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From Burma to Brazil, China Flexes Its Muscle
The Washington Diplomat / January 2008

By Larry Luxner

In early October, as global protests erupted over Burma's brutal crackdown on monks fighting the military dictatorship in Rangoon, a noisy group of demonstrators half a world away converged on the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

Their mission: to force China to use its enormous economic and political leverage to prevent the Burmese regime from oppressing its citizens.

"There's only one reason the UN Security Council hasn't done anything to stop what's going on over there — China!" shouted Jeremy Woodrum, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, into a megaphone, as hundreds of protesters booed loudly. "This is shameful behavior, and we're making a clear call for people not to support the Beijing Olympics, because they're coming down firmly on the side of the military regime. Let the whole world see what they're made of."

It's not known whether Zhou Wenzhong, China's ambassador to the United States, was paying attention or even at the embassy that day.

One thing is clear, however: the controversy over China's role in Burma has focused attention on Beijing's foreign policy like never before. Suddenly, it seems, the world is taking note of growing Chinese influence in world affairs — from hotspots like Burma, Sudan, North Korea and Zimbabwe to more benign, peaceful and prosperous places like Australia, Brazil and Vietnam.

"There's no question China has taken a much more active role internationally over the last decade or so, for a lot of reasons," says Michael Swaine, who heads the China Security Program at Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It has recognized that to be active economically and have very intensive trading regime, it must be increasingly involved with other countries — not just economically but politically and socially. It is also becoming dependent on energy, which motivates its involvement in many countries such as Burma and Sudan."

At the same time, Swaine told the Diplomat, "China to some degree is also trying to work out a strategy of engaging these countries, because its approach in the past has focused on non-intervention and defending the principle of sovereignty. But at the same time it's realized that a lot of its trade is with countries that are not well-regarded by industrial democracies."

Even so, he said, "the Chinese don't believe that punitive pressure on governments like Sudan and Burma would be helpful. They are more inclined to exert persuasion, and gradual influence over time, to improve the economic situation in these countries through China's own investments."

Ambassador Zhou couldn't be reached for comment for this article, though he did tell a recent Washington gathering that "peace and development are the two major issues" the world is confronted with today.

"The purpose of China's foreign policy is to maintain world peace and promote development," said Zhou, speaking at a Nov. 16 conference on Asia-Latin America relations. "Being a developing country, we are sympathetic to fellow developing countries. We feel we are duty-bound to help them. That's why South-South cooperation is very important to us, because it's easier for developing countries to work out consensus on many issues."

This approach is what journalist and Carnegie scholar Joshua Kurlantzick calls China's soft power. In his newly published book "Charm Offensive," Kurlantzick points out that between 500 and 1500 A.D., China was the most powerful state in the world, and that "today Beijing is in many respects regaining the central position in foreign affairs it enjoyed for centuries."

Wooing, not intimidating, is Beijing's general approach to foreign policy, and it appears that this soft approach is paying off handsomely.

Quoting recent polls, Kurlantzick asserts that people in Africa and Latin America now have more positive feelings toward China than toward the United States. Even in Australia — once a stalwart ally of Washington — attitudes have changed remarkably. One study he quotes shows that more than 50% of Australians support a proposed free-trade agreement with China, while only 34% supported such a pact with the United States.

"China has been able to use its soft power to get what it wants," he wrote. "Nations from Venezuela to Uzbekistan have proven increasingly willing to work with China, whether that means Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez vowing to reorient his massive oil industry toward Beijing and away from America, or Uzbek leader Islam Karimov tossing U.S. forces out of bases in his country. Countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have increasingly cut off even their informal ties to Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a province of China."

Kurlantzick says that over the past decade, China has emerged as a global actor in regions where it's been absent for decades, relying on a combination of growing international aid, more sophisticated public diplomacy and promotion of Chinese culture while downplaying its military strength and economic might to achieve this objective.

For example, China is now the biggest aid donr in three Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines. In the past, this aid was spent mainly on infrastructure and big prestige projects; now, much of the money goes to more public diplomacy programs like scholarships and Chinese-language courses. In Thailand, the Chinese ambassador now appears on a nightly television show, while a few years ago, he was basically invisible.

Albert Keidel, a Carnegie academic specializing in Chinese economic issues and related U.S. policy, says the Chinese "are continuing to move into the global marketplace to look for transactions that will help them pull more people out of poverty" and reduce the vulnerability that China feels militarily.

"China is seeking out any country that will trade with it," Keidel explained, suggesting the existence of a double standard when it comes to Beijing. "The United States is not particularly sensitive to the political status of countries in which it has found utility to have strategic relationships, for example the Middle East. China is simply saying what your form of government is, is up to you."

Sometimes, however, China's trade policies have been met with resentment. The tiny sub-Saharan African nation of Lesotho, for example, had for years been a leader in textile and garment exports, but is now finding that it can barely compete with China's enormous output.

Even much bigger countries like Mexico have similar complaints (see related story on China's booming trade with Latin America). While not addressing such concerns directly, Ambassador Zhou acknowledged that "in some sectors, competition and even friction are hardly avoidable."

But on the whole, he noted, "cooperation outweights competition. Seeking trade surpluses is not China's intention. In recent years, we have adopted a host of trade-facilitating measures in order to improve the environment, and we hope that China and its trading partners will make full use of these platforms to explore opportunities, so that our economic cooperation will be more balanced and mutually beneficial."

Beijing's support of the Sudanese government has been particularly contentious, especially when it comes to Darfur — where an estimated 200,000 people have died in four years of fighting between the Khartoum government and its Arab militia allies on one side, and the largely black African population of Darfur on the other.

Prominent on the Save Darfur.org website is a page entitled "China and Sudan: Deadly Partnership." According to this document, "on the diplomatic front, China has helped push Sudan forward in some respects, but has remained its advocate in others."

In a disturbing trend, it says "trade between the two countries more than doubled in the first half of 2007" while "two recently released studies by well-respected organizations have fueled concerns that weapons from China are being used against the people of Darfur, and that China is not doing enough to prevent such usage. Further, in the spring of 2007, China indicated its desire to further its military relationship with Sudan in every sphere."

The paper claims that during President Hu Jintao's February 2007 visit to Khartoum, he announced several new economic aid packages to Sudan "including an interest-free loan to cnostruct a presidential palace." In short, argues the organization, "China is willing to disregard rogue behavior by countries such as Sudan with which it has intimate economic ties."

Yet Keidel says blaming China for the suffering of Darfur's people is a rather simplistic approach.

"China has been developing oilfields in Sudan that the U.S. first identified from overflights. Should they risk that oil supply and pull out?" asked Keidel. "India also has interests in Sudan. So it's easy to exaggerate that China is the only force with influence there.

He added: "People can call China some sort of evil force in the world and use the Olympics to try to get their particular issue across. But it's certainly not going to help the situation in Burma or Sudan."

Even so, says Swaine, the protests have definitely had an effect, although the Chinese are quite torn on the Burma issue.

"On one hand, they have a long-standing relationship with Burma that they don't want to jeopardize," he said. "On the other hand, they recognize that the Burmese government is extremely repressive. They're very concerned about their image, and they don't want to be seen as propping up a repressive regime that oppresses monks."

Swaine recommends "consistent, high-profile demonstrations or pressure on this issue, if combined with some diplomatic initiatives by the U.S. designed to encourage China to move the Burmese government." He warned, however, that "if threats are made to Chinese interests, that could become counterproductive because the Chinese could then dig in their heels."

The same, he said, goes for another troublemaking country: North Korea.

"People always say the Chinese are critically influential in Pyongyang. But it's unclear how influential the Chinese actually are in these places. Yes, they have influence and political relationships with leaders that go back many years, but from the Chinese perspective, they don't necessarily believe the best way to exert that influence is to go in there and level sanctions or punitive pressures," Swaine told the Diplomat.

"In part, that's based on the belief that these things don't work over the longer term. But it also reflects their reluctance to put major economic investments at risk. And third, they don't want to be seen as signing onto a Western perspective."

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