News / Asia

China Supports Global Pariahs, Gets Resources and Criticism in Return

Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and China's President Hu Jintao (L) review a military honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 29, 2011.
Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and China's President Hu Jintao (L) review a military honor guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 29, 2011.


China's global search for resources and energy to fuel its booming economy has taken it places many Western countries are unwilling and unable to go.

China analysts say that by ignoring the behavior of some bad actors, and the pressure of Western sanctions, Beijing has put itself in a unique position to not only seize much needed access to oil, gas and farmland, but strategic advantages and opportunities on the global stage as well.

Out of Africa

China relies on Africa for more than one-third of its petroleum imports. And without those imports, analysts say, it would have some very serious problems maintaining its current levels of economic growth.

"But it’s an oversimplification to think that China is only interested in natural resources. It’s also interested in its position in the world," says Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. "The diplomatic influence that Africa, and its 53 soon to be 54 states, brings to international forums, as well as creating a more multipolar world which advantages China’s national interests more broadly."

Two countries China maintains ties with in Africa that have attracted the attention of the international community and activists are Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Beijing has been a long time ally of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled almost single-handedly for the past three decades. His administration and ZANU-PF party has been accused of numerous human rights violations.

Zimbabwe has not only given China access to its rich resources of more than 40 different minerals but to land as well to grow crops that can be shipped back to China.

"Zimbabwe has everything from diamonds to tobacco and farm land," says Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine. "China has gone in there and there are a lot of Chinese farmers there now tilling Zimbabwean soil growing crops that are sent back to China while the people of Zimbabwe starve."

China is Zimbabwe's biggest importer of tobacco and China International Water and Electric Company, Pham notes, has lease holds on over a quarter of a million acres of land in southern Zimbabwe for the raising of maize, which it exports back to China.

In turn, China provides Mugabe and his party with political cover in the United Nations Security Council and at the U.N. Human Rights Council.

And it's not just political cover.

China is providing Mugabe's government with "everything from J-8 fighter bomber aircraft have been provided to the Mugabe regime to technical assistance," says Peter Pham. "Some analysts point the finger at China for providing assistance to tap phones and electronic communications of political dissidents."

Diplomatic dance

However, with such relations, China frequently finds itself facing criticism.

"The Chinese regime does continually put the Chinese people on the wrong side of almost every international conflict in the world, North Korea South Korea, Iran vs it’s neighbors, Pakistan vs. India," says Greg Autry, co-author of the book Death by China and economics professor at University of California Irvine.

"Those are regimes that Beijing understands and the folks in Zhongnanhai are going to be much happier if they can live in a world where other regimes around them think the same way."

Still, in Sudan and Iran, China has found a way to play both sides of the fence and continue to reap the benefits.

In the UN Security Council, China has voted in favor of the last four sanctions against Iran, but blocked attempts to strengthen or expand those trade restrictions.

Peter Navarro says that in the case of Iran, the key is access to that country's natural gas reserves, the second largest in the world.

"China uses its diplomatic veto in the UN to shield Iran sanctions on nuclear proliferation and in exchange they got the deal to get the gas," Navarro says.

In Sudan, China has had to dodge allegations of being an accomplice to the genocide in Darfur and keep from getting dragged into the country's north - south conflict.

That, some analysts note, has forced China to adapt some long-standing approaches to foreign policy.

Chinese envoy to Darfur Liu Guijin (C) and Russian envoy Mikhail Margelov arrive to attend a high-level meeting with European, United Nations and African Union officials in El-Fasher, capital of North Darfur, Sudan, July 5, 2010. (AFP)

When criticism of China's support for Khartoum - advice, weapons and political cover - peaked during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which activists dubbed the "Genocide Games," Beijing appointed a special representative for African affairs for the first time. It has since deployed Chinese peacekeepers as part of the UN African Union hybrid force in Darfur.

"China has also engaged, for several years now, with southern Sudan, reversing a policy of dealing only with national governments," Peter Pham notes. "Now, part of this is self interest of course, south Sudan holds the majority of petroleum reserves. So part of it is an evolution in China’s interaction with African states and African peoples."

Filling the void

In Asia, China has filled a void in Burma and North Korea that the United States and other countries cannot fill.

In Burma, China is building numerous dams to help feed energy back to its booming coastal cities as well as a pipeline to pump in oil and gas from waters off the Burmese coast and beyond.

“The Chinese are very focused on securing long term energy resources and Burma provides that,” says Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s got enormous natural gas reserves, some oil and then offshore, we don’t actually know yet, what the level of reserve is.”

Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics says that while there are a variety of views within China about North Korea, the dominant view in the Chinese government today is that North Korea is a useful pawn.

“North Korea cooperates with Pakistan and Iran among others on missile and nuclear developments and it gives China an opportunity to basically poke its rivals, the United States and India in that geopolitical rivalry, while maintaining plausible deniability about their own actions,” he said.

But allowing Burma and North Korea to continue as sort of isolated bad actors, Bower says, undercuts China’s position in the region.

“And until the Chinese realize that reputational damage they are doing to themselves for their short-term buffer state and energy state and myopic personal interests, or national interests,” he adds. “I think China will not really have soft power in Asia.”

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