Monday, January 18, 2010

Chinese Bombs and Chinese Aid

The past week's headlines are significant for highlighting the two potential manifestations of China's growing global clout. First, China announced that it had successfully tested anti-missile technology. Four days later, after Haiti was devastated by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake, China announced that it would provide $4.4 million worth of aid to support the global effort.

China watchers, for at least a decade now, have been arguing over the path that China will ultimately traverse in international relations. Will it develop into a responsible member of the international community, or will it eventually decide to take on U.S. military dominance in hopes of controlling the international system?

The events of the last seven days suggest an ambiguous answer to that question.

On the one hand, the PRC sent significant aid -- the amount noted above plus another $1 million via the government-controlled Red Cross Society of China -- and personnel to assist one of only 23 countries that still recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. In the past, China established the pattern of not dealing with or assisting nations that recognized Taiwan. And if the Chinese tried to sign an agreement with one of these states, then it usually stipulated a breaking of diplomatic ties with Taipei. Therefore, China's quick response to Haiti's disaster without any strings attached, despite Haitian recognition of Taiwan, signifies a PRC that is more concerned with playing its part and building confidence with the international community.

On the other hand, on Jan. 11, China publicly announced the success of a missile test in which it shot down another missile in mid-flight while it was in space. This is something that, until now, only the U.S. has successfully achieved, making it a significant step in military development. Moreover, this is evidence that China's pumping increasingly more money into the military -- particularly its maritime, space, and electronic -- capabilities is paying off in quality, not just quantity. Certainly, if it were planning on a purely cooperative future, China wouldn't need such capabilities, defensive or not.

These two futures are not mutually exclusive, of course. Conceivably, the PRC could be showing the world that it wants to be constructive while simultaneously hedging its bets on a world that, largely, does not trust its military intentions. But how much does such a strategy reinforce doubts amongst some in the international community?

Yet, it is not a Catch-22. What China needs to do is to use -- and please excuse the cynicism -- crises, such as Haiti, as opportunities for much more significant confidence building. With all of its foreign reserves and new military wherewithal, China could be playing a much more significant role in international humanitarian efforts, particularly during disasters, in which politics can usually be evaded. Imagine if China were to have sent $50 million and 1,000 aid workers to a country with which it didn't even have diplomatic relations. This would have been a clear sign that China is here to play a positive role in the world.

As it uses its newfound power to make more significant contributions, the PRC doesn't necessarily have to stop developing defensive capabilities. (America certainly does both.) But without matching the growing might of its military arsenal with diplomatic and humanitarian might, to many around the world, China's intentions will remain in doubt.

This originally published today on the Compass blog at RealClearWorld

(AFP Photo)


  1. Hey Kev, thanks for the interesting piece and congratulations on publication in RealClearWorld. I agree that the growth in both China’s humanitarian aid and military is an interesting duality. It’s also interesting how China’s rise is perceived somewhat differently in various regions of the world.

    Humanitarian aid seems to initially build good will in developing countries, such as in Zambia, South Africa, and Brazil, but that goodwill often seems to fade when countries are flooded by cheap Chinese manufactured goods that hurt local manufacturing. It seems like in many cases, economic relations is the overriding factor in determining the level of good will between China and other developing countries, although that’s an over-simplification.

    To the extent that it’s possible to separate economics and politics / diplomatic outreach, I think advanced industrial countries will care more or less evenly about China’s impact in both those areas. As you say, those are very important, while it will also be appreciated in the West that the West is shouldering somewhat less of the financial burden of humanitarian disasters.

    In terms of China’s goals, I don’t see very much ambiguity. It strikes me as clear that China is gradually becoming bolder on the world stage, and I think it’s taken a clear step forward in that regard since the beginning of the Obama Administration – in terms of its actions at Copenhagen, the missile shoot-down, telling off the US on the debt, etc. I’ve never been to China, but from everything I’ve read and chats with you I think China views itself as a gradually re-emerging great power that still has a large poor population but which is on a path to being a superpower (but not limited to what our current conceptions of what a superpower is, in the US / USSR mold) – and eventually having the privileges, influence, and at least some of the responsibilities associated with that.

    In my mind, the key questions to other countries that arise from this are: 1) the timing of China’s greater int’l political emergence (its economy appears to be on track for this, barring some major social collapse) and 2) to what extent and when it moderates its pursuit of its own interests in favor of “int’l interests”. For instance, does China and, if so when, reduce its mercantilism and artificially low currency? Does it take greater part in shunning future int’l pariahs to the West like Sudan? Does it take more care not to flood developing countries in Africa with certain goods that undermine local manufacturing capabilities (it already has done this to some extent but could do a lot more)?

    I think both the levels of cooperation and tension with the US will grow and then stabilize (working together on int’l efforts when necessary, recognizing many common and divergent interests, the tension over increased projection of Chinese military influence in Asia, etc.) during our lifetimes.

  2. "Certainly, if it were planning on a purely cooperative future, China wouldn't need such capabilities, defensive or not."

    I don't understand why you said that. Are you saying there's only one country in the world needs "such capabilities, defensive or not"?
    Please tell me more about that? Thanks.

  3. Hi "Anonymous",

    I have three responses to your questions:

    First, that sentence is in the context of a paragraph where I am describing one of the popular views of some Americans. The paragraph began with "on the other hand" because it was balancing the first possibility ("On the one hand ...").

    Second, who said that "only one country in the world needs" these capabilities? Why do you put words in my argument that are not there?

    Third, the original statement I made is obviously fact! Countries obtain defensive capabilities because they are planning on a future where they might have to use them. Do you agree with this point?