from Asia Unbound

“China Steps Out: Beijing’s Major Power Engagement with the Developing World”: A Review

Passengers who arrived in a train launched to operate on a railway line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and financed by Chinese government are seen outside the Nairobi Terminus, Nairobi, Kenya, on May 31, 2017. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

April 2, 2018

Passengers who arrived in a train launched to operate on a railway line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and financed by Chinese government are seen outside the Nairobi Terminus, Nairobi, Kenya, on May 31, 2017. Thomas Mukoya/Reuters
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Hunter Marston is a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution, where he works in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and for The India Project. You can follow him on Twitter @hmarston4.

China’s economic growth, rising military power, and deepening cultural ties with many states have outstripped many U.S. policymakers’ predictions a decade ago, and left them wondering about the implications of China’s rise for global security and what remains of the liberal world order. President Xi Jinping has dramatically reshaped China’s presence and power on the world stage, touting a “new model” for developing countries to follow and advocating a “new type of international relations”; unlike predecessors such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi openly promotes China as a model of development. China’s deepening trade ties with the developing world, massive financing for projects in other states through its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and expansive vision for connectivity via its Belt and Road Initiative, suggest a 21st century order that eventually may have Beijing at its center.

With China in ascendance on so many fronts, the new volume China Steps Out: Beijing’s Major Power Engagement with the Developing World, edited by Joshua Eisenman of the University of Texas-Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and Eric Heginbotham of MIT’s Center for International Studies, is a timely contribution to the literature on China’s foreign policy and development strategies. Its six regional analyses offer a thorough overview of China’s expanding relations with states in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Central, South, and Southeast Asia, assessing Beijing’s approach to various parts of the developing world, and looking for broader similarities in Beijing’s strategies. While the breadth of this book would seem to threaten its cohesiveness and focus, the editors provide an approachable reading experience by employing a thoughtful thematic structure to each chapter, analyzing, in turn: China’s primary objectives; means (economic investment, military diplomacy, cultural ties, etc.); how effective Beijing has been in achieving those objectives; and how other countries perceive China’s efforts to achieve Beijing’s goals.

As Eisenman and Heginbotham reveal in their introduction, Beijing’s overseas strategy encompasses several overlapping areas: economic investment; political and diplomatic outreach; security cooperation; and cultural ties. As the editors recount, Xi Jinping has actively championed his desire for a “multipolar world and democratic international relations.” He also publicly has promised that China will remain a status quo power that supports the existing world order, although whether Beijing will actually play that role is very much an open question.

The chapter by Derek Mitchell, former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar and currently senior advisor to the Asia Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, provides essential framing of China’s history of interaction with the developing world, reminding the reader that China had previously been a great power competitor of the United States and Europe centuries ago. Mitchell describes imperial China at the peak of its international influence in the 15th century: “As the Chinese imperium expanded, so did the territory required to serve as a buffer to protect it.” He concludes that, “There is little...that suggests it is China’s natural state to forge international partnerships of equality and mutual respect.” Echoing its imperial past, Beijing today has demonstrated its willingness to use heavy-handed tactics to achieve foreign policy goals.

Heginbotham’s chapter on China-Southeast Asia relates delineates China’s economic outreach, diplomacy, military-to-military links, and cultural ties with the region in which it probably has the most influence, and is closest to becoming the regional hegemon. Heginbotham parses variations in Chinese strategy toward larger and smaller countries in Southeast Asia, observing how Beijing prefers to co-opt weaker powers with large sums of aid or investment, and, having brought into its fold smaller states like Cambodia, is dedicating considerable diplomatic capital to wooing sizeable powers like Indonesia, which is not a U.S. ally and is increasingly dependent on Chinese aid and investment.

In many countries in Southeast Asia, however, Beijing’s focus on elite ties has made it a target of grassroots animosity, a problem the Chinese government has faced in other developing regions as well. Myanmar citizens have protested environmental destruction and unpaid land confiscation surrounding oil pipelines and hydropower dams backed by the Chinese government. As Heginbotham reveals, massive Chinese investments in Southeast Asia, particularly in infrastructure projects and in states with poor legal frameworks, can exacerbate inequality and graft in recipient countries. Heginbotham notes that Chinese investment in Laos accounts for 66 percent of all foreign direct investment, in one of the poorest states in East Asia. He contends that Chinese government aid has largely benefited Chinese firms operating in Laos and the government in Vientiane, without trickling down to the people of Laos.

In Central Asia, Beijing has benefited, in recent years, from the relative absence of other major power competitors beyond Russia, which is unable to match China’s aid in the region. The United States under George W. Bush renewed attention to Central Asia given its strategic importance to the global war on terror, but declining U.S. government interest in the region in recent years left a void for Beijing. As Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute and Matthew Oresman of Pillsbury Winthrop note in their chapter on China-Central Asia relations, despite the region’s desire for more U.S. investment and stronger diplomatic relations with Washington to balance growing Central Asian dependency on Beijing, “Central Asian governments have learned that they cannot count on the United States to be a consistent partner.”

Instead, they write, the region has become a “foreign policy testing ground” for China. Central Asia offers Beijing the opportunity to measure the success of the first multilateral institution, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it cofounded in 2001. Central Asia also showcases Beijing’s intersecting energy and military diplomacy; in Central Asia, Beijing’s Belt and Road projects demand greater security cooperation with neighboring partners to mitigate investment risks.

Chinese influence in Central Asia, however, suffers from some of the same challenges it does in Southeast Asia. In Kazakhstan, Pantucci and Oresman describe how massive Chinese investment in Kazakh energy companies have enriched Kazakh elites and in 2016 triggered protests over proposed legislation that would expand Chinese land ownership in Kazakhstan.

In his chapter on China-South Asia relations, Jeff Smith of The Heritage Foundation echoes some of Beijing’s challenges in Central Asia. This analysis is especially timely given China’s controversial leveraging of debt to gain control over ports in Sri Lanka and political influence in the Maldives. Traditionally New Delhi enjoyed considerable influence in Sri Lanka, but the balance of power has shifted dramatically in recent years as China has poured investment into the country. As Smith observes, today more than a third of Sri Lankan government revenue goes to repaying Chinese debt.

Beyond overt Sino-Indian competition for influence, Smith provides a nuanced understanding of how some of the smallest South Asian countries have balanced China and India off one another to protect their interests. His account of last year’s Sino-Indian border dispute in Bhutan shows how the Bhutanese government skillfully played the two powers.

The book’s China-Africa chapter, co-written by Eisenman and David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, shows how China’s foreign policy in sub-Saharan Africa has evolved significantly from the revolutionary ideology of the 1960s and 1970s to one of pragmatism. In Africa China is making a high-stakes bet on the future of global growth, financing infrastructure projects, contributing to peacekeeping forces, and supporting antipiracy missions, to create a stable investment landscape. Beijing has also provided military arms and diplomatic backing to regimes such as South Sudan and Zimbabwe to maintain influence in those states. As the authors note, Beijing also has in recent years successfully convinced countries like Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe to abandon diplomatic relations with Taiwan, further adding to Taipei’s global isolation.

The Chinese government has signaled its willingness to play the long game to earn popular support in Africa, investing in telecommunication companies and media corporations, and spending money on cultural exchange programs. However, as in Central Asia, China has succeeded at cementing its influence in part because of the absence of competitors such as the United States, which invests comparatively little (financially or diplomatically) in the region. Nevertheless, there is growing public concern about China’s influence in Africa. The authors discuss, for instance, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where locals increasingly resent competition brought by Chinese firms that utilize imported labor, and demonstrators have targeted Chinese businesses.

In the Middle East, as Sarah Kaiser-Cross, a Dubai-based financial analyst, and Yufeng Mao, an assistant professor at Widner University, show in their chapter, Beijing has primarily sought to secure its own energy needs by linking Belt and Road projects to its energy supply lines. Largely this is due to Chinese dependency on Middle Eastern oil, which accounted for 48 percent of China’s total oil imports in 2016. Needing energy, Beijing has facilitated expansion of state-owned oil companies such as SinoPec into countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. While China’s repression of its Uighur Muslims at home hurts its public image in the region, six of seven Middle Eastern countries surveyed in a 2014 Pew Research Center poll believe China is having a positive impact on their economy.

Beijing has also made inroads in Latin America, as R. Evan Ellis, research professor at the U.S. Army War College, illustrates in his chapter. Following a surge of Chinese trade and investment over the past fifteen years, Beijing has sought to embed itself in Latin American regional institutions. Ellis’ chapter also demonstrates that populist governments like that of Venezuela, historically suspicious of free trade and democracy, have been quick to embrace Chinese support, although Beijing has also built close ties with longstanding Latin American democracies. More recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s insistence on renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes Mexico, Chile, and Peru, has increased the appeal of China as an economic actor in the region.

As China’s economic and strategic relations with developing nations have expanded dramatically, it has often contradicted its reassurances of acting as a peaceful power and respecting current global institutions, nearly all of the authors in the book show. The volume offers a measured but perhaps overly neutral analysis of Chinese behavior. However, this reticence to impart value judgments is rare among academic perspectives, and it allows the reader to decide for oneself whether the sum of China’s influence is more benign or not. Only in their conclusion do the editors acknowledge: “some Chinese activities in the developing world…threaten peace and stability” and aim “to alter the status quo” of the liberal world order. How the Xi Jinping government resolves this contradiction will be a critical question in the next stage of its relations with developing states.

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