, ideologue of the Chinese Communist Party said as much in an article publsihed in December 2009. For its part, the US bank Goldman Sachs affirms something similar when it states that in 2026 China will have become the leading world economy, as noted by Serge Halimi in Le Monde Diplomatique of March 16th 2010.

(2) Asia Times, March 9th 2010.

(3) Reuters, March 1st 2010.

(4) China News, September 9th 2009.

(5) Asia Times, March 10th 2010.

(6) Yonhap, February 20th 2010.

(7) The Wall Street Journal, March 24th 2010.

(8) Diario del Pueblo, March 8th 2010.

(9) IPS, March 18th 2010.

(10) Diario del Pueblo, March 26th 2010.

Alberto Cruz is a journalist, politial analyst and writer - albercruz@eresmas.com

Traslated by tortillaconsal (www.tortillaconsal.com)

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