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China’s chance

While America has been distracted by the war on terror, authoritarian Beijing has been spreading its influence through east Asia and beyond. In fact, for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, US "soft power" is being challenged by a state which is capable of wielding comparable economic and cultural clout

By Joshua Kurlantzick   108

In the autumn of 2000, while working as a reporter in Bangkok, I was sent to Laos for a story. Since I knew I would be spending several days in the somnolent capital, Vientiane, I called an acquaintance who lived there, a smart woman who I hoped might take a romantic interest in me. We met one evening and she suggested that we find one of the quaint stands overlooking the broad Mekong river and sip cold beers.

Unfortunately, the stands were hard to find. Jiang Zemin was in town, on the first state visit by a Chinese leader to Laos, and the government had replaced the stands with obsequious shrines praising China. Although Laos is a very poor country, no expense was spared. Banners were hung across the capital lauding Jiang, and endless banquets were held in his honour.

The story of Jiang’s visit had a happy ending for my friend and me. Instead of Mekong beers, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant, hit it off and started seeing each other; three years later we married. For many Laotians, Jiang’s visit was not so happy. Some owners of riverside stands never got their land back; China’s military aid helped to suppress the ethnic minorities of northern Laos, who were engaged in a low-level war with the security forces; and after Jiang pushed for an opening of trade, Chinese businesses soon came to dominate the feeble Laotian economy.

When I told officials in Washington that China was becoming the dominant power in Laos, most were unconcerned. Some admitted that China had begun cultivating allies in the region, but assured me that America was still the leading power in Asia and that China could hardly steal a march on Uncle Sam.

And yet, across Asia, and not only in authoritarian nations like Laos but also in free societies and supposedly close friends of America, I have watched China win praise and awe previously reserved for the US. In 2000, Jiang made his first visit to Cambodia, a country that only a decade ago opposed China for its past support of the Khmer Rouge. Over 200,000 cheering schoolchildren welcomed Jiang’s motorcade. In early 2004, the Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that he was overhauling foreign policy: the long-time US and British ally would now make China (and India) “the most important countries for Thailand’s diplomacy.” In 2004, China signed 24 new economic and political agreements with Burma, and it has invested so much in Mongolia that it is almost a Chinese satellite. India, which once fought a bloody border war with China, has established trade and security ties with Beijing. Russia has signed a treaty of friendship. Even South Korea, where US troops are stationed, now looks to China to broker a deal on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Outside Asia, once-staunch US allies have started to bend to Beijing. When the new Chinese president Hu Jintao visited Australia in October 2003, he was allowed to address parliament, the first Asian leader to do so. The Australian government even blocked protests—though they had been allowed for George W Bush’s visit the same week. The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, toured Europe in spring 2004, establishing common ground on a joint China-Europe space programme and the dangers of US adventurism. He also won wide support (including, probably, Britain’s) for lifting the arms embargo against Beijing.

While Washington hawks have focused on China’s potential military power, a different threat has emerged. For the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, a nation is challenging US “soft power”—the combination of economic vitality, intellectual heft, cultural pull, trade and diplomacy that, as much as military force, has made the US the pre-eminent force in the world. China cannot yet make films as consistently successful as Hollywood, produce companies like General Electric or challenge Foggy Bottom’s best (at least not in places America cares most about). But the game is on, and China is beginning to undermine US cultural, economic and diplomatic dominance. Unfortunately, Washington’s unilateralism and myopic focus on terrorism has given Beijing an opening.

To suggest that China could challenge America’s soft power would have seemed preposterous a decade ago. The Middle Kingdom was a developing nation still reeling from the shock of the Tiananmen massacre, with limited leverage in international affairs, a fear of alliances and a victim mentality. Few Chinese raised in the totalitarian Maoist state knew much about the outside world.

But much has changed in ten years. Though critics of China like myself worry that the country’s economic growth is built on shaky foundations, with excessive state-directed investment, for now its economy is booming. In 2004, China grew by 9.5 per cent. It vies with the US to be the world’s largest recipient of foreign direct investment, and it accounted for 16 per cent of all global growth in 2003. Exports rose from $20bn in 1980 to over $250bn two decades later. Within 15 years, China will probably be the world’s second largest economy. Today it runs a trade surplus of over $100bn with the US, and over $30bn with the EU, soon to be its biggest trading partner.

Dramatic construction work is in progress all over the country, not only in obvious places like Shanghai. On a recent trip to Xin-jiang, China’s vast western province, I watched new housing going up in Kashgar, a dusty city thousands of miles from Beijing. On the outskirts of Kashgar, a road into the desert is lined with new steel and glass buildings. Starbucks is endemic in the Middle Kingdom’s eastern cities. Jewel-encrusted mobile phones and tricked-out Bentleys are selling fast in Beijing.

This growth has created a new confidence among ordinary Chinese; many believe that the government has been correct to focus on economic rather than political liberalisation. After Tiananmen there has been no anti-Mao campaign in China as there was an anti-Stalin campaign in Russia. This confidence convinces Chinese that their country should take a leading role in the world, even if it means challenging the US. The Asian affairs writer Daniel Snider reports that ordinary Chinese boast “about how Japan and South Korea now depend on selling their goods to China.” Chinese strategists are advocating a “great power mentality” in foreign affairs.

In the past, state media, still the main source of information for most Chinese, rarely mentioned foreign policy. Today they constantly feature China’s successes abroad, and harp on the problems of the US. Papers like the People’s Daily run endless commentaries on America’s “failing” foreign policies from unfriendly sources, such as Arab newspapers. Historians appear in the press to discuss China’s imperial-era control of Vietnam, Korea and other parts of Asia. And as a 2002 report by the US congressional commission on China showed, official media often characterise the US as a “hegemon” or an “imperialist”—even comparing it to Nazi Germany.

The booming economy has lured overseas Chinese back to China, including former Tiananmen dissidents who have traded their pro-democracy stances for power and wealth. Several former dissidents have become hi-tech entrepreneurs and have backed a code of internet self-censorship. Southeast Asia, where the ethnic Chinese minorities often dominate business, has been a prime target of Beijing’s charm offensive. Universities have increased places for southeast Asian Chinese students, “roots travel” for ethnic Chinese in the region is encouraged, and red tape has been slashed for tycoons like Robert Kuok of Malaysia, who have invested billions of dollars in the mainland.

Increasing numbers of Chinese are travelling abroad. In 2003, 15m Chinese went overseas, nearly 50 per cent more than the year before—to Europe, the US, Australia, Thailand and elsewhere. In Thailand, transvestite cabaret shows have begun catering to Mandarin speakers, and the Patpong sex district has added signs in Chinese. As they venture out, many Chinese are seeing that their biggest cities are beginning to rival Singapore or Hong Kong or Los Angeles, that their economic growth is fêted around the world, that their money is wooed at fashion shops in Paris which now hire Mandarin-speaking assistants. But they also notice that they still are not treated equally. They are irritated that, unlike Japanese or British or American travellers, they have to obtain visas for many countries.

The combination of nationalism, economic growth and the luring back of former dissidents has paid off for the regime. Professors at Chinese universities report that their students are far less interested in liberal democracy and more nationalistic than they were a decade ago—much prouder of their country and willing to consider using force to deal with its enemies. Chinese internet forums are overwhelmed with nationalist sentiment, often emanating from the richest and best educated sections of society.

According to Ying Ma, who worked for the US congressional commission on China, this nationalism often focuses on America: “Chinese increasingly view America as a bully… thwarting the rise of their country’s international influence.” Although both incidents seemed to be accidents, the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the 2001 spy plane incident did not help. After 9/11, many Chinese seemed to revel in America’s destruction. Polls taken at the time showed that 70 per cent of Chinese thought the US had brought the attacks upon itself.

Nevertheless, the strong economy and the death of the Deng Xiaoping generation of leaders has allowed a more sophisticated, university-educated generation of mandarins to emerge. This generation spent its formative years learning about US soft power and the role of image and skill, as well as force, in international politics. It has learned well. Chinese leaders now project a benign, sophisticated face. When Hu visited an Asia-Pacific summit in October 2003, he “pressed the flesh and used the soothing language of co-operation,” according to Panitan Wattanayagorn, an analyst based in Bangkok. By contrast, George W Bush “came in with heavy security and the old traditional style of a superpower demanding its way.” Hu has made similarly effective visits across the region. In Australia, he held an unscripted press conference, which Chinese leaders never used to do—and which Bush refused to do there.

With a surging economy, an elite wanting a larger role in the world and resentful of the US, a more adroit political leadership and a global environment in which America has been distracted, China has its chance. The leadership realises that it cannot challenge the US military for decades—China spends $20bn a year on defence compared to America’s $416bn budget, and does not yet have a blue water navy to speak of. Instead, Beijing is focusing on what it calls “comprehensive national power”: a combination of international prestige, diplomacy, economic power, cultural influence and, to a lesser extent, military force.

To build this comprehensive national power, China’s leaders have started projecting the idea of its “peaceful rise”—a country growing into a pre-eminent power that, in contrast to the US, will never use its power to threaten others. Chinese leaders often refer to “certain outside countries”—meaning America—”that are not natural partners for Asia.”

Beijing has begun to use its economic weight to persuade nations, especially in Asia, that it is the natural leader of regional trade. Since it joined the WTO three years ago, China has aggressively cut restrictions on imports, contrasting its approach with that of a protectionist US. While America has stalled on trade pacts with several Asian states, and has given in to pressure from domestic farming and fishing interests to impose restrictions on Asian exporters, China has agreed to a free trade zone with ten countries in the region. It has also taken advantage of the US failure to agree a trade deal with New Zealand and concluded its own framework deal with Wellington.

At the same time, China is using direct aid to woo countries the US ignores. Since the US enforced sanctions against Burma in 1997, China has provided $3bn in military, economic and infrastructure aid. In the Pacific, Beijing finances Samoa’s government offices and Fiji’s sports stadiums. When Thailand, Laos and Cambodia were hit by the late-1990s Asian financial crisis, and the US was seen as backing the unpopular strategies of the IMF, China provided interest-free loans and other assistance. Indonesia’s economy has spluttered in recent years and China stepped in to help, loaning Jakarta some $400m. As Vietnam has battled the US over catfish exports and other trade issues, China has loaned the Vietnamese $150m, with a promise of larger amounts in the future.

Many top Chinese companies still have government links, which means that Beijing can get them to promote its interests overseas. It can also order many Chinese companies to invest in countries that it considers important, such as Brazil, now a major trading partner. When President Lula da Silva visited Beijing in May 2004, China invited 420 Brazilian business leaders to come with him, and used Chinese businessmen to woo them. When Chinese leaders attend political summits in southeast Asia, they sponsor large investment conferences. Few American businesspeople show up to these events.

For decades, China was suspicious of treaties. But since the mid-1990s, it has become an enthusiastic signer. Along with ten southeast Asian nations and 12 other countries, it has established a regional security initiative: the Asean Regional Forum. It has reached out to Japan, America’s closest ally in Asia, and Japan now imports more from China than the US. China often plays on anti-US sentiment, celebrating these agreements as victories over “unilateralism.” And Beijing no longer abstains from all UN resolutions; it now applies subtle pressure as America does. (It was probably Chinese pressure that caused the UN to stop Taiwanese officials from speaking to the UN Correspondents Association in the UN building recently.)

Beijing supports its regional influence-building by sending out first-rate young diplomats who are a far cry from its old-style bureaucrats. After a 20-year programme to upgrade its foreign service, Beijing now produces men and women fluent in local languages and history, skilful in making local contacts, and capable of presenting China as a natural partner, especially to countries like Korea and Singapore that have a strong Chinese cultural heritage. Today, it is the Chinese embassy in Burma or Laos or Thailand that often has the best information on local affairs, and US officials admit that China’s newer diplomats are matches for their own. “I know Chinese officials who can explain to me in detail about the splits among neoconservatives in the Bush administration,” one former US diplomat told me. Most notably, during the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, Beijing has portrayed itself to other Asian nations as a moderate force mediating between two crazed nations—North Korea and America.

Learning from events like the World Economic Forum at Davos, China has increased its opportunities for informal diplomacy. It has set up the Boao Forum, an annual meeting to which Beijing invites a thousand business and political grandees from across Asia to network and discuss the region’s future. Chinese officials lead the forum, and constantly emphasise that Asian issues should be solved by Asia—led by China. Few Americans, if any, are invited.

China cannot, of course, present nations with the vision of a free, rights-based political system and economy as the US can. But the American exemplar has been compromised by its recent unilateralism and apparent devaluation of human rights. The Chinese vision of a world in which there are several leading powers, and countries rarely intervene in each others’ affairs, appeals to many nations—including Russia, India and Thailand—which face serious human rights problems at home and chafe at US criticism and dominance. China, by contrast, does not lecture them on democracy or human rights.

Many members of the Chinese elite recognise that this advocacy of “multipolarity” and “non-interference,” masks an aspiration to convert “comprehensive national power” into dominance, even military dominance of Asia. Beijing has not dropped its claims over the entire South China sea, and still refers to many parts of Asia as virtual Chinese possessions. In private, Chinese leaders admit that their goal is to build an empire in the region. And when it suits it China often acts unilaterally, as it has done by damming its part of the Mekong river despite protests that it has destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of Thais, Cambodians and Laotians who depend on its water.

Countries have responded to China’s growing soft power in a variety of ways. In one category are those which have clearly chosen Beijing. Burma and Laos, for example, now have far closer relations with China than the US. Thailand, too, seems to have moved into this camp. The Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who constantly snaps at western actors for interfering in Cambodian affairs—notably for pushing for a genocide tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders—has proved increasingly willing to do China’s bidding, by barring the Dalai Lama from a conference in Phnom Penh, for example. Even East Timor, a new democracy that could be an inspiration to developing nations, seems to have chosen China. Foreign minister José Ramos-Horta has said Timor wants to form the “closest possible relationship” with China. And many central Asian states that Washington has wooed since 11th September seem to prefer China. Kazakhstan, which sees it as a potential market for its oil riches, sends its finest diplomats to Beijing and deports many Uighurs, an ethnic minority in western China that Beijing accuses of fomenting terrorism.

In a second category are countries that have not chosen Beijing over Washington but that no longer display such a clear alliance to the US—which means the US may not be able to depend on them in a crisis. South Korea is the best example. Its president Roh Moo-hyun, a former human rights lawyer, has led Seoul in Beijing’s direction, looking to it for cues on North Korea. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation and for decades a firm US ally, has been alienated by the war on terror, as well as what it perceives as US ignorance of its economic problems. The military is trying to reduce dependence on American arms. When George Bush visited Indonesia in 2003, many of its leaders refused to meet him, yet these same leaders have called for closer ties with Beijing. When Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao attended a recent meeting of southeast Asian leaders in Indonesia, he was greeted with a standing ovation.

Even nations clearly still married to Washington are dating China on the side. Australia is wooing Chinese business partners, and many Europeans have in effect sided with China at the UN commission on human rights, preventing censure of Beijing.

Not only leaders, but ordinary people increasingly see China as the benign, positive force that they once considered the US to be. In South Korea, polls show most people fear America more than North Korea, and South Koreans have embraced Chinese culture—the New York Times reports that 30,000 are studying in China, one of the largest contingents of foreign students on the mainland. In Thailand, polls taken in late 2003 showed that 76 per cent of respondents considered China to be Thailand’s closest friend. Only 9 per cent picked the US. In Laos, Burma and parts of Cambodia, businessmen vote with their cash, making China’s renminbi de facto the region’s second reserve currency. New Chinese schools are springing up throughout southeast Asia and are even attracting some non-Chinese students. Throughout the region, once scorned ethnic Chinese communities are celebrated, with Chinese New Year being made a public holiday and politicians revealing their ethnic Chinese backgrounds. Mainland Chinese films—not just Hong Kong productions—like the action epic Hero are popular, as are Chinese pop stars, who dominate the airwaves in Thailand, the Philippines and other nations.

America’s actions have contributed to this pro-Beijing tilt. Since 9/11, the US government has talked of little but counterterrorism, has made demands rather than asked for co-operation, and ignored foreign leaders’ own agendas. For example, at the meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group in October 2003, Bush focused on security issues alone, even though most participants had come to hammer out trade deals. In addition, the recent reduction of US troops in South Korea and reported plans to pull troops out of Japan, in order to create more flexible basing arrangements for counterterrorism, suggest to many Asians that the US is sacrificing its 50-year role as the region’s security guarantor in order to better prosecute the war on terror.

Over the past two decades, the US has starved its key diplomatic weapons—the state department and the foreign service—of necessary funds and intellectual capital. Congress has repeatedly cut the state department’s budget while boosting that of the Pentagon; today the US budget for aid and diplomacy is less than half what it was in the early days of the cold war.

US restrictions on student visas have led many foreign students, the vanguard of pro-US sentiment, to go elsewhere. The number of foreign students fell by 14,000 from 2002-03 to 2003-04. Future versions of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—the Philippine president, who studied at Georgetown University and credits her time there with making her a US ally—may be lost.

Some will welcome China’s rise. After all, it is the world’s largest country and soon to be its second largest economy. But it remains authoritarian. Individual citizens enjoy more freedom than in Mao’s time, but groups that try to organise against the state are harshly repressed—often more harshly than they would have been five years ago. In the past two years, tens of thousands of Falun Gong members, Christians, democracy advocates, Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities accused of “separatist thought” have been arrested. Thousands have been executed over the past five years, often without trial and at large sentencing rallies that resemble fascist trials. China has the world’s largest system of labour camps, and one of the most comprehensive systems of internet monitoring and blocking. The Beijing leadership clearly retains its ambitions to dominate Asia, if not wider regions. The status quo in Asia is hardly acceptable to Beijing, which envisions itself as the centre of an empire.

These are not values one would wish on the world, on Asia, or on ordinary Chinese. As the world’s largest authoritarian nation, China is an example to developing countries across the globe, just as the US, at its best, is an example of democracy. Asian, African and Latin American leaders come to China to study its economic boom, growing cultural influence and party system. At home, many of these leaders trumpet China’s ability to blend economic growth and stability—a stability accomplished in part by harsh repression. If China’s soft power grows, and its reach increases, more countries will choose this authoritarian model. And if China’s turn-a-blind-eye approach to foreign relations becomes more prevalent—China dissented from the prevailing opinion in the UN security council to back sanctions against Sudan for the Darfur genocide—the international system will be less able to stop catastrophic abuses. China’s global rise is a bad thing, and must be combated.

There is still time for Washington to fix its mistakes. Many of China’s neighbours still desire a US presence in Asia, and recognise that in the long run an authoritarian, neoimperial China may be hazardous to their health. But the US should offer its friends more than just counterterrorism. Certainly, the war on terror is important. But it should not be the only subject the American president and his diplomats talk about overseas. The US should be able to do two things at one time—to push for co-operation on counterterrorism while making progress on lowering trade barriers, opening new avenues for foreign investment and tackling issues on foreign leaders’ agendas. Washington must make more of an effort to partner rather than patronise.

America must continue to call China what it is and do whatever small things it can to help ordinary Chinese to change their government. As China expert Ross Terrill notes: “There is no way the US can please Beijing.” As long as the Chinese Communist party remains in power, the two states’ political systems will be mutually incompatible. But unless Washington wakes up soon, many more countries will be doing their best to please Beijing.

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