China’s Charm Offensive -- Sinister or Benign?
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s military has been on a massive charm offensive to woo enemies and butter up old friends.
Over the past several years, Beijing has reached beyond Asia to Africa, Europe and South America to establish militaryto-military relations, defense agreements, arms sales and wholesale arms freebies to poorer countries the United States has largely ignored.
Some say Beijing is simply doing what any emerging global power would do: securing sea lanes of communication, developing military-to-military agreements, providing security for allies in distress, and participating actively in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.
Others say China is taking advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with Afghanistan and Iraq, a preoccupation some compare to a runaway father abandoning regional responsibilities in a drunken rage over real and imagined enemies in the Middle East. Whatever the view, it was a packed year for Chinese diplomats, leaders and naval captains.
In January, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan visited Indonesia to discuss ways to improve military manufacturing at state-owned PT Pindad, a weapons manufacturer, and PT PAL, a shipbuilder.
In Beijing, Cao met with Nepal’s Army chief of staff, Roo kmangud Katawal, and Singapore’s permanent secretary for the Defense Ministry, Chiang Chie Foo, to discuss defense cooperation.
In Tonga, Chinese Ambassador Hu Yeshun handed military supplies worth $245,000 to the Tonga Defense Services.
In last year’s historic deployment, China sent warships to Australia, France, Japan, Russia, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom.
In October, China hosted a New Zealand frigate, the Te Kaha, at the Zhanjiang Naval Port, and gave Cambodia nine naval patrol boats to safeguard oil installations in the Gulf of Thailand. Cao met with his counterpart, N’Guessan Michel Amani, in Cote d’Ivoire.
In September, Chinese warships visited Sydney; Cao met with Bulgarian counterpart Veselin Bliznakov to promote bilateral ties; Chinese warships held a joint exercise with the British Royal Navy in the Atlantic as part of an extended Chinese naval visit that included Russia, Spain and France; and Japanese military observers attended the Warrior 2007 exercise in China.
Is China’s charm offensive a new way to carry on a zero-sum campaign? Bonnie Glaser, a senior associate with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says no.
“The Chinese are gradually shifting away from this perspective and no longer see the world purely in 19th-century balance-of-power terms,” Glaser said. “China genuinely needs a favorable strategic environment so it can focus on its domestic challenges. Promoting China’s influence does not have to be at the expense of the U.S.” But Bernard Cole, an expert on China’s Navy, sees things in darker terms for the United States.
“‘Sinister’ may not be the right word, but I do think that China wants to be the hegemon of East Asia,” said Cole, author of “The Great Wall at Sea.” “By that, I mean that Beijing aspires to be in a position where it can effectively — through economic and diplomatic pressure, for the most part — direct the course of events in the region that affect Chinese interests. This will certainly impact U.S. allies and interests, but it is the course of action we should expect China to take. The U.S. reaction should be based on policies that strengthen our economic and political position — notably weakened since 2002 — not by China-bashing.” Some say that China is reusing the strategy that it used over 20 years to marginalize Taiwan in the region and on the world stage: financial incentives, gifts of aid and arms, and outright bribery. The same strategies, now honed, appear to be in use against U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region and farther afield in Africa, Europe and South America.
However, Glaser argues, there is no convincing evidence China is seeking to “push the U.S. out of the region or change the international system or the regional rules of the game. On the contrary, the Chinese see many benefits from the prevailing arrangements.” She says Beijing is trying to “dispel the China threat theory [and] ease concerns about China’s emergence. The term ‘charm offensive’ sounds rather sinister. China genuinely wants and needs good relations with countries in the world.”
China’s moves have unsettled some in the region.
“Serious reservations remain, certainly among the Southeast Asian nations, but at this time they apparently see no option to ‘going along to get along,’ so long as Beijing behaves itself,” Cole said.
He cited China’s damming of the Mekong River, which is hurting the “economic and social welfare of the downstream nations” such as Cambodia and Vietnam.
John Tkacik, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, said China is looking to push a distracted United States out of the Asia-Pacific region. “Clearly, Washington … is allowing a laser-focused Beijing to shape the strategic agenda in the Pacific,” Tkacik said, adding that America’s democratic friends and allies in the Asia-Pacific “watch with great anxiety America’s new willingness to accept China’s new preeminence in the region.”
Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, agreed that U.S. leaders are distracted.
“Washington is definitely very preoccupied with getting Afghanistan and especially Iraq right, and it just doesn’t want any other complications right now distracting it from its more immediate security challenges,” Bitzinger said. “At the same time, the USA wants China inside the tent with it regarding the ‘global war on terrorism’ and especially efforts to denuclearize North Korea. For these reasons, the Bush administration is actively playing down any ‘China threat’ talk within its ranks and has effectively issued a gag order to this effect.” The result is that “Democratic Asia” has only two strategies in dealing with China’s military rise, Tkacik said.
“They can balance China by encouraging a strong U.S. presence in the region, or they can give up and ‘bandwagon’ with China — that is, they can accept China as suzerain,” he said. “But without an engaged United States, they cannot afford to rearm and develop countervailing nuclear options to balance China on their own.” Thomas Kane, a lecturer at the University of Hull in Britain and author of “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power,” believes China’s good will will only go so far.
“The fact is that African nations, which used to prefer working with China as a way of retaining the maximum amount of independence, now fear Chinese economic dominance in the same way that they fear American economic dominance,” Kane said.
What will it take to rebuild the confidence of America’s Asian allies? “I think that the U.S. is indeed overly committed to the so-called war on terrorism, which has resulted — certainly in the minds of Asian leaders — in a significant lessening of American interest and investment (diplomatic and military) in East Asia. This may be as much perception as reality, but it is real, nonetheless,” Cole said. “The U.S. very definitely should increase its representation at ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] meetings and ensure a presence and role proportional to its still-No. 1 economy and military force in the region.” Kane agreed.
“I am also inclined to doubt that a bellicose American response to the so-called charm offensive would serve any good purpose,” he said. “My advice to the U.S. government would be to do what China itself has been trying to do — work on the economy, and then you’ll have something to offer when you launch a charm offensive of your own.”