CHINA: The Infant Dragon

Friday, May 23, 2008

By Bright B. Simons

BrightThese days most observers like to refer to China as the Asian ‘giant’. Combining this with the usual epithets presumably give us: "Giant Dragon". China, the Great Asian Dragon. The Great Giant Dragon that bestrides the Pacific. The Asian power’s recent behavior, ranging from its reactions to the "Tibetan crisis" to its judgment calls in the Zimbabwe arms shipment affair, however, prompts from us a less adoring accolade: China, the Infant Dragon. Emphasis, obviously, on infant..

Beijing’s response in the wake of the Tibet flare-up, which as flare-ups go was little more than protestors doing their usual thing by riding on the back of an overly publicized event, has for the most part consisted in bumbling public relation exercises, with the occasional high-pitch tantrum tossed into the mix. Its performance in the embarrassing affair of the stranded arms-laden ship off the southern African coast has been less spectacularly unedifying, but then things should never have got to that stage in the first place.

True, the arms shipment was not in breach of any known international regulation, but that of course is hardly the issue at stake. That China considers international diplomacy primarily in the context of international law, particularly the "text" of international law, is what we argue gives credence to the charge of naiveté against its leaders and policy makers.

In making the case for China’s growing sophistication in global diplomatic affairs, China’s fans point to a growing participation by Beijing in international law and treaty fashioning conclaves. We are often reminded of the Asian Power’s newfound enthusiasm for the talkshops and wine soirees of global organisations and agencies; its increasing appetite for international arbitrations and diplomatic outposting; its greater confidence in assuming regional and global "responsibilities"; and its demonstrated resolve to resort more in the future than it had in the past to treaty-based negotiations as a means of making peace with its neighbours, particularly in the context of territorial and trade tensions.

We argue that the complex art of state diplomacy has two critical elements that are pre-requisites in masterful international public relations. Two elements that China, in moments of diplomatic stress, has been often shown to lack. Firstly, Insofar as China’s so-called "growing sophistication" in international diplomacy relies for its credence on the country’s much-vaunted increased familiarity with the textual norms and technical intricacies of global diplomacy, evidenced according to friendly critics by the much increased involvement of Chinese technocrats in global norm-setting exercises, Chinese strategists will continue to ignore the need to, liberalise the country’s tertiary education as part of the effort to inculcate a "global worldview" in its new generation of strategists (aspects of which situation have been elided by Gao Shangtao), just as, secondly, they will continue to neglect the importance of moving beyond "rhyme verse" foreign policy "principles" in favour of a comprehensive doctrine of foreign interests, as is the case in much of the sophisticated world. A liberalized, global-conscious, late-stage education regime and a "post-Dengist" (Deng Xiaoping supposedly created the current Chinese state superstructure) annunciation of a mature, comprehensive, framework of international engagement are urgent reforms Beijing continues to postpone.

We will explain. Consider the rather lame "rhyme verse" principle according to which China supposedly conducts most of her foreign policy engagements, especially with the developing world: "no interference in others’ internal affairs in our international relations". Insofar as much of modern diplomacy is concerned with trying to engineer domestic opinion in foreign lands to align others’ behavior with positions that favour your own country’s orientation, China might as well declare that "we don’t practice international relations". Consider that this ridiculous logic was what the toothless Chinese Foreign Ministry attempted to use to justify China’s decision to approve of the Poly Tech arms sale to Zimbabwe days after the latter country’s messy elections.

Coming so soon after the embarrassing torch relay disruptions, one would have expected that someone in Beijing would have gone further than a quick glance through "the international embargoed countries list" in assessing whether China’s image, in a time when that image appears a wee bit battered, would be best served by approving the sale.

Perhaps we are too harsh on China? After all, as many have said we ought to put the matter in proper perspective: China is merely tenth on the list of major global arms exporting countries (it is, on the other hand, the world’s largest importer despite being subject to some residual Tiananmen-era embargoes).

The matter of the arms export to Zimbabwe in itself is incidental to the fact that China, unlike say the USA or the UK, has all the means to micromanage incidents of this kind. Recall that Poly Tech (the arms shipper) is completely controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. In fact it features prominently in China’s military intelligence apparatus. It has attracted some hostile attention from Western intelligence organisations who suspect that the company is a front for illegal arms proliferation and weapons-related espionage. Some have even charged its erstwhile US operations as a cover for high-grade black operations such as influence-peddling in the Washingtonian corridors of power. Simply put, Poly Tech does not act out of unadorned commercial interest; it is a direct arm of China’s foreign policy which remains predominantly under the influence of the People’s Liberation Army rather than the great white elephant that is the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

COSCO, the Chinese shipping company involved in the abortive arms deal, is similarly a shadowy state-run show, notwithstanding its charismatic, media-friendly, CEO’s UN Global Compact – winning virtuosity, and the slick branding of its overseas-listed subsidiaries.

Simply put, the decision to approve the arms shipment to Zimbabwe at this unholy hour in that country’s life was made by members of China’s true foreign policy establishment, the PLA-dominated "policy groups" at the very centre of the Chinese state. These are the people for whom "rhyme verse" principles suffice as a medium of foreign policy making. These are the people for whom no amount of short seminars on "international law" can ever prove sufficient to equip with the broader breath of view required to appreciate the complex, media-saturated, civil society-networked, global plane wherein true international diplomacy unfolds nowadays. These are the people who must be quickly replaced with a new breed of Chinese diplomat trained outside the current regime of rote-memorisation and Mao-style "patriotism".

We make these points not because the United States or Japan or South Africa performs with unsullied perfection in international public relations scenarios. We make these points because China is indeed a dragon on the uplift; any clumsiness could have devastating consequences in those regions of the world most susceptible to its influence, such as Africa. We make these points because unlike the USA, UK or SA, China, as a centralised state, is not confronted, at least to the same level as its rivals, by a frightful myriad of special interests and lobbying groups in the construction of its foreign policy. We make these points in view of the fact that Beijing has the means, it must therefore show the will to demonstrate the maturity required of an aspiring diplomatic giant.

We make these points because like most observers of China’s rise, especially here in Africa, we had rather not see an Infant Dragon on the loose.

Bright B. Simons heads the Sino-African section at the Centre for Education & Policy, Accra, Ghana (IMANI) and Associate Editor of