China: No real friends abroad?

In a congressional hearing on 2 March, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered some blunt comments about US-China relations. Not only was the US in direct competition with China for international influence, but China’s unconcern for humanitarian values keeps it ahead of the US in this competition, as her comments implied:

I'll just be – let’s put aside the moral, humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in, and let’s just talk, you know, straight real politik. We are in a competition with China. Take Papua, New Guinea, huge energy find, to go to one of Senator Lugar’s very strong points. Exxon Mobil is producing it. China is in there every day in every way trying to figure out how it's going to come in behind us, come in under us. They’re supporting the dictatorial regime that unfortunately is now in charge of Fiji. They have brought all of the leaders of these small Pacific nations to Beijing, wined them and dined them.

I mean, if anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, where we are competing with Iran, that is a mistaken notion. So, I would strongly support this on humanitarian, moral, values-based grounds that we do the right thing, we get credit for, but I also look at this from a strategic perspective. And it is essential.

But could China’s flirting with dictatorial regimes through dollar diplomacy prove effective in the long run? Some do not think so. Vikas Kumar reflected on this in November 2010 at the public policy blog East Asia Forum. Ironically, he drew on the backfiring of the US policy of promoting extremist Islamic regimes as proxies against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He argued that China fails to learn from the US experience in this regard, and its encouragement of problematic regimes such as Iran and Myanmar would eventually come back to haunt China itself:

These countries will prove to be a headache for China in four ways. First, just as Pakistan currently provides the United States with one of its most important challenges, these countries will divert China’s attention from more important global issues such as climate change. Second, these regimes will join China’s opponents once China starts exerting pressure upon them to behave. Third, almost 65 per cent of China’s territory is populated by ethnic minorities.  In many cases, these ethnic minorities have not been completely overwhelmed by Han settlers and tension continues to simmer. In this context, an unpredictable Myanmar that borders upon Tibet could potentially encourage the independence of the Tibetan ethnic minority. And while Pakistan-based or Iran-sponsored Islamic extremists have not yet launched a major attack on Xinjiang, this does not guarantee an incident-free future. Fourth, political repression and economic distress makes such states potential sources of humanitarian refugees. China may end up hosting millions of refugees in case the domestic situation in North Korea or Myanmar deteriorates.

More broadly, China’s support of rogue regimes affects the world in at least three ways. First, it encourages the emergence of such regimes in other countries by reducing the expected impact of international sanctions, which in turn discourages domestic opposition to such regimes. Muted domestic opposition further limits the options available to the international community, which in turn gives a negative feedback to domestic opposition, ultimately, forcing the country into a low-level equilibrium trap. Second, the neighbours of rogue regimes are compelled to follow a policy of appeasement to limit Chinese influence across their borders, which in turn bolsters these regimes and further reduces the expected impact of international sanctions. This makes domestic dissent costlier. A case in point is India’s quiet but unwavering support to the Myanmarese junta to counter Chinese influence. Third, sooner or later countries at the receiving end of the Chinese policy of encirclement will respond in kind in China’s neighbourhood completing the vicious circle.

If supporting these regimes brings many troubles, what is the driving force behind this policy? An article which originated from Caing Magazine in October 2010 linked this foreign policy with the survival needs of the Communist Party. Through its dollar diplomacy, China has fostered a camp of illiberal regimes to counter the liberal world. This helps create a false sense of antagonism, a tactic used by the party state to bolster its legitimacy back home:


Some said that Chinese rulers are really stupid, using money to buy troubles for themselves. In fact, they are not stupid at all. During the Mao era, China used 6.92% of the national budget, the highest in the world in percentage terms, to aid foreign countries. Today, China offers huge investments and loans with no strings attached to North Korea and African countries. It is a meticulous plan to increase its international influence and hence strengthen its rule at home, albeit at the expense of Chinese citizens. To have a voice of its own, China needs to foster allies which would resonate with itself. Therefore, official supports for these regimes have its origins in domestic politics.


To ensure that Chinese citizens will blindly support the vested interest groups of the party state, instead of tending toward a liberal society, the party state coins the term ‘anti-China forces’, which is strengthened through decades of lies. The objective is to deceive the citizenry and create an image of antagonism between the Chinese race and the international community. Hence, ordinary Chinese will consciously reject liberal values, Western concerns on China’s human rights violations and criticisms on other dictatorial regimes. The result is that China’s authoritarian rule can survive.

In response to the recent turmoil in Libya, China supported a UN Security Council resolution on 27 February to sanction against Gadhafi. A commentary at The Wall Street Journal argued ‘it’s unclear why exactly Beijing supported the sanctions against Mr. Gadhafi,’ as ‘China has generally stymied efforts to target other governments such as Zimbabwe and Myanmar for human-rights violations—wielding its veto power, for example, to block sanctions efforts against Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Sudan.’

In a recent blog post, Chinese blogger Yan Changhai was affirmative of Beijing’s endorsement on the sanctions. However, he also pointed out that, as recently as two days before the UN vote, the Chinese ambassador to Libya wrote in an article that Gadhafi is a ‘unique, revolutionary idealist’ who ‘lives a simple life,’ ‘never drinks and smokes,’ ‘emphasizes social equality,’ and ‘love his country and the Arab people.’ While he criticized the mindset of Chinese officials, he hoped that this could be the start of a return to more ethical policies:


How can an ambassador who represents China make such lies and bullshits! How will the international community view China and its government? When Chinese citizens learn of the truth, how will they view their country, its government and officials? And how can they be confident to place the power of rule onto these officials? If this is due to realpolitik, they should learn to judge the situation carefully! At least, don’t make lies to the extent of destroying all your credibility and putting yourself to moral bankruptcy.


Now that the government decides to sanction Gadhafi, it is returning to political ethics. This deserves applauses. But this is only the start of a long process of correction. For too long, Chinese officials have been subject to a rigid and constant mode of thinking. The article by the Chinese ambassador to Libya is a typical example. Much needs to be done. But no matter what, we have embarked on the right track. A government which sides with the people is what the majority of Chinese citizens expects and aspires to.

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