In the secret history of the Obama administration’s campaign to roll back Chinese inroads in Africa, Western shenanigans in the Democratic Republic of Congo will deserve a separate chapter.
The West blocked China’s massive $9 billion dollar ore-for-infrastructure project in order to protect its flagship project—Freeport McMoRan’s Tunke Fungurume copper mine--and show the DRC who was boss down in the heart o’ darkness (hint: it wasn’t the DRC government or the Chinese).
The Chinese project is going ahead, albeit on a reduced scale.
However, looking at the current balance of forces in the DRC, the project now looks as much as another point of Chinese exposure to Western leverage as it does a masterstroke in China’s African diplomacy.
I document the atrocities at Asia Times in my article: China has a Congo copper headache
When trends in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are examined, I think the US-PRC dynamic is pretty clear.
The Obama administration is reasserting U.S. influence in resource-rich regions that China penetrated during the distracted and internationally unpopular Bush administration.
Now the U.S. is cannily framing and choosing fights that unite the U.S., the EU, and significant resource producers, and isolate China and force it to defend unpopular positions alone.
Cases in point: Copenhagen climate summit, non-proliferation, and Iran sanctions. Next up: RMB valuation.
By my reading, China is pretty much a one-trick pony in international affairs.
It offers economic partnership and cash.
What it doesn’t have is what the U.S. has: military reach, moral leadership, heft in the global financial markets (Beijing’s immense overexposure to U.S. government securities is, I think, becoming less of an advantage and more of a liability), or a large slate of loyal and effective allies that help it dominate the global discourse and exert a decisive influence over international organizations.
When President Obama recommitted the United States to multilateralism, the countries that had grudgingly sided with China during the Bush years quickly fell into line with the U.S.
China got stuck with the rather miserable roster of Sudan, Myanmar, North Korea, and Iran and a political, economic, and human rights regime that provides a ready-made justification for criticism and containment by the liberal democracies of the West.
And the U.S. is quietly chipping away at Myanmar and Sudan.
The United States is also making good progress in pursuing the most destabilizing initiative (I’m not making a value judgment here, just a factual statement) of the next twenty years: encouragement of India’s rise from Afghanistan through to Myanmar as a rival and distraction to China.
The Chinese realize this and they are nervous.
As I wrote last week on the occasion of the Beijing visit of the top Obama China hands, James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader:
China’s playpen [according the Obama playbook] is supposed to be Greater China: the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong.
A pretty major chunk of the world, but still not an attractive option for China, which sees itself competing with Japan for regional supremacy in Asia and isolated and relegated to second citizen status in key resource regions such as the Middle East and Africa.
According to this theory, the Obama administration should give China a free hand in dealing with Taiwan and Tibet.
But, of course, the Obama administration isn’t doing that.
I’ll repeat the bolded excerpt from Qin’s statement here:
But in the past two months, on the Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, the US violated the principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués and China-US Joint Statement, seriously disrupted the development of China-US relations and caused difficulties for the bilateral cooperation in major fields.
What Beijing is saying is, You’re trying to stick me in the Greater China box…and now you’re f*cking with the box! Are you trying to say China’s only legitimate sphere of influence is the 25% of the PRC’s area that is occupied by Han Chinese?
What Beijing wanted from Steinberg and Bader was an acknowledgment of a legitimate sphere of interest for China by the United States—including Taiwan and Tibet—in order to alleviate the PRC’s worries about President Obama’s geopolitical initiatives, initiatives that, by accident or design, are pushing China into a corner.
Pretty clear to me.
But it looks like I’m the only one who thinks so.
After Steinberg and Bader came back from Beijing, Foreign Policy Josh Robin posted a blog piece whose tone was one of headshaking disbelief at China’s Taiwan obsession:
Several China experts close to both sets of officials said that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and National Security Council Senior Director Jeffrey Bader went to China with the understanding that they would have substantive discussions on some key issues of U.S. interest, but the Chinese side used the opportunity to try to bargain for an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, something Beijing has wanted for decades and now feels bold enough to demand.
"It was all about Taiwan," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), "The message that the Chinese are giving us is ‘We've had enough; we're fed up. We've been living with this issue of U.S. arms sales for too long and it's time to solve it.'" [emph. added]
For bonus points, we can also play the game, Who’s clueless? Beijing or Washington?
"There is a strong push from Beijing to get that core issue as their big ask and there's a desire to reopen discussions about what a plan to eliminate arms sales to Taiwan would look like," [Charles Freeman of CSIS] explained. "There is some sense that we can trade Iran for Taiwan, but that's a non-starter for the Obama administration. The Chinese don't seem to understand that."
China considers Taiwan part of China.
Nobody considers Iran to be part of the United States.
Which might mean that China’s call for non-interference on Taiwan might more legitimate than U.S. demands that everybody join in a united front dogpile on Iran.
And the Obama administration’s invocation of the stern god of political convenience to ignore Chinese concerns on Taiwan begs the question of why it’s not OK for China to simply declare that Iran sanctions is a “non-starter” for them.
The true significance of whether China feels it has a legitimate and significant beef on Taiwan issue brings up the talking point:
China: nervous or emboldened?
The Cable piece takes the “emboldened” China side, stating that China apparently “now feels bold enough to demand” changes in Taiwan policy.
And Willy Lam, the veteran China watcher who got his walking papers from the South China Morning Post because of his informed and critical views on the PRC, made the same point in Asia Times.
Say it ain’t so, Willy!
What is new is China's much-enhanced global clout in the wake of the world financial crisis, which is coupled with a marked decline in America's hard and soft power.
More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is gunning for a paradigm shift in geopolitics, namely, new rules of the game whereby the fast-rising quasi-superpower will be playing a more forceful role. In particular, Beijing has served notice that it won't be shy about playing hardball to safeguard what it claims to be "core national interests".
However, the only “core national interest” Lam identifies are…Taiwan & Tibet, which the U.S. has already recognized as parts of China.
And the “hardball” tactics, he invokes are pretty tame measures: like withholding China’s OK for U.N. sanctions, complaining to Western countries over providing a welcoming haven for dissidents, and playing footsie with Pyongyang.
I think of “hardball” more along the lines of using missile defense systems in Eastern Europe as a bargaining chip, threatening sanctions that would cut off some of China’s oil imports, hey, maybe even selling arms to a renegade province and holding a White House meeting with the leader of a Tibetan dissident outfit.*
You get the picture.
Finally, Lam indirectly undercuts his point and supports mine by citing China’s fears of containment.
A likely factor behind the apparent softening of Beijing's diplomatic gambit could be fears of a backlash from countries that have been burnt by the fire-spitting dragon. General Yang Yi has warned of the danger of the emergence of an "anti-China coalition" in the West. "Some Western nations may adopt the formula of 'making individual moves to produce the effect of concerted action' - and join the 'contain China' camp one after the other," he said. Under this scenario, the well-known strategist added, "[anti-China] measures may come one after the other the rest of the year."
A late February commentary by the Beijing-run Hong Kong journal Bauhinia also drew attention to the possible worsening of the international climate this year. The monthly magazine noted that Western countries' dependence on China might lessen in the wake of the global economic recovery. "It is possible the West will put more pressure on China over issues such as Tibet, Xinjiang, human rights, the value of the yuan as well as trade protectionism," the commentary said. "Forces calling for the 'containment of China' may also rear their head."[emphasis added]
Note, by the way, all of the areas of concerns cited by Lam in the Bauhinia article are within China’s borders—not exactly the priorities of a self-confident, burgeoning superpower eager to make its mark on the world.
And notice that they are couched in terms of the West’s decreased reliance on China—may I say boldness?--not as a reflection of China’s indispensability and heightened assertiveness.
So I’m willing to remain the outlier vis a vis The Cable and Willy Lam.
I don’t think the Obama administration is unaware of the nature of China’s Taiwan and Tibet concerns—rooted in geopolitical anxiety, not boldness.
I also don’t think that it is unhappy that media commentary buys into the “emboldened China” line, making its job of rolling back China that much easier.
*The Obama administration’s arms sale to Taiwan and meeting with the Dalai Lama were rather nuanced and not particularly provocative. However, from Beijing’s perspective, I think they feel the U.S. already has its thumb firmly planted in China’s eye; grinding it a little less isn’t much of a concession.