China Is Making Friends and Influencing People
Why Beijing's rising power is goodand Badfor America
Realizing that China stands accused of exploiting other nations' natural resources, President Hu Jintao on his February 2007 trip to Africa counseled Chinese investors to work more closely with locals and develop corporate social responsibility. Pouring on the charm, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao toured Africa like a big-city American mayor in the last 48 hours of a campaign, posing with groups of smiling children. Just to make sure Africans got the message, China announced new plans to fund antimalaria clinics across the continent.
Changes. China also has begun rethinking some of its nastiest partnerships. For instance, officials have sent signals to old friend Zimbabwe that Beijing might not continue to back Robert Mugabe's inept and repressive regime. And after years of stonewalling U.N. actions on Sudan's Darfur conflict, China this year appointed a special envoy, publicly criticized the Khartoum government, and joined with the United States in backing a U.N. force for Darfur. It may even contribute troops. This would not be unusual: China has become the second-largest source of peacekeeping troops (after France) among the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
As China shoulders more international responsibility, the Bush administration has lavished it with praise. But Washington might not remain sanguine as Beijing sets its sights on nations with close ties to America. Already, China has built a close relationship with Saudi Arabia; Riyadh is considering building a strategic oil reserve for China. Elsewhere, too, China is increasingly assertive in satisfying its growing need for energy resources. "For China's leaders, energy security clearly is too important to be left to the markets," contends Mikkal Herberg, an energy specialist at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle.
A nation with investments and friends spanning the world will want to protect those interests. Though China's military capabilities lag far behind America's, China has begun upgrading its forces, and its defense budget grew by nearly 20 percent this year. Beijing wants to expand its military reach, for instance extending its Navy's mission from coastal defense to offshore power projection.
Allies. To go along with a blue water navy in the futurea development being watched with concern by the PentagonChina is building defense partnerships with longtime American friends like the Philippines and Thailand, which has agreed to hold joint training with the People's Liberation Army. "You have a generation of Philippine Army officers who are more comfortable working with China," says Rommel Banlaoi, a leading Philippine defense expert. While publicly accepting American power in Asia, China is taking some steps to push back. It has helped initiate multilateral forums, such as the East Asia Summit, that exclude the United States. One day, China may become powerful enough to really show its strength. Like a young America did 200 years ago, declaring a Monroe Doctrine for the Western Hemisphere, Beijing may make clear that it should be the dominant power in Asia.
Even short of that, there is no denying its rise. Cambodians, for instance, are mindful of China's influence as the nation's largest investor. "It used to be that if the U.S. criticized Cambodia, the Cambodian government had to listen," says local environmental scientist Sokhem Pech. "But now, they don't need to listen to the U.S. They already have accepted China is the big power here."
Former U.S. News Associate Editor Joshua Kurlantzick is author of Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World(Yale University Press, 2007).