The Great Creep Forward

The Great Creep Forward

Many scholars point out that Chinese hegemony is far from assured, and that in its climb to power and wealth China has disappointed new friends and attracted unsavory allies.

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A generation ago a blockbuster book, Japan as Number One (1979), proclaimed Japan’s world leadership in industrial competitiveness, crime control, education, and a host of other areas. This triumph appeared almost ­inevitable—­until the Japanese economy melted down in the late 1980s. Now Asia has brought forth a new challenger, China. An academic cot­tage industry has grown up around new Chinese demographic, military, commercial, and political threats. But scholars are also increasingly pointing out that Chinese hegemony is far from assured, and that in its climb to power and wealth China has disap­pointed new friends and attracted unsavory ­allies.

The People’s Republic of China has 1.3 billion people, $1.7 trillion in foreign trade, 2.2 million soldiers, and about 200 nuclear warheads. But according to Naazneen Barma and Ely Ratner, Ph.D. candi­dates at the University of California, Berkeley, writing in Democracy (Fall 2006), “The real threat posed by China isn’t economic or ­military—­it’s ideological.”

Since the end of the Cold War, Barma and Ratner write, “democratic liberalism has been the dominant model for national development and international affairs.” China provides an enticing alternative to some of the world’s worst rulers: “illiberal capitalism”—free markets and tightly con­trolled politics. It is coupled with a hands-­off policy toward other nations’ internal affairs, no matter how ­repugnant.

China’s “see no evil” policy is especially pernicious when combined with its relentless search for oil, scholars say. “China’s drive for energy resources risks gravely weakening international human rights and obstructing global energy security objectives,” writes Matthew E. Chen, a research assistant at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, in Orbis (Winter 2007).

Beijing’s move to sign between $70 billion and $100 billion in oil con­tracts with Iran complicates world efforts to isolate Tehran’s ­nuclear-­ambitious re­gime. Its growing oil ties to Venezuela may embolden that country’s authoritarian president, Hugo Chávez. Its relationship with another oil exporter, Nigeria, could undercut efforts to improve the African state’s conduct, Chen ­writes.

Oil-­rich Angola, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to reduce corruption, recently received a $2 billion credit line from the ­Export-­Import Bank of China. Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos proudly described the China deal as free of ­preconditions.

China’s most dangerous African liaison is with Sudan. China has been the biggest investor in Sudanese oil, whose revenue has given Khartoum the ability to sustain its militias and expand its attack helicopter fleet for use in the Darfur area. There, between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died in fighting between ­government-­backed troops and rebel groups. China has used its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to block introduction of a UN peace­keeping force or the imposition of sanctions, according to ­Chen.

In Asia, China has propped up the military regime in Burma with $1.2 billion in trade, and last year signed an agreement to pipe natural gas from a new offshore field, vowing not to meddle in the nation’s affairs, Chen ­writes.

While China is active economically and diplomatically across the globe, “Latin America is the current center of China’s global strategy,” writes Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for Inter­national Peace, in World Policy Journal (Fall 2006). In 2004, China’s president and vice president made triumphal tours of Latin America, launching trade deals in Brazil and Venezuela, while romancing Bolivia, which has huge stores of natural ­gas.

In the end, however, scholars are suggesting that China’s rise to world hegemony may not be the cakewalk some have predicted. “Less than two years after China and Brazil’s court­ship, strains have developed in Beijing’s relationship with the largest nation in South America as a flood of Chinese imports has not been matched by Chinese consumption of Brazilian goods,” Kurlantzick writes.

“China’s widely touted invest­ment in nearby Asia actually amounts to very little money passing from China abroad, while China’s foreign-aid effort sees much smaller amounts of money leaving China,” writes Georgetown University professor Robert Sutter in International Journal of Korean Studies (Spring–Summer 2006). “Official Chinese figures show Chinese foreign investment amounted to less than $4 billion and Chinese foreign aid . . . less than $1 billion” ­worldwide.

Moreover, Beijing’s public-rela­tions ­successes—­polls show increased ­anti-U.S. and ­pro-­China sentiment in South Korea, for ­example—­rest on a “narrow foundation,” Sutter says. China’s ­“win-­win” ­approach—­neither partner is asked to do anything it doesn’t want to ­do—­means that Beijing focuses on achieving “easy things” that avoid costly commit­ments or major ­risk.

It has, for example, re­fused to ease its hard-line stance toward Taiwan, and as a result was forced to rely on the Bush admin­istration to be a voice of reason when Taiwan moved toward inde­pendence during 2003.

By contrast, according to Sutter, America has worked hard and spent liberally to promote stability and prosperity in Asia, and it asks something in return. As a result, South Korea has put its troops where it believes its national interests lie: It sent more than 3,000 to Iraq to sustain its alliance with the United States, and 2,300 are still there.

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