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Date Posted: 16:30 11/07/2005

The 'China threat' and other theories

Are other countries exaggerating the threat posed by China's growth?

ONE OF the important ideas currently doing the rounds in government, and promoted by various state-sponsored think tanks and media organizations, is the 'China Threat Theory'. China's efforts to manage its 'peaceful rise' on the geopolitical stage, say officials, academics and media pundits, are being thwarted at every turn by certain countries terrified by the prospect of an awesome new world power. Although it is asserting itself in central and southeastern Asia, China routinely tells the world that it has never invaded any other country throughout its long history, and will never do so. It insists that, unlike other states, it has never had any intention to install military bases overseas, or to interfere with the sovereign rights of other nations. It also says that its attempts to strengthen and secure its economy by procuring overseas resources are being systematically undermined by the political machinations of Russia, Japan or the US.

The attempt by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation to buy Unocal is one such example. This is just an ordinary business transaction, says CNOOC head Fu Chengyu. The US government should not interfere with ordinary commercial practice, says the Foreign Affairs spokesman, Liu Jianchao. It is not China that is politicizing the market for resources, say countless officials over the last few months. Chinese companies are just innocently going about their business, backed up of course by substantial soft loans from state banks, and the US is blocking them, forcing China to do business with rogue nations like Sudan or Angola.

The argument goes further than the hunt for oil, the problems of outsourcing and the growing influence of Chinese corporations on international markets. A recent article in the China Times on the G8 Summit at Gleneagles describes all the recent discussions about Chinese spies in Australia, about the world energy crisis, and about the reports and white papers emanating from the United States or Japan concerning the extent of China's military strength, as various different manifestations of the 'China Threat Theory', all of which distort the truth to serve political ends. China is seen, a priori, as a threat, and everything it does is believed to be a part of a malicious plan to undermine the world order, take over Taiwan and Japan, or swamp Mongolia and Siberia with Sichuanese hawkers and hookers.

The United States is, of course, cited as the chief culprit. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said earlier this year that the minds of a small number of Americans 'still linger in the Cold War Era', another common complaint. The reports about China's increased military spending are ridiculous, Li said, especially when you realize that US military spending is still 17 times more than China's.

Condoleezza Rice, in Beijing at the weekend, tried to allay some of the suspicions, telling reporters that while the US 'has concerns' about China's efforts to modernize its armed forces, 'this does not mean that we view China as 'a threat'.' With China's efforts to revamp its army coming in direct response to Washington's overwhelming military superiority, Condy's clarification makes sense.

In any case, not a week goes by without some breathless account of the inevitability of war between the US, the incumbent world policeman, and China, the regional upstart, with the source of the conflict being Taiwan, North Korea, or the growing presence of the US in the traditional spheres of influence of Russia and China.

But the US isn't the only culprit behind the China Threat Theory. China's ambassador in Moscow is constantly being asked about Chinese immigration into Siberia and the territorial threats posed by China's growing economic might. Russian newspaper Isvestia recently asked politicians and experts to discuss the issue of whether China poses 'a territorial threat to Russia'. Isvestia quoted Professor Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyayev, an old-school academic who said that China poses a challenge not just to Russia but to the whole of 'Euro-Atlantic civilization'. The Professor's assumption was that, well, Russia is part of Europe and the western world, and the eastern hordes simply could not be trusted.

China, said the Professor, 'still believes in the idea of the Celestial Empire, which has a mandate from the heavens to rule the world'. The pragmatism of the current leadership is mere pretence, and sooner or later China would require lebensraum, as well as a proportion of Russia's copious oil and mineral reserves.

China's apparent failure to secure the oil pipeline from western Siberia to Daqing in northeastern China is also attributed to the popularity of the 'China Threat Theory' in Russia's frozen eastern wastelands. One of the reasons why the route to the far eastern coast was favoured, enabling the export of oil to Japan and the US, was the rise in anti-Chinese opinion in Russia, and the pressure put by eastern Russian politicians on President Vladimir Putin during the 2003 national elections. Last week at the G8 Summit, Putin finally saw economic sense and gave priority to the China route.

China presented its thwarted efforts to secure stakes in the massive Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea two years ago as another example of the 'China Threat Theory' in action, even though it was said to be a purely commercial decision by existing shareholders like Shell and ExxonMobil. China has repeatedly tried to import more oil from Kazakhstan, but – you guessed it – the 'China Threat Theory' exists there too, with the sparsely populated young nation afraid that growing commercial links will lead to dangerous levels of economic migrants flowing across China's northwestern border.

China is being somewhat disingenuous, of course, and has long been peddling a 'US threat theory' of its own. China is well-aware that blaming all ills on foreigners is an easy way of stoking up nationalist sentiments at home. Another way is to explain everything away as the manifestation of the 'China Threat Theory', 'outdated Cold War thinking' and various other foreign prejudices.

China's commercial and political practices do leave a lot to be desired, based as they are on the signing of dodgy government-to-government deals and the carving-up of wealth and resources with a variety of despots, crooks and lunatics throughout Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. In Zimbabwe, for instance, China stepped in and sealed a number mining and transportation deals shortly after the western interests had been forced to leave.

Some have said that many of the small arms being used during the Sierra Leone civil war were manufactured in China, probably traded for rough diamonds. China is also believed to have armed the Sudanese government, helping Khartoum's bitter campaign against the southern rebels and the genocidal assault on Darfur in the west. China has even stationed a significant number of troops ('security guards') in the country in order to protect its oilfield investments.

The shady Northern Industries Corporation ('Norinco') is another case in point. Despite the benign bucolic charm of its official website, the company is subject to sanctions from the United States for violating non-proliferation agreements with the likes of Iran, and - say some - for trying to supply weapons, including 60mm mortar rocket launchers, to American street gangs.

Still, what's new? Arms companies across the world have flogged weapons and weapons technology to dictators for decades. The US has seen rapid and aggressive increases in military spending since the Reagan era, and while it has recently been fighting something fancifully described as a crusade for democracy, it has still reverted to the old realpolitik when it comes to a country like Uzbekistan. Foreign policies are invariably driven by self-interest. Wars, even if their professed purpose is the spread of liberal democracy or the overthrow of tyrants, frequently end up involving some commercial benefit or other, even if it is only for Halliburton.

Of course, as China rises in global stature, its interests look more and more likely to clash with those of the United States. Running Dog likes to think that the countries have more in common than they would care to admit, but that doesn't necessarily reduce the risk of conflict. On the contrary, when two massive energy-consuming countries both need to chase more and more foreign oil reserves, some sort of stand-off is inevitable.

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