In a remarkable departure from its long history of low-profile foreign policy, especially since Deng Xiaoping took over China’s leadership in the late 1970s, Beijing has recently committed up to 700 combat troops to South Sudan in the hopes of bringing peace to the world’s newest nation – and, more importantly, preserving China’s massive energy security interests abroad.
China’s meteoric rise has been largely welcomed by many developing countries and “third worldist” thinkers, who have adamantly portrayed the Asian country as a credible counterweight to supposedly western neo-imperial designs.
Sympathisers point to the fact that China is a fellow developing country and also experienced its own traumatic “century of humiliation” at the hands of western powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.
For long, China has been presented as a post-imperial superpower, whose foreign policy is anchored by the principles of non-interference and win-win economic partnership. It refused to get embroiled in domestic troubles in other developing countries, from Sudan to Syria, incessantly focusing on its economic interests.
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Slowly but surely however, as China expands its geopolitical and economic stake in far-flung regions of the world, it has increasingly resembled a traditional global power who doesn’t shy away from influencing political developments abroad.
Since the 2007-2008 Great Recession, which shook the foundations of western economies, China has become the top trading partner of Latin America, almost all East Asian countries (with the exception of the Philippines), and, perhaps most dramatically, Africa.
China is no longer just a source of affordable commodity goods, but it has also become a major source of capital and technology to much of the developing world.
In particular, Africa – a site of colonial machinations for centuries – has emerged as a key barometer of the shifting global poles of power, as Chinese companies and workers redefine the ancient continent’s economic landscape.
While Chinese influence faces stiff competition from western (and regional powers) in places such as Latin America and the Middle East, the African continent has, as provocatively argued by US journalist Howard French, become “China’s second continent”.
To boost its soft power, China has funded major and highly symbolic infrastructure projects, from large stadiums across the continent to the glittering headquarters of the African Union.
Chinese economic presence, largely concentrated in extractive industries in Africa, has become decisive, comprehensive and indispensable to the economic growth and stability of many African nations, while Chinese migration to the region has redefined the urban landscape in many sub-Saharan African countries.
During his recent trip to Africa, even US President Barack Obama, widely seen as a “son of Africa”, struggled to reassert US influence in the continent, ending up (indirectly) criticising China by cautioning African leaders to “make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai…”
After three decades of breakneck economic growth – built on the back of cheap labour, mercantilist trade policies, and massive export-oriented industries – the Asian powerhouse has arguably emerged as the one truly competitive rival to western hegemony, particularly in the peripheries of the world.
Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about the decline of the West and the rise of the East, particularly China. After three decades of breakneck economic growth – built on the back of cheap labour, mercantilist trade policies, and massive export-oriented industries – the Asian powerhouse has arguably emerged as the one truly competitive rival to western hegemony, particularly in the peripheries of the world.
New global order
As Singapore’s legendary statesman Lee Kuan Yew adamantly asserted, nominally Communist China, which happens to be a leading capitalist power today, is not actively promoting an alternative way of life and global order to that of the West.
Ecstatic about the possibilities of a new global order amid China’s rise, Sinologists such as Joshua Cooper Ramo have heralded the dawn of a so-called “Beijing Consensus”, a supposedly pragmatic, cooperative, and business-oriented Chinese foreign policy doctrine, which supposedly stands in stark contrast to the so-called “Washington Consensus”, the western doctrine of pro-democracy interventionism and neo-liberal economics.
China has been repeatedly portrayed – both at home and abroad – as a new power bereft of imperial missionary zeal, especially in Africa. Prominent economists such as Dambisa Moro have gone so far as confidently claiming: “Pursuing imperial or colonial ambitions with masses of impoverished people at home would be wholly irrational and out of sync with China’s current strategic thinking.”
A closer look, however, reveals how China’s foreign policy doctrine is a reflection of its present circumstances and expanding interests abroad, is subject to change, and not bound by some eternal principles. China’s seemingly insatiable demand for natural resources has exposed it to the political realities of global peripheries, from Latin America (think of post-Chavez Venezuela) and Middle East (think of Libya in 2011) to Africa.
Intent on protecting its own national interest, China is increasingly becoming like a “normal” global power, leveraging its economic resources and military muscle to influence domestic political developments abroad, including the world’s newest countries like South Sudan.
Overall, as China seeks to prevent an all-out conflict in Sudan, it will become increasingly difficult for Beijing not to be embroiled in domestic upheavals across Africa and stick to a purely business-oriented foreign policy model.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings.”