Another Cold War?

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Photo Credits: Earth & Industry

Someone has already used the Chinese expression “Same bed, different dreams” to describe the relationship between PRC and U.S. In my personal interpretation of it, the bed they lie upon is made of economic interests and the dreams they dream are about politics. The economies of the two countries have increasingly become intertwined and interdependent in the last 20 years and, even though now we are witnessing a substantial slowing down of this trend, the trajectory is pretty much the same: U.S. needs Chinese goods to keep its economy going and China needs U.S. cash flows to sustain its financial system. On the other hand, in politics, strong, almost irreconcilable differences have marked the relationship between the two countries. The casual confrontations about human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, interference/non-interference etc… are all different expressions of one core difference which has to do with how China and the U.S. conceive themselves and their role in the world order, their self-representations. This interpretation, already suggested by Lyle Morris in his article “Incompatible Partners”, is far more worrisome because it portrays the differences between the two countries as deriving from their forma mentis, hence presenting the problems in their relationship as pathological.

Thanks to the role inherited from WWII and reinvigorated with the end of the Cold War, America feels it has the right to intervene wherever in the world democracy or liberalism seem to be threatened: it has decided to undertake war in Afghanistan for these ideals, it has intervened via the UN to bring “peace” and “democracy” in far-away places like Cambodia, East Timor and the Balkans, it is now getting closer to China by increasing its military presence in Asia-Pacific where, according to its view, the political stability and commercial routes are at stake.

On the other hand, China has a diametrically opposite stance. During the Century of Humiliation, ended less than 70 years ago, it has learned on itself how it feels like for a nation to lose its sovereignty to foreigners. That wound still hurts. Hence, Beijing’s susceptibility and inflexibility on disputes like Taiwan, South China Sea or East China Sea, which to us look like fanaticism or exaggerated nationalism, from a Chinese perspective perfectly falls within PRC’s rights. Through its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, China has set sovereignty and non-interference as core values for its foreign policy and even as a model for international relations by and large, something known as the “Beijing Consensus”.

So, we have the two most powerful countries of the next century with contrasting world views: one democratic and self-elected as the guarantor of World’s peace and order, the other authoritarian and non-interventionist. Two different world orders, one American and the other non-American, are confronted. Can we talk about a new Cold War?

Just consider the following facts:

  • The recent China – U.S. cyberwar and cyber espionage debate. (One worth-reading article about it is Mandiant’s “Exposing one of China’s Cyber Espionage Units”)
  • U.S. and China’s competition for winning influence in Myanmar, which is now apparently favouring U.S.
  • Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia (his first official visit). When talking about the “Clash of Civilizations”, Huntington referred to Russia as a borderline civilization, which could be drawn into the European or the Asian sphere of influence. In last years, Moscow has shown a clear propensity towards Europe, but this doesn’t mean that it could change in the future, especially if we consider European Union’s internal (economic) crisis. Beijing, by gaining the Kremlin’s trust, would gain a lot of leverage in central Asia, too.
  • The next visit on Xi Jinping’s agenda: Africa. It is there that the “Beijing Consensus” has exercised its deepest influence.
  • Two different trade agreements which are in the process of being formed in the Asia-Pacific region. One, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would include China and not the U.S. ; the other, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) would include U.S. and not China. Several reassurances have come from both sides, saying that joining one organization won’t compromise the membership to the other (ASEAN secretary Le Luong Minh even said he sees the two as mutually reinforcing) but there’s still a lot of open questions to be sure of that.
  • U.S. has just signed an agreement with South Korea in which it promises a major involvement in case of attacks by DPRK. A move that Beijing will probably feel uneasy to cope with, especially if seen in relation to American increased presence in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region.

We can therefore see some features of a Cold War already outlined: PRC and the U.S. seem to be struggling to gain their sphere of influence and a silent battle, made on the internet rather than on the field, is being fought.

To be fair, a lot of things are different now from the cold war situation between U.S. and U.S.S.R. Even though the differences explained above between China and the U.S. are in a way ideological, the era of a world divided by great ideologies is over. The world now is too globalised and interconnected to be divided into closed ideological blocks. Ideas circulate more freely and rapidly, for those who care enough to look for them. There are now a plethora of actors (academic institutions, think tanks, NGOs…) which encourage exchange and debate between Western and Chinese counterparts about their pressing issues, thus acting like a bridge that wasn’t there before.

I am not an alarmist or a catastrophist myself: I tend to reject such theories like “The China Threat” and I do not entirely believe ideas like “China Grand Strategy” or the “Beijing Consensus”, especially when they are used to create and foster barriers of suspicion and diffidence. Nevertheless, one  common practice (and, to be honest, one of the most fun) in the field of political analysis consists in searching for analogies and comparisons. Considered all the facts listed above regarding the current Sino-American relationship it is impossible not to think about what was going on between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. (and the rest of the world with them) until 24 years ago.

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Photo Credits: Kearny Alliance

“Does China Have a Foreign Policy?”

Some days ago this article by Zheng Wang was published on the NYT website. It asks the question “Does China Have a Foreign Policy?”. The answer of the author leans towards a no rather than a yes. In a nutshell, the argument of Zheng is that Chinese leadership largely underestimates the importance of Foreign Policy and demonstrates to be rather underprepared about it.

I agree with the conclusion that the chinese scholar draws but not at all with his argument. Chinese Foreign Policy still has a long way to go to keep up with the rest of the world, especially considered the importance the PRC is increasingly acquiring internationally, however I’m not so sure that, as Zheng suggests, the reason for the underdevelopment in China’s international relations is to be found in a lack of understanding and confidence in it by Beijing’s decision-making apparatus. Chinese bureaucrats could be a little Sinocentric but they’re not ignorant or stupid. They know how important the relations with the outside world are. If we look at China’s recent history, they have several times demonstrated to be rather shrewd and savvy in managing PRC foreign relations: just think about the juggling with pushes coming from US and soviet blocks during Cold War, or Deng’s “hide our capacities and bide our time” policy, which has acted as a steady political ground for China’s economy to rise. Besides, nowadays, Chinese nomenklatura is more cosmopolitan than ever: they study in the West (a quick look into any American or European university is enough to confirm that), they casually travel and work around the globe. Chinese people are increasingly aware of how things work economically and politically outside of China, whatever their opinion about them might be.

To me, the problem of PRC’s recent foreign policy lies in the decision-making system rather than in decision makers. The old times when Mao and Deng despotically decided on the policies to adopt are over. The system has in the meantime modernized, becoming more sophisticated and thus complicated. More agencies within the government have a say in the decisions that are made. In the field of Foreign Policy there are the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Politburo Standing Committee and the People’s Liberation Army. Despite the non-transparent nature of the dynamics between these institutions in the decision making process (which is another problem altogether, hindering a proper understanding of China’s foreign policy), we do know that there is a high degree of corruption, factionalism and competition between and within these agencies. An apt example of such a situation regards one of the most salient foreign policy issues for China nowadays: South China Sea. In an excellent report published in April 2012 (“Stirring Up the South China Sea”, downloadable online) International Crisis Group has showed how the disorganization and competition between different government agencies directly or indirectly involved in foreign-policy-making have affected PRC’s attitude in the issue, often making it contradictory and inconsequential.

Just like the new leadership has promised some reforms in domestic politics, making some part of the system more simple and transparent, it wouldn’t be bad (and, to me, it won’t be unlikely) to see something like that in the field of international politics as well. One good point to start from would be a containment of the power and prestige that the PLA now enjoys in China’s foreign policy. Zheng Wang makes a good point when he talks about the detrimental effects of hardcore nationalism on PRC’s foreign relations. Well, more often than not nationalistic (and sometimes offensive) statements about international issues like South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan and the relationship with US, come from PLA officials.

Finally, I concur with Mr Zheng that the last leadership turnover have seen a lack of foreign affairs experts in the highest governmental ranks, nevertheless I wouldn’t say that this automatically jeopardizes Beijing’s foreign policy. People like Wang Qishan (now in the Politburo Standing Committee, who has in the past worked extensively with Western institutions), the new ambassador in the US Cui Tiankai (international studies alumni of Johns Hopkins university, an institutions which has been bridging PRC and US politics for years), the new Foreign minister Wang Yi (who has until recently worked in the difficult position of Minister in the Taiwan Affairs Office)… are not to be underestimated.

Commenting on B. Lintner about ethnic Conflicts in Burma

Bertil Lintner is a guy who knows a lot about Myanmar. He has been traveling and reporting from there since the last thirty years at least. A couple of days ago this article of his came out on Asia Times Online. It’s about the Kachin ethnic conflict in Burma. Two things impressed me about it.

  1. Lintner criticizes the competition and lack of synergy between conflict resolution NGOs increasingly getting involved in the Kachin issue. He even suggests that the celebration of  Thein Sein which the famous International Crisis Group is organizing next month in New York could be their way to play up to Myanmar’s president and gain a tighter collaboration with him before other peacebuilding actors. Quite a strong j’accuse to the Brussels-based NGO, which I hope is going to clarify its position. Another point Lintner makes, mentions the “lack of understanding” by peacemakers in these agencies “of the root causes of the conflicts” and of the economic interests within the “Myanmar Peace Center”, the Burmese governmental office (also indirectly funded by EU) in charge of the peacebuilding in the country, which – according to the journalist – would have in it “at least six individuals … in pursuit of their private agendas”. Something that definitely needs some further investigation and explanation.
  2. The second thing that struck me is China’s deep involvement in the issue. Lintner reports PRC to have supplied both Burmese army and ethnic Wa State Army with weapons and to have also put pressures on Kachins for peace talks. Besides, some strong statements by former premier Wen Jiabao and  current vice foreign minister Fu Ying, openly asking for an end of the conflict in Kachin state, are reported. Apart from Fu Ying, some other prominent figures in Beijing’s diplomatic ranks like Wang Yingfan or ambassador Luo Zhaohui have paid visits to Myanmar to inspect the progress of peace dialogues. All these moves seem to me a blatant transgression to the principle of non-interference on which Beijing so eagerly insists when discussing its foreign policy. Okay, one could argue that China has some fair point in this case, since its trade routes with Myanmar, jeopardized by the Kachin conflicts, and its internal security, which a humanitarian crisis right on its border and even in its own territory (as there are some Kachin refugee communities just before the frontier with Myanmar) are at stake. However, these seem to me too weak reasons to justify such a strong involvement and transgression to its standard foreign policy rules. PRC’s moves sound much more plausible if we consider the harsh competition with the US for influence in Burma, which has been going on since the country announced its gradual opening one year ago. Since the “country of peacocks” now seems to be leaning much more towards America, this could have given Beijing some reasons to try a more energetic approach with Naypyidaw, even at the risk of exposing inconsistencies in their foreign policy. In the end, China can always resort to its proverbial rhetoric to fix them.