‘From the edge of the sky to the ends of the earth’ – China’s ever-expanding reach
China’s 15th-century exploits may hold lessons for policies in the 21st century. It is a complex world and a knowledge of history can be helpful.
In British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore’s new global history, he noted that in 1407, the Chinese admiral Zheng He returned to China from a swing around the Indian Ocean with his massive fleet.
As Montefiore writes about such an expedition, “States in Luzon and Sulu, Sumatra and Brunei exchanged envoys and sent tribute to the Yongle Emperor [of China]. ‘From the edge of the sky to the ends of the earth,’ Zheng boasted, ‘there are no peoples who have not become subjects and slaves.’ His mission was most clearly stated in his inscription in Malacca, which declared that ‘its righteous king, paying his respects to imperial suzerainty, wishes his country to be treated as one of our imperial domains and follow the Chinese way.’”
A subsequent voyage by Zheng’s fleet sailed to Arabia and along the entire eastern coast of Africa as well, thereby completing a circuit of the coastline of the Indian Ocean.
Zheng’s voyages with his vast fleets had taken place decades before the much more modest and tentative voyages that marked the beginnings of the era of European voyages of discovery. It might be worth speculating about the course of history had the emperors who followed Zheng’s imperial sponsor not decided China had no need for further discoveries or for trade with people beyond the official borders of their empire.
Now, some 600 years later, it is possible we are beginning to find out.
At least one interim judgement about China’s thrusts into much of the same territory Admiral Zheng had interacted with comes in a new article by the “Banyan” columnist in the current issue of The Economist. That column points to potential speed bumps for this newest Chinese adventure. The column notes:
“Another triumph for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)! That part of the Chinese media aimed at readers abroad made much of the news that late last month a Chinese company had completed laying the track for a high-speed railway between Jakarta and Bandung in Indonesia. The railway, for which China won a contract in 2015, is what its media call an ‘exemplary’ project. Criticism of it is dismissed as ‘Western slander’, of the sort that has dogged the BRI as a whole. But in fact, the railway illustrates the suspicion and resentment that Chinese projects often face in the countries where they are built.
“The BRI was launched a decade ago to pour Chinese investment into building infrastructure linking Asia and Europe. It has since expanded to cover the whole world and some 150 countries from Somalia to Poland. [Italics added.] Last month, Jim Yong Kim, a former president of the World Bank, called it the ‘most ambitious development project in human history’. Before the BRI, Chinese investments in other Asian countries were sniped at for all manner of alleged sins, including fostering corruption, environmental vandalism and distorting national politics. The BRI was meant in part to demonstrate China’s essential benevolence. In that respect, it has not worked.
“The annual Boao Forum for Asia, a kind of Davos for China’s backyard held in the country’s south at the end of March, was this year partly devoted to celebrating ten years of the BRI and, in a favourite phrase of China’s leaders, its ‘win-win’ character. But China’s growing economic influence is still far from universally welcomed — in part because of, rather than in spite of, the boom in Chinese-led investment projects.”
In the case of that Indonesian rail project, various problems have dogged its completion.
“One is that although China offers what look like easier financial terms and has a reputation for efficient execution, its projects are as prone as any to delays and problems. In this case, the first feasibility study was done by Japanese companies. But Japan demanded a government guarantee for 50% of the financing. A rival Chinese proposal required no guarantee, and seemed cheaper. Yet when it opens in July it will be several hundred million dollars over budget and four years behind schedule, because of pandemic-related, land-acquisition and other delays and environmental controversies.”
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The columnist cautioned further:
“The perception that China abuses its economic muscle is widespread across South-East Asia. An annual survey of more than 1,300 officials, academics, businesspeople and other opinion-formers across the region, published in February by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a think-tank in Singapore, found that nearly 70% of those who see China as the region’s most influential strategic power view its growing influence with concern. China’s win-win economic diplomacy seems to need all the good publicity it can get.”
Like most other government-sponsored economic aid programmes, recipients can end up with mixed feelings about the costs and benefits equation of the aid as seen from their perspectives.
Meanwhile, beyond its international economic investment and development efforts, Chinese-style, more traditional diplomacy has also become increasingly active. Most recently, there has been the Chinese facilitation of a tentative rapprochement between two bitter Middle Eastern enemies — Saudi Arabia and Iran. (Among other things, the two nations have been supporting opposite sides in a horrific civil war in Yemen for years, and, in recent weeks, the Saudis had been making subtle noises that a formal relationship with Israel was even possible under certain conditions, beyond the tacit relationship in place for several years in facing Iran.)
This new development has possibilities within it of reorienting a significant share of the Middle Eastern strategic landscape, most especially the heretofore preeminence of US strategic guidance that has prevailed for several generations. It probably should not be ignored that China is a prodigious consumer of petroleum and natural gas, something both the Saudis and Iran have in abundance.
This initiative may have real effects even if the actual outcomes of that Saudi/Iranian relationship are less than the handshake pictures between the representatives of the three nations involved might seem to promise. As a result, for many of the nations in the region — whether it is Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, or the others on the Persian Gulf — the idea that a new strategic alignment may run between Riyadh and Tehran, with China is its godfather, will be a startling idea that generates recalibrations on the part of those other nations in their own foreign dealings.
Macron’s recent visit
Then there has been a second diplomatic moment for China. This came in the shape of French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China. As New York Times’ veteran international correspondent Roger Cohen described it, “President Emmanuel Macron of France complimented China’s top leader on the ‘very fragrant tea.’ President Xi Jinping recalled ‘taking notes in order to understand’ when he visited his father, then governor of the southeastern Guangdong province, in 1978. He also observed, extolling Chinese economic development, that the province now has ‘four cities with more than 10 million people.’
“It was an exchange of remarkable intimacy, the two leaders, tieless, sharing pleasantries in what was once the official residence of Mr. Xi’s father. The conversation came at the end of a three-day visit by Mr. Macron that was notable for the exceptional attention showered on him, and for the commitment in a concluding joint statement to a ‘global strategic partnership.’
“What exactly that will mean — beyond the commitments to the development of civilian nuclear power stations, the transition to carbon-neutral economies, sales of Europe’s Airbus aircraft and the promotion of pork exports — is not altogether clear.
“But at a time when Sino-American relations are in a deep freeze, Mr. Macron staked out an independent European position, and both leaders repeatedly lauded a ‘multipolar world,’ thinly disguised code for one that is not American dominated.”
But perhaps the most consequential of all, at least for the immediate future, was a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Moscow to meet with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. While there has been no public indication the Chinese offered to supply — or resupply — Russia’s increasingly depleted military with weapons and munitions to make up for its so-far-disastrous military campaign in Ukraine, there have been other important outcomes.
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As the NPR radio network reported, following the three days of meetings:
“Xi obliquely brushed off Western criticism of his growing ties with Putin: ‘It is China’s strategic choice and will not change due to a temporary incident.’
“China and Russia’s ties have benefited both countries economically, and bilateral trade surged in the last year. China now accounts for nearly a third of all Russian exports, and Russia recently became China’s top oil supplier. Xi called for expanding cooperation in sectors like energy and supply chains after his meeting with Putin.
“With his country facing withering Western sanctions, the Russian leader has had little choice but to accept the Chinese offers, analysts say. ‘China’s domination of Russia is complete,’ Sam Greene, a Russia specialist at the Center for European Policy Analysis, argues in a Twitter thread. [Italics added.] Greene describes the outcome of the talks as ‘remarkable’ because the deals were so ‘one-sided’ — with Russia offering raw exports but seeing little Chinese investment to Russia in return.”
This most recent meeting encourages this writer to contemplate the texture of what is now an increasingly asymmetrical relationship between China and Russia, despite all the rhetoric of brothers-arm-in-arm. (Such circumstances are a far cry from that revolutionary triangulation that was achieved by Henry Kissinger/Richard Nixon together with Zhou Enlai in the early 1970s between the US and China, thereby keeping the then-Soviet Union carefully at bay for both of them.)
Such an outcome of the China-Russia relationship now could call up an image of the morphology of a breeding pair of deep-sea angler fish. With this species, a male angler fish permanently affixes itself to the much larger body of the female fish, ultimately even sharing its digestive and circulatory systems with the bigger fish, thereby drawing its nourishment that way and carrying out its sole remaining function of fertilising the eggs of its mate.
Similarly, Russia is increasingly becoming the much more junior partner of the two nations’ partnership, despite Russia’s much larger nuclear military capabilities. Vis-à-vis China, Russia is now turning into a preferential supplier of energy resources for China (since its other markets in Europe have withered), and it is an importer of all those manufactured goods from the Chinese global factory. Admiral Zheng, if he were to return after six centuries, would nod his head in appreciation at these developments.
As far as the United States’ circumstances in the midst of all this, over the past two decades, it was deeply embroiled in two long-running wars of choice — one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. While both of those regimes were deeply and violently repressive and were certainly capable of providing refuge to terror groups that were anathema to the US (such as the Al-Qaeda that had carried out the 9/11 attacks), the US’s entrance into full-on conflicts in both nations led to massive problems and suffering for the people of both nations — as well as to the US’s own national circumstances. Moreover, such exertions transfixed multiple US presidencies and frequently monopolised most of the attention of foreign policy and security policy leaders for those years, as other pressing issues received less attention instead.
Nation of the future
Meanwhile, as for the Chinese, increasingly they have come to see themselves as the nation of the future. As is well-known by the world, they have focused intensely on building economic and manufacturing success (albeit without any expansion in political or social freedoms — and, often, further restrictions on them instead). And in recent years, they have extended their reach and influence into countries across Asia, Africa and even Latin America through the Belt and Road Initiative and the Shanghai Cooperation Council. (As an aside, South Africans might contemplate the costs of their own lost decade in which they allowed a corrupt regime to gain a hold over much of the resources of their own nation.)
Going forward, Americans must now contemplate how to manage the economic competition with a much more assertive and capable China than was the case a generation ago. This is a China that, despite its recent economic slowdown occasioned by its harsh Covid lockdown and depressed demand globally for Chinese products, is clearly the US’s main global competitor going forward.
But beyond economic and trade competition, there is increasing pressure on Taiwan by China which wishes to establish its de jure rule over the island. Such efforts may be emboldened by US and other Western nations’ engagement with Ukraine’s efforts to resist the Russian invasion. (The counter-argument, of course, is that support to Ukraine to resist Russia may be a forewarning to China not to try to change the status quo of Taiwan by force.)
The times clearly call for some supple diplomacy as well as some adroit strategic thinking on the part of both the US and China — if the two nations are to achieve a stable balance between them for the world of the 2020s and beyond. DM