Where does China’s responsibility end?

A lot of people have been getting on China’s case about not exerting enough effort to stop Iran and North Korea from becoming volatile nuclear missile holding powers. After Wikileaks latest release this Sunday, some frank discussions of China’s role in geopolitics have emerged. The Secret U.S. embassy cables released Sunday have been seen by some as showing an increase in tensions between the U.S. and China over the China, Iran, North Korea triangle of arms deals, natural resources, and diplomatic goals. Most commentators have focused on the multiple requests Hillary Clinton made over the past few years for China to stop shipments of weapons components, or possible weapons components to Iran, and to intervene in the North Korea-Iran ballistic missile trade, not to mention the Chinese Politburo’s hacks into Google and the Dalai Lama’s personal computer. While all of these negative portrayals of China are certainly there in the more than 250,000 cables, there are quite a few points where China’s diplomatic strategy seems to more closely follow, or in fact depend on, that of the U.S.

For example, below is an excerpt from a May, 2009 cable showing that China was vocal about the importance of the United States being a leader in the Middle East, contrary to the aspirations many pundits have assigned to China.

“MFA’s Xu Wei told PolOff that China was closely following the ongoing review of our Iran policy. He said
that China believed that the United States maintains a leadership role in the Middle East and that the results of the review will have an impact on Chinese engagement with the region. He said that Beijing hoped for more clarity from the United States on policy adjustments resulting from this review, adding that China had been left to guess at how U.S. policy might change on a very important set of shared concerns.”

The excerpt above shows a clear desire to respect U.S. foreign policy decisions in the region, and a willingness to listen and cooperate with U.S. concerns. Below is another excerpt, from September, 2009 portraying a China that is not only cooperating with the U.S. vis-a-vis Iran, but is acting directly in accord with U.S. wishes, by encouraging Iran to participate in strategic dialogue, but keeping Iran at a diplomatic distance.

“China continues to urge Iran to respond positively to the P5-plus-1 offer for talks, and these entreaties have been passed directly to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Iran reportedly requested to upgrade its relationship with Beijing to a “strategic partnership,” but China refused.”

And of course, there is the Saudi-Chinese deal concerning Iranian nuclear weapons and Chinese energy security. Saudi and Chinese Foreign Ministers met in January of this year and discussed an exchange of energy security from Saudi Arabia if China “more actively counters Iranian nukes.”

In all of these cables, Chinese diplomatic strategy seems clear; respect U.S. goals in the Middle East, but maintain economic and geopolitical security for the domestic Chinese population. While there are calls in recent media for China to assume more responsibility on the world stage, for example, through pressuring Iran and North Korea into dropping their nuclear programs, there are also countless examples of fear of China being too influential. And as we can see from the Wikileaks cables themselves, the Chinese haven’t always been kept up-to-date on what the United States foreign policy is in the Middle East. So the question is, how much responsibility does China have to defend United States foreign policy decisions, as opposed to responsibility towards its own population to maintain energy and economic security? Or, what if the United States stopped pressuring China, and instead stepped back to let other burgeoning world powers, like Turkey and Brazil, help to solve these conflicts?


Update: Fox-reading Americans think Wikileaks is a Terrorist Organization.  Do you?


Who feels like jumping on the China-threat bandwagon?

Last Tuesday David Schenker and Christina Lin released an Op-Ed piece in the L.A. Times that drew some pretty stark lines between China, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Christina Lin is a visiting fellow at the institute, so presumably they know their stuff. However, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t over-emphasizing the threat of a more Middle-East-allied China. For example, look at this quote below:

“Beijing did not choose Iran, Syria and Turkey as the focal point of its regional “outreach” by accident. These northern-tier Middle Eastern states all have complicated if not problematic relations with the United States and increasingly close ties with one another. To complement this triumvirate, China appears to be looking to Iraq as the next target of its charm offensive.”

Increasing Chinese ties are happening worldwide as China becomes a more integral player in the global economy. Sure, they might need one particular resource, petroleum products, from the Middle East in particular, but the largest proven oil reserves rest in Saudi Arabia, not Iraq, as claimed by the authors of this piece, and the United States has near-unbreakable ties with the Saudis. Therefore, even if China increases its ties with Iraq, or Iran, the largest political and economic player in the region is still on the United States team. Is it our energy supplies that are being threatened, or something else?

Peace, Harmony and Goodwill?

Xinhua News published an article on Sunday reporting on the outstandingly good behavior of the Chinese government’s foreign policy. While not a particularly radical article from a Chinese perspective, statements like “China never poses a threat to any other nations” were laughably propagandist.  While China’s intentions towards its neighbors are unclear at best, any nation claiming that it isn’t thinking of its own best interest is hard to fathom.  Let’s look at an example below.

Courtesy of AP

China has gotten a lot of bad press recently for its interest in a copper mine located under a 2,600 year old Buddhist monastery. The Beijing-backed mining corporation, MCC, has given archeologists three years to excavate and preserve the statues, although prominent archeologists are complaining that they need at least ten years to properly preserve and document the historical site.  One archaeologist tried to express the importance of the site by saying “This is probably one of the most important points along the Silk Road.  What we have at this site, already in excavation, should be enough to fill the (Afghan) national museum.” Whether this is truly reflective of the size and scale of the project or just the size and scale of the Afghan museum remains unclear.

What is clear is that most Western media outlets are framing the discussion of this issue in terms of a Chinese threat to ancient Afghan culture, whereas most Chinese media outlets aren’t saying a word about it. Is this another example of Western media continuing to stereotype China as a bully, or an example of effective media blackouts in China, either through top-down edicts, or just because most Chinese don’t really care about ancient Afghan mines?

Chinese Media Blackouts

Mao and Friends

Last Spring, I attended a talk at the New School by James Hoge, the ex-editor of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Hoge spoke on a wide variety of subjects, but one of the most interesting was China’s control of domestic media. He refuted the blanket view of Chinese media as completely oppressive, and instead spoke of “curves of tolerance,” or the idea that the CPC will be lax with restrictions for a couple of months, and then crackdown on something it perceives as important.


Today in The Diplomat, Mu Chunshan, a journalist with practical experience in dealing with the CPC’s censorship, discussed the way that Chinese media responds to China’s foreign policy actions in the Middle East.  He opened by comparing two events that happened in September, the visit of Kim Jong-Il to Beijing and the attempted Middle East peace talks in Washington. From his account, each event was greeted with an “effective media blackout”, one imposed by the government, and the other due to popular indifference.

The Chinese media machine, then, isn’t that different from the American one, where the media responds to governmental pressures, i.e. the late ban on photos of soldiers coffins, or the falloff of reporting on Iraq since the beginning of the war. It’s important to take a critical look at how the United States media is self-censored when we criticize China, too, which is something I think James Hoge would agree with.

CPC Delegation to the Middle East

On November 2nd, election day in America, the Communist Party of China sent a delegation to tour the Middle East, bringing Chinese goodwill to Israel, Palestine, the UAE, Syria and Cyprus. This continued and visible outreach to the Middle East, a region in which the United States has long been seen as the main guiding force, is another issue that can continue to drive up tensions between the United States and China. The Washington Post wrote an article highlighting these tensions, saying “At the center of the initial misunderstanding, both U.S. and Chinese analysts said, was the Obama administration’s early outreach to China to become a partner in tackling such issues as Iran and North Korea.” While the U.S. needs China’s cooperation to “tackle” Iran, and other regional problems, China doesn’t necessarily need the U.S. to approve of its business dealings in Iran.

In Melbourne, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, Secretary Hillary Clinton and Secretary Robert Gates met with their Australian counterparts to discuss China’s role and capabilities in the region, and its role in deterring a nuclear Iran. Mullen was quoted as saying, ““I’m anxious to understand what the assessment of [China’s] capabilities is and how they’re evolving over time.” What was easy to understand was the intensity with which China has become a focus of these high level talks.

While the Chinese delegation is touring the Middle East, their intentions in the region are becoming less and less clear. Jia Qinglin, the leader of the delegation, used a visit to Syria to berate Israel over it’s occupation of Syrian territory. In the same week, Wu Sike met with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor in Jerusalem to discuss moving forward the Israel-Palestine peace process. Wu even suggested that China could be a middleman, actively communicating with all parties involved to reach a solution, a role that the United States has historically played. What could China have to gain by becoming more actively involved in this conflict?

China and Turkey Step it Up

There have been some interesting stories coming out of the Chinese media camp covering China and the Middle East. For example, the “Experience China in Turkey” event in Istanbul last week, held to promote collaboration between Chinese and Turkish writers, was highly discussed in both Xinhua News and The People’s Daily. This event was “an attempt to improve cultural communication between the two countries,” and it was announced that “The Year of China in Turkey and the Year of Turkey in China will be held in 2012 and 2013 respectively. These activities are all part of the strategic cooperative relations China and Turkey decided to develop.” Why China and Turkey decided to develop stronger ties is still up for questions, but it might be connected to each countries growing strength in the Middle East.

Add to this the announcement last week of a new railway between Shanghai and Istanbul to be completed in 2012. As amazing as riding on a train completely across China to Istanbul would be, the practical necessity for this 4,500km railway, which is estimated to cause the company constructing it to lose US$ 623.3 million, is hard to fathom. Building a physical link between the two nations seems to be the only real gain in this project.

In a more strategically serious context, China and Turkey have also joined together in a commitment to “crack down on terrorism and separatism” in the region. China, perpetually worried about Uighur separatists in Xinjiang, was grateful for Turkey’s largely Muslim support last year during the Uighur crackdown.


In light of all this effort to court Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, recent Israel-China meetings are somewhat surprising. China has recently supported Iran-Turkey cooperation, and one wonders what Ahmadinejad, and other hardline anti-Israel individuals inside Iran think of China increasing cooperation with Israel. Can China work with both sides, or will it eventually have to choose?

China’s part in the Midterm Election

In the future, China is the boss?

China strikes fear in our hearts again. A recent advertisement by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), America’s self-proclaimed #1 tax-payer watchdog, shows a Chinese professor giving a lecture in Beijing 2030, complete with menacing music, about how China came to rule the world due to American stimulus package overspending and healthcare reform.  The best line, “Of course we owned most of their debt, so now they work for us,” after which his class of smiling young Chinese students laugh conspiratorially.  As the Youtube comments point out below the video, China actually does not own most of our debt, but is just the single largest debt-holder. We still have a lot of foreign debt to go around. But exploiting xenophobic fears is an effective way to rally support, especially ahead of an election.

The Chinese media has taken note of the ways that U.S. politicians are using China as a scapegoat. Xinhua News and The New York Times reported that “At least 29 candidates for the Congress have released advertisements accusing opponents of helping China at the expense of the American workers.”  These accusations are coming from both sides, Democrat and Republican.  Xinhua News also pointed out that even though China-bashing is on the rise, there is an increase in U.S. local government offices in China, and of course businesses are still seeking the cheap labor that China provides. The question is, will all of this negative rhetoric actually have any effect on the election, or is it just another smokescreen issue, much-discussed so that candidates don’t have to focus on any solvable problems?