China Is Making Friends and Influencing People
Why Beijing's rising power is goodand Badfor America
The outskirts of Mandalay, the largest city in northern Myanmar, still look like they might have to British colonials in the 19th century. Buddhist monks in long robes wander through villages of small huts, begging for rice in the early morning before returning to crumbling monasteries. But the city center looks far different. Inside a new multistory shopping mall, recent Chinese migrants have opened stores selling Chinese-made stereos and mobile phones, while outside vendors sell Chinese apples. Says one resident: "Everything here is from China."
For years, China insisted it had a limited role in places like Myanmar (formerly Burma). It would invest and trade, yes, but not get involved in politics like the United States, which has imposed tough sanctions on the repressive Myanmar dictatorship. But as China's stakes growit has become one of the biggest investors in MyanmarChina's leaders find they cannot avoid getting more involved. Chinese diplomats publicly complain, for instance, about the regime's bizarre and costly decision to relocate the capital to a remote, malaria-infested jungle area some 200 miles north of the longtime capital Yangon. And while they hardly regard human rights as a priority, Chinese officials are aware that they risk a backlash if they ignore the protests of exile Myanmar activistsand even some local residentsthat Beijing is backing a regime that imprisons hundreds of political prisoners.
Myanmar provides an early glimpse of what China is becoming. After years focusing on its own economy, China has begun to go global in influence as well as economics. With growing interests around the globefrom mines in Peru to peacekeepers across Africa to pipelines into Central AsiaChina is finding it can no longer live by its doctrine of "nonintervention." In Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East, China is beginning to use its influence in ways that may prove problematic for the United States.
Partner or rival? For now, the Bush administration is applauding when China plays a complementary role. For instance, Washington has encouraged Beijing to do the diplomatic heavy lifting for negotiations to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons program. But at some point, the United States may not look so approvingly on the rise of another global player, a rival for influence, for alliances, and for access to natural resources. China desperately needs new sources of energy to sustain its expanding economy, and by 2030 it probably will be importing some 80 percent of its oil. This potentially puts China into competition with other major oil-importing nations, including the United States.
Ten years ago, most Chinese officials denied any global pretensions. Even as recently as 2000, China's trade with Africa, now one of China's largest economic partners, was relatively modest and China's direct investment in Africa was insignificant. China's military focused on preparing for local conflicts, such as a war with Taiwan, rather than far-away challenges, such as peacekeeping operations. "Nonintervention is our brand, like intervention is the Americans' brand," declared Zhou Yuxiao, a Chinese diplomat, during a trip to Africa last year.