In the 19th century, “The Great Game” pitted imperial Great Britain against czarist Russia in the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Russian influence was expanding into the relict emirates of the old Silk Road while the British Raj was extending into the tribal areas to the north of India and on, into Afghanistan. The British goals were to protect the plains and cities of British-ruled India from the warrior hill tribes as well as to halt presumed Russian ambitions to attain all-year ports on the Indian Ocean. These twinned ambitions generated a popular literature lauding these ambitions as in Tolstoy’s “Haji Murad” and Kipling’s “Kim,” “Gunga Din” and “The Man Who Would Be King”. And as the power of the Manchu dynasty in China declined, the British-Russian rivalry moved east.
But besides celebrating an imperial era, Kipling also warned about imperial over-stretch, predicting England’s decline with:
“Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”
Post-World War II, the US replaced an exhausted Britain and confronted the other great victor from the war, the Soviet Union. Starting with diplomat George Kennan’s “Long Telegram” (and the influential article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”, that Kennan wrote soon afterwards), and then with the Truman administration’s “National Security Council Memorandum 68”, the American diplomatic and security establishment had evolved the ideology of containment to explain how it would deal with Soviet intentions. As Kennan himself wrote, “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term patient, but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” This ranged from the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe to the Berlin Airlift, and then on to combat ground troops in Korea and Vietnam. For some, like Harvard’s Paul Kennedy, eventually this smacked of America’s imperial overstretch with the failure of the American crusade in Southeast Asia. But for cold warriors, the Berlin blockade, then Korea, the fall of Nationalist China and the struggle in Vietnam, together with the space race, the build-up of nuclear forces and a growing competition for influence in the third world – all helped define the Cold War as America’s long, existential struggle with its Russian antagonist.
But by the early 1970s, right in the midst of the final agonising years of the Vietnam conflict, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s secretary of state and national security advisor, was searching for a way out of a US-Soviet stalemate in place for almost 30 years. Kissinger was a thorough student of the “100-year-peace” between 1815 and 1914 – and the role of European statesmen like Metternich, Talleyrand and Palmerston in creating it. Kissinger was America’s preeminent exponent of an old-fashioned balance of power (as opposed to a nuclear balance of terror) as a force for stability in international relations and to bolster American global pre-eminence. He was looking for a way beyond the Soviet-US standoff that had become increasingly dangerous, thanks to the two nation’s nuclear arsenals.
For Kissinger, the way forward was through Beijing, despite the fact China had virtually been a forbidden zone for American diplomats and statesmen since the ouster of the Kuomintang government from the mainland in 1949. In 1972, China was barely beyond the “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s, and despite its enormous population and nuclear-tipped military, was hardly an economic giant. It was years from Deng Xiaoping’s “Poverty is not socialism; to be rich is glorious”, because Mao Zedong first had to die, in 1976.
For Kissinger, in 1972, China, even in its then-weak economic circumstances, was the perfect counterweight to the Soviet Union for America. From this new triangular relationship, the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies would be checked and it would have to seek accommodations with the US. By Kissinger’s logic, China would be drawn ever closer to the US strategically and then America could carry out the key task of the late 20th century – leading China into a deepening engagement with the West as its economy began its “take off”. As British historian Simon Schama recently wrote of his encounter with Kissinger and about his new book:
“The China book, then, is different from anything Kissinger has hitherto essayed in print: a journey towards cultural empathy by two powers that seemed, at the outset, prohibitively ill-equipped to acquire that knowledge. Looking at Nixon and Mao, listening to their utterances, they should have been the oddest of odd couples. But paving the way for the quasi-alliance were Kissinger and Zhou Enlai, and the heart of the book is the story of their personal rapprochement, born of a mutual effort to understand an alien and incomprehensible culture.”
Then diplomatic correspondent, and later The New York Times editor, Max Frankel, a man who had travelled with Kissinger on his historic visit to Beijing added:
“Both nations were exhausted from war (Vietnam, clashes on the Soviet border) and domestic strife (antiwar protests in Nixon’s case, the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s). Both were determined to resist Soviet advances and so could quickly agree to make common cause. The menace of Moscow took the leaders’ minds off confrontations in Vietnam and Taiwan and quelled their ritual denunciations, whether of international imperialism or Communism. They decided that the adversary of my adversary was my pal, and for more than a decade that was fruitfully that.”
In the intervening years, the US has battered itself in concurrent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, while China has become the world’s workshop, a major exporter to America and an increasingly large holder of US debt. Trade disputes have now become an ongoing feature of the relationship, ranging from inspections of frozen chicken meat to charges of pirating computer software, and most politically potent, accusations the Chinese have been rigging the currency exchange rate to favour their exports. These economic irritants have joined disputes about freedom of speech, religion and association inside China, over Tibet and Taiwan, as well as disagreements about whether China has engaged in more surreptitious efforts at cyber-warfare. Frankel argues that this shift in the texture of their relationship has now made China and the US mutually dependent economic giants, but in a partnership with no overarching strategic design – just as was the case 30 years earlier.
The New York Time’s chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, has added that Kissinger observed that President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao now preside over a China that no longer believes itself limited by an earlier “sense of apprenticeship to Western technology and institutions”. Moreover, the 2008 economic meltdown “seriously undermined the mystique of Western economic prowess” among the Chinese.
But more recently still, foreign policy specialists in government and beyond are looking more closely at China’s efforts to throw its weight around in the direction of the nations of the South China Sea littoral. The most recent Asean dialogue with its strategic partners was roiled by just this kind of sharp-elbowed behaviour. And, more and more, analysts are also parsing China’s military build-up, to understand what, precisely, the Chinese are trying to create with their 21st century People’s Liberation Army and naval forces, as well as what they hope to do with their new-style military once they have achieved it. Analysts agree on two key goals: Building a sufficient force structure to be able to overwhelm Taiwanese defences and to hold Russia (and Japan) at bay. As long-time military observer of Chinese defence developments, retired US Admiral Eric McVadon explains:
“China and the United States today face a challenging new situation with respect to their security and military relationship… A globally preeminent US is now firmly ensconced as the world’s sole superpower… But the US, wary of China and distressed about terrorism, is realigning its military posture with respect to East Asia. [But] China [is] radically improving the capabilities of the Peoples Liberation Army, the PLA, to deter or defeat Taiwan and to threaten the capability of the US to intervene properly and effectively in a Taiwan conflict.”
McVadon was a defence attaché in Beijing for years and has been a close scholar of Chinese military developments for decades. Less well understood so far, are China’s longer-term strategic objectives in the Pacific Ocean, its intentions southward into the South China Sea and its small islands and natural resources.
And analysts are now looking at China’s rapidly growing economic heft, both in terms of the impact of its trade expansion into Asia, the Middle East and Africa, as well as its explosive growth in the import of strategic materials from Africa and elsewhere – ranging from petroleum and minerals to foodstuffs. Recent figures say that as many as a million Chinese are now economically active in Africa as part of a host of small-scale manufacturing and trading enterprises as well as big, state-financed/state-owned enterprises and joint ventures.
Given all this, it probably should not have been a total surprise when current secretary of state Hillary Clinton chose to issue not particularly veiled warnings about how Chinese colonialism threatens Africa. And so, three decades after Kissinger and Chao En Lai’s rapprochement, China has been moved from being a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union to a new more problematic place as America’s key rival for influence and power.
A half-decade earlier, conservative historian Robert Kagan wrote a cover story for “The Atlantic” magazine, entitled: “How We Would Fight China” and it was not about economic warfare. Could it be increasingly true that rich capitalist China is more dangerous than poor communist China?
And so when Hillary Clinton was on a recent visit to East Africa, she warned about a creeping “new colonialism” in Africa from foreign investors and governments interested only in extracting natural resources to enrich themselves. To African audiences, Clinton urged much closer scrutiny of China’s large investments and business interests in Africa. Just to make sure everyone was taking notes, Clinton added that US diplomats in Africa have now been tasked with providing assessments of Chinese projects in the countries to which they are assigned.
“We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave…. And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.”
Officials travelling with her emphasised African countries should now hold Chinese investors to the same standards applied to Americans and Europeans.
Then in televised comments in an interview with the regional TV show, “Africa 360”, Clinton’s comments went beyond the usual diplomat-speak when she said:
“No one will argue with the economic success China is having. They have a top-down command economy, and it is certainly lifting tens of millions, hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. And I am the first to say we want to see China succeed. But their culture is very different and their approach to how they solve problems is very different…. The Internet goes across all borders. They are doing everything they can to stifle the Internet. [But] I think the Internet is one of Africa’s great opportunities.”
Not surprisingly, Clinton’s comments did not go unnoticed by the Chinese. Han Dongping, a Chinese scholar teaching in the US, writing for “China Daily,” a publication closely tied to the Chinese government, used similarly less nuanced diplomatic speech:
“The most ironic thing is that Hillary Clinton apparently does not know the significance of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in the history of China-Africa relations. It is the site where China built its first railway for Tanzania and Zambia.
“The Chinese government invested in the project that has benefited the local people tremendously, and Chinese workers endured the extreme weather conditions and made huge sacrifices in completing this railway project in the most difficult terrain. That railway project sets China apart from Western nations that were involved in Africa earlier than China. …Even by Hillary Clinton’s standards, China’s action in Africa has been exemplary.
“The truth of the matter is, China did not treat the African people as second-class citizens, and China did not cause any population declines in Africa, as Western colonialism has done in the past.
“[An ex-Ethiopian general Han met in the US] said that America and the West were crying now because they had lost Africa to China…. Even South Africa, which has strong ties with Great Britain, is turning to China now. The African people and African nations have finally learned by comparison and contrast that what China can offer them is a much better deal.”
Strong words there: Right back at you, Hillary.
Of course, while no one is predicting a full-on military confrontation between the US and China, the balance of power equation of China, aligned with the US to outweigh and block the Soviet Union that Henry Kissinger had brokered, is truly over.
Thus the question is not whether China will continue to gain in global power and importance, but how it will choose to exert this influence, and how the US and others will respond to these new realities. For nations like those in Africa, the questions become how to take best advantage of relationships with Chinese investors, grantors of foreign assistance and consumers of African exports. But, for Africans, the question may well be whether Chinese support will be in the service of elites and predatory governments, as China continues to assert its doctrine of non-interference in domestic affairs, or for the benefit of the broader array of the citizens of those countries. Indeed, the future of the US-China relationship is yet to be written. DM
For more, read:
Photo: Chinese President Hu Jintao joins former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for dinner in Washington April 20, 2006. REUTERS/Jim Young.
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