The Chinese behemoth awakes
The trade deal with Greece is the latest in a series of increasingly aggressive moves by China to extend its influence
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* Simon Tisdall
o Simon Tisdall
o guardian.co.uk, Thursday 17 June 2010 17.30 BST
o Article history
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou ( Greek prime minister George Papandreou with Chinese vice-premier Zhang Dejiang earlier this week. Photograph: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
China's forceful intervention in the Greek debt crisis this week has given harassed European leaders meeting at today's EU summit a sharp reminder of the challenges posed by Beijing's relentless, expansive, and not always benign pursuit of global interest and influence. What was seen in Athens as a potential financial lifeline was, for others, a troubling sign of a future made in China.
Chinese vice-premier Zhang Dejiang agreed shipping, tourism and telecommunications deals worth several billion euros during the second visit to Athens in four weeks by a high-ranking Beijing official. The investment package, reportedly the biggest ever by China in Europe, was a welcome shot in the arm for the beleaguered Greek government.
But Radio Free Europe commentator Breffni O'Rourke highlighted the intervention's wider significance for Europe as a whole. "The Chinese are hard-headed realists and they recognise in Greece the ideal portal for exports to the Balkans. They have decided to establish a bridgehead there at a moment when the terms are most favourable," he said.
Another example of China's lengthening reach was this week's report that state-controlled PetroChina might consider a takeover bid for BP, whose share price has plunged following the Gulf of Mexico spill. Such a takeover would create a giant company with 73% more oil reserves than ExxonMobil and 187% more than Shell.
By way of counterbalance, China's firmly rooted reluctance to support policies inimical to its economic prospects and geopolitical influence has also been on display. Tough sanctions on Iran agreed by the EU this week specifically prohibit new energy sector investment and sales. But German manufacturers predict that Chinese firms that suffer no such official inhibitions and are already big investors in Iran will simply supplant European businesses.
Beijing is nothing if not consistent. It successfully forced the Security Council to water down the latest UN sanctions against Tehran. It is pressing ahead with a deal to build two civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan despite western proliferation concerns. And it has steadfastly refused to condemn its nuclear armed ally, North Korea, for the March sinking of a South Korean naval vessel.
A report published this week by the independent London-based thinktank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, discerns an increasingly negative pattern in Chinese behaviour, which, it claims, poses a "huge test" for Europe. It's time EU leaders woke up to the scale and escalating seriousness of the global challenge posed by Beijing and took a tougher line, the report's author, François Godement, said.
"Chinese foreign policy experts saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers not as a one-off crisis but as a structural change in the distribution of power. Since then, China has become assertive across a range of foreign policy issues," the report said. "China has repeatedly snubbed Europeans [over] Tibet. It has become even less apologetic about its human rights violations, has deepened economic ties with North Korea … and slowed down progress on Iran.
"At the Copenhagen climate conference, China used tough tactics to [prevent] an agreement on a binding commitment for developing countries … In short, China has frustrated hopes for increased global responsibility-sharing while pursuing its own economic and strategic interests."
Godement argued that European assumptions that China would adopt modern, western-style "values and interests" as it developed into a modern, global power were now daily exposed as flawed. If anything, he said, China was pursuing a "normless" or values-free foreign policy with "minimal" commitment to upholding the international order. It was not so much interested in multilateral agreements brokered through the UN or the global trading system as in subregional and bilateral deals furthering its national aims.
One example is last week's gas pipeline agreement with Kazakhstan, part of Beijing's ambitious energy strategy in central Asia. But there are many others, including its deep-water port-building projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, trade deals in south-east Asia, and numerous bilateral resource projects in African countries.
The EU should adopt a hard-nosed, conditional and unified approach to China to have any chance of holding its own on the issues that matter most to Europeans, such as climate change, proliferation, human rights, and trade and investment, the report concluded.
That said, it seems increasingly clear that Europe, like the US, must prepare for the day when China seeks physically to protect its burgeoning interests with "hard power". American commentators suggest this is already happening in relation to Taiwan and, increasingly, in Beijing's attempts to dominate the South China sea.
"It is not that China has a masterplan for world domination. Rather, like all rising powers (19th-century America included), the logic of its growth requires it to play a greater international role," wrote Daniel Blumenthal on the Foreign Policy magazine website. Sooner or later, he predicted, China would develop expeditionary land forces to defend its interests in the region and in strategic areas like central Asia.
Greece is probably safe for now. But it wouldn't do to be complacent.
The Chinese behemoth awakes | Simon Tisdall | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk