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China Lacks Focus in the Arab World, Missing a Mutual Opportunity

Author: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia
April 1, 2011
The National


In January 2009, the investment bankers, government officials and philanthropists attending the World Economic Forum in Davos got a blistering lecture from a most unlikely source. The first senior Chinese leader to attend, the premier Wen Jiabao, was known at home for his mild demeanour. Nicknamed "Grandpa Wen", he was popular in China for his down-to-earth style. Indeed, the Beijing leadership usually sent him out to handle natural disasters or other large-scale tragedies which called for a warm personal response. That genial grandpa was not in evidence at Davos.

Months after the Lehman Brothers collapse triggered a global economic crisis, Wen told the forum that the West was squarely to blame. An "excessive expansion of financial institutions in blind pursuit of profit", a failure to supervise the financial sector, and an "unsustainable model of development, characterised by prolonged low savings and high consumption" were behind the crisis, he said.

Wen's broadside was startling, but not unique. A decade earlier China had been largely absent from international relations. It barely played a role at the United Nations, for instance. Until the end of 2008 nearly every top Chinese official still lived by Deng Xiaoping's old advice to build China's strength while maintaining a low profile in international affairs. But by the early part of this decade, Chinese leaders had begun to assert themselves. As one current senior American official who deals with China said: "They are powerful, and now they're finally acting like it."

In the middle of last year, Beijing reacted to Japan's decision to impound a Chinese fishing boat in disputed waters by cutting off shipments to Tokyo of rare earth materials, a resource critical to modern electronic devices such as mobile phones. Beijing also warned Vietnam not to work with western oil companies such as ExxonMobil on joint explorations of potential oil and gas in the South China Sea; China had claimed nearly the entire sea for itself. When South-east Asian nations protested Beijing's stance and asked Washington to mediate their disputes with Beijing, Chinese officials reminded them, at a meeting of Asian nations held in Vietnam, that "China is a big country" - that it could outmuscle them.

Even with the United States, where China had trodden cautiously for decades, officials displayed a new-found assertiveness. In one article published in the state-run China Daily, a think-tank expert from China's Commerce Ministry wrote: "The US's top financial officials need to shift their people's attention from the country's struggling economy to cover up their incompetence and blame China for everything that is going wrong in their country."

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