China: Watching from the Sidelines

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China’s economic rise has led it to seek out natural resources and trade ties around the developing world, from Central Asia to South America to Africa. Some are warning of a new “Great Game??? of resource competition, and others are afraid that China’s willingness to partner with authoritarian regimes might lead to the emergence of a “Beijing Consensus??? to challenge the “Washington Consensus??? that favors open, liberal democracy.

mc_masterchef, in a comment to Open Source, June 23, 2006

As the US fights wars on two fronts and now a diplomatic mess on a third, is China quite literally laughing all the way to the bank? China has sent trade missions to South America and established ties with Hugo Chavez’s oil-rich Venezuela; it gets fifteen percent of its oil from Iran. It’s reaching out to Sudan.

As we’re carrying out the messy, desperately imperfect and expensive work of stabilizing the Middle East (a task expected of us, whether we like it or not), is China quietly securing a Beijing Consensus? Does Beijing see opportunities in the conflict in Lebanon? In Iraq? In the nuclear standoff with Iran? Is China watching us from the sidelines or playing its own game — rather successfully — in a different stadium?

John Pomfret

Former Beijing Bureau Chief, currently West Coast Correspondent, Washington Post

Author, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China

Robert Ross

Professor of Political Science, Boston College

Research Associate, Fairbank Center for East Asian Research

Thomas Barnett

Blogger, Thomas P.M. Barnett:: Weblog

Senior Managing Director, Enterra Solutions

Former strategist for the Office of the Secretary of Defense

Former professor, Naval War College

Author, The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating

Extra Credit Reading

Confidential Reporter, Mideast Sees China as Counterweight to US Power, China Confidential, August 4 2006.

Richard TPD, John Pomfret’s new book, Chinese Lessons, The Peking Duck, July 8 2006.

Jeff Kouba, China and Venezuela, Peace Like A River, March 18 2006.

Chietigj Bajpaee, China Becomes Increasingly Involved in the Middle East, The Power and Interest News Report, March 10 2006.

Yaakov Katz, Arms sales to China resume, The Jerusalem Post, March 2 2006.

Editorial, Providing Arms: China and the Middle East, The Middle East Forum, Spring 2005.

Robert Dreyfuss, Vice Squad, The American Prospect, May 2006.

Willy Lam, China’s Reaction to America’s Iraq Imbroglio, The Jamestown Foundation, April 15, 2004.


  • hurley

    ‘the “Washington Consensusâ€? that favors open, liberal democracy.’

    Egypt, Saudia Arabia, Jordan, Russia, any number of -stans…?

    How much of the “Washington Consensus” consists of countries with black sites, willing to torture at Washington’s bidding?

    No offence intended to mc- masterchef, but the categorization is absurd on the face of it, and sinister beyond. The US has its virtues (however diminishing), but to hold it up as a friend to liberal democracy across the board makes no sense, and does the ideal no favors. I look forward to the show.

  • joshua hendrickson

    China is perhaps the world’s premier example of how a country can adopt as much capitalism as it likes without having to bother with democracy. America’s presumption that the former requires the latter has been shattered, as perhaps it always was doomed to be. After all, why should democracy or human rights be necessary adjuncts to the pursuit of capital? It’s easy enough to make plenty of money through slave-labor or near-slave-labor; however, running a country gets complicated if you let the rabble actually participate in the governing process without throwing them into the Ministry of Love. I propose that capitalism is not in any way a natural friend of freedom, democracy, or human rights; after all, money, being the ultimate agreed-upon illusion, has no morality in itself. In other words, we have democracy and human rights (to the extent that we do in fact actually possess those things) in spite of, not because of, our economic system. I think, given the possibly increasingly influential example of China, that the chances of democracy and human rights surviving through to the twenty-second century are slimming down faster than an anorexic in a steam-press.

  • joshua hendrickson

    The mercantilist position just now outlined describes not only China’s approach to the world. I think, to an extent sometimes lesser, sometimes greater, it describes the American approach as well.

    But aside from that: what I said above, about China’s increasingly influential example? What the ROS guest just said about Syria’s leader calling China’s approach to authoritarian government an example … very chilling. Not surprising, not at all, but nonetheless terrifying.

  • http://mcmasterchef.blogspot.com mc_masterchef

    I wouldn’t deny by any means that the U.S.’ commitment to its professed values has always been shaky in some areas, but does it make a difference that it does at least profess those values? China’s been quite clear in distinguishing its policies of “non-intereference” from ours. I’m a believer that international norms of behavior do have at least some real effect on behavior, so I’m concerned at the idea that China’s frank disinterest in these issues might become a dominant narrative in world relations.

    The blog MountainRunner had a good piece on China’s involvement in Africa a few months back, and I’ve bookmarked a few other pieces on the subject in my delicious feed here. Looking forward to catching the show, but it’s off to work with me now!

  • joshua hendrickson

    Mc masterchef,

    America may profess these values, but unfortunately, “shaky” pretty well defines America’s commitment to these values. As always, putting its money where its mouth is (both at home and in foreign policy) would be much more effective than merely professing them. Walk the walk, America; don’t just talk the talk. Provide universal health care. Support only truly democratic nations. Treat all peoples as equals. Doing such things would be great! They would make America into the beacon of freedom that it proclaims to be. But this doesn’t happen. In short:

    The difference is that America is a hypocrite and China is not.

    I remember seeing a tv news interview with one of China’s leaders round about 1989, probably post Tianenman Square. It was the first and so far the only time I can recall seeing an interview with a world leader who did not in any way speak hypocritically. He openly, shamelessly professed that his party was interested in holding power, period. It was like listening to O’Brian in Orwell’s 1984: the only object of power is power. You’ll never hear an American senator or president be that honest, though. We like our masks of humanity on the faces of our leaders, not lying shattered on the floor.

  • joshua hendrickson

    The admission by the current guest that in Friedman’s Flat World economies rather than politics will define national friendships seems to support what I have been saying: Morality, human rights, freedom and democracy, are not necessary to the globalized economy, and in fact exist in spite of it. And this is a good thing?

  • http://www.radioopensource.org/user/sidewalker sidewalker

    As the US becomes more authoritarian and China less so, as they both seek global dominance through economic power and military might. As both need to feed a huge and insatiable population of consumers by securing the world’s resources, one has to wonder, is there really any difference in what these countries covet?

  • http://mcmasterchef.blogspot.com mc_masterchef

    I wasn’t able to listen to the show live (time zone differences pretty much rule that out) but I’ve heard it now. Very interesting discussion, ranging over quite a broad range (I wrote a senior term paper on the Uyghurs, so they’re a bit of an interest of mine as well). Glad to see I was able to squeak in my question before it went to air.

    For me the two most interesting points raised during the program were Thomas Barnett’s suggestion that given China’s mercantalist program of relatively shallow, extractive relations with countries in L.America, Africa, and the M.East, and their limited ability to spawn broader economic development, they will increasingly be seen in those countries as the negative face of globalization. A number of the China/Africa articles I’ve collected in my bookmarks suggest such reactions are already beginning, particularly in cases where cheap imported Chinese labor is supplanting locals.

    Equally important I thought was John Pomfret’s response to my question, where he suggested that the Chinese global ruleset (to use a Barnett-esque turn of phrase) was essentially undefined, outside the basic bottom-line business of business. I would subscribe to Dr. Barnett’s later comment, where he says that we have come to the conclusion that dictatorships are not viable long-term solutions for development; that’s actually part of the reason why a rival “Beijing Consensus” cocerns me, since I think a country with as many unaddressed internal weaknesses as China (whose long- or even mid-term stability I am unassured of) is not a particularly good model for world-wide emulation, at least as long as it retains its current autocratic and form.

  • sfh970218

    I have to admit that I am quite disturbed by the tone of our respected host Christopher Lydon. It’s a tone which pretty much depicts the world as a playground for imperial dominance, in which you are either an oppressor or an oppressed. Thus, we hear the “breather”, which we happen to give the Chinese when we are distracted with Iraq, Lebanon and etc.. But the fact is that nobody asked us to go to Iraq; actually most of the world (including the Chinese) didn’t want us to go, but we went anyway.

    This reality is that despite its recent rapid development, China faces far more serious challenges than the US does, with its environment, population, and social structure. Any mishap in these areas could easily throw the whole country into turmoil. As to many of its oil endeavors overseas, its policy is not only mercantile, but in some sense also comes out of desperation, realizing that all the cheap sources of oil have been taken by existing big players.

    But we are warriors, and we have to find an arch-enemy, don’t we? Now we happen to see a country, which only recently began to feed its population a bit better, and a growing number of people are interested in automobiles (we worry too much here too; let the Chinese do the worry and see how they will stack their cars for parking), we seem to have found one at last. Well, with that mentality, we are not only no fair players, we are essentially imperialists.

    The way I look at the relations between the U.S. and China concurs with some of the program’s guests’, which is that it’s a basically a bilaterally intertwined and sustainable relationship, unless we deliberately squander it. I hope the program guests’ views made a dent on that of our host, and hopefully of the audience as well.

  • vatsyayan

    Can someone enlighten me on this: competition or not, “non-conflict” is assured if there is a symbiotic relationship between the entities. In that context, how much China is / or going to be dependent (economically, politically, etc…) on the US and vice-versa?