The Myth of a Friendless China

September 1, 2014

An article of faith that pervades many policy briefings on the growing tensions in the South and East China Seas is that “China has no friends.” China, we keep hearing, is a bully, constantly seeking out nasty confrontations over various shoals and rocks in the seas it shares with its neighbors. A common corollary position is that the United States has lots of friends. Of course, the United States has every right to take pride in its history of alliances, particularly NATO. ASEAN and other Western Pacific nations have also encouraged the U.S. Navy to engage more vigorously against China’s increasingly expansive claims, independently affirming its claim to be “a global force for good.” The idea of a friendless China has some validity, to a point, but the notion will prove dangerous if it fosters complacency among American strategic thinkers. Indeed, a number of recent developments call this comfortable myth into question.

In August the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multinational organization that is increasingly viewed as China-centric, announced that it would be admitting four nations to full membership status: Mongolia, Pakistan, Iran and, most significantly, India, at a forthcoming meeting to be held in Tajikistan in September. Although the four states all already have observer status in the SCO, the decision was as dramatic as it was unexpected. Iran’s membership had been barred by the fact that the SCO rules forbid a country under UN sanctions from membership. The longstanding tensions between Pakistan and India, as well as China’s coolness to Indian membership (in part due to territorial disputes between the two), have always been viewed as insurmountable hurdles to full membership for both countries for the foreseeable future. The decision to admit the four at this time was the result of vigorous behind-the-scenes Russian advocacy– Russia being another country that American orthodoxy tells us is friendless. In commenting that the decision “constitutes a major setback for America’s regional strategies,” one analyst said:

It does not need much ingenuity to figure out that the SCO is taking the decision to admit India at a defining moment in Post-Cold War era politics.

Well, of course, through the SCO both “friendless” Russia and China obviously have one another and their other SCO partners, which is of great interest to those who find value in the writings of classical geopolitical theorists such as Halford Mackinder. Mackinder, a British academic in vogue prior to the First World War, postulated that whoever controlled the Eurasian “Heartland” (an area of considerable overlap with the member states of the SCO) could control the world. Notably, these two major traditional land powers also happen to operate the world’s second and third most powerful navies. India’s admission into the SCO therefore diminishes somewhat the hopes of many in Washington who viewed India’s growing naval forces as a means of providing balance against China’s growing blue water navy. In this regard, readers of tea leaves are paying particular attention to the fact that newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have met multiple times with Chinese President Xi Jinping before having a single meeting with either President Obama or Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe. (Mr. Modi’s predecessor, by contrast, had several far-reaching meetings with Mr. Abe. The decision of the U.S. Congress to deny Mr. Modi the honor of addressing a Joint Session of Congress certainly did not help.)

There are numerous ways to interpret the newfound accommodation between India and China. Perhaps the impending withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is causing anxiety about the spread of terrorism, particularly since it comes at the same time as an unusual rash of violence in China’s Xinjiang province. Another interpretation is that Russia seeks to balance out its increasingly junior position vis-à-vis China with another large member state — one with which it has strong historic ties. Many see India’s motivation as primarily economic, both to foster ties with the energy-rich nations of Central Asia, but also to expand trade and investment with the economic juggernaut that is China. On the other side, Chinese President Xi Jinping is reportedly interested in Modi’s support for China gaining full membership in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)— an eight member economic development organization in which China has long sought membership. President Xi has set the stage for this quid pro quo by extending India its first invitation to attend the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, which this year is hosted by Beijing.

But then again, there are more diabolical interpretations that portray India as drifting from the West and the SCO as an emergent counterbalance to NATO, the European Union, and the entire American-sponsored international order in the military, political, and economic dimensions. This view is given some credence by President Xi’s call at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) meeting held in Shanghai in May for some new, undefined security arrangement in Asia that excludes the United States. However, India’s historical commitment to the idea of “non-alignment” tempers any such moves, as does the political difficulty of linking India’s economic and global aspirations too tightly to an organization that is increasingly viewed as being potentially dominated by China.

These moves by the SCO must also be placed into the context of the instruments signed by the five BRICS countries on July 15, 2014 at Fortaleza, Brazil that formally established and capitalized the New Development Bank (NDB) as a counterbalance to the Western-dominated World Bank and IMF. Although the BRICS and the SCO are distinct organizations, the combination of Russian and now Indian participation in two major economic entities strongly under Chinese influence is significant. Even though the “BRICS Bank” will initially be much smaller than the Bretton Woods institutions, it will have three possible far-reaching consequences.

First, it has the potential to bring much of Asia more closely under the economic influence of China. The pipelines associated with the $400 billion energy deal between China and Russia has been cited as one such major infrastructure project that will also lead to other pipelines being built to connect other nations in the region. China’s desire to establish Kunming as the “capital of mainland Asia” by linking Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore by a rail network is just one other example of a potential “new Silk Road” infrastructure boom with China as the dominant hub.

Second, it is likely that over time the banking and commercial interactions between these nations will settle their accounts in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, thereby undermining the so-called “exorbitant privilege” conferred upon the United States as the provider of the principal reserve currency, a privilege that helps underwrite America’s military strength.

Finally, now that the inertia on admission of new members and institutions has been broken, another round of expansion may be more likely in the future. Turkey, a NATO member that has been spurned in its bid for European Union membership, is also a Dialogue Partner of the SCO that has requested full membership and has already engaged in military cooperation with the Chinese.

Membership in the BRICS Bank is another potential avenue for formal relationship building outside Eurasia. Brazil is a founding member of the BRICS Bank and other South American countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina, have shown interest in the emergence of a non-Western center of gravity. Several potential trans-South American railways and a trans-oceanic canal in Nicaragua have also been discussed with Chinese partners. China has also been engaged for over a decade in an aggressive resource quest throughout Africa. South Africa, it should be noted, became the fifth member of the BRICS in 2010 and hosted President Xi Jinping on one of his first foreign visits prior to last year’s BRICS meeting in Durban, South Africa.

So China may not have the list of longstanding “friends” enjoyed by the United States, but it is far from being isolated. It is aggressively growing its list of business partners that want to link to its booming economy and will be increasingly wary of crossing it politically.

 

David W. Wise, a retired business executive, is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law of Diplomacy at Tufts University and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

 

Photo credit: GovernmentZA