China's President Hu Jintao shows the way to South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 24, 2010. (Jason Lee / Courtesy of Reuters)
One of the significant unresolved questions surrounding Chinese foreign policy is whether China’s influence is expanding or diminishing. Is China a model for other countries? Does its economic clout give it sway in other arenas? Does its growing military prowess have the potential to bend others to its will?
In the past two weeks, China’s influence barometer has been fluctuating wildly. In Zambia, Presidential candidate Michael Sata campaigned largely on an anti-China platform, proclaiming “Zambia has become a province of China…the Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them,” and won. Closer to home, Burma threw a wrench in China’s plans to populate the Irrawaddy with seven more dams, including the 6,000 megawatt Myitsone dam, when Burmese President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the dam until his term ends in April 2016. The dam would have flooded an area roughly the size of Singapore and provided energy primarily for China. The Chinese government was stunned at Burma’s betrayal. And of course, throughout much of Asia, China’s neighbors are forging new alliances and fortifying old ones to defend against a seemingly more assertive China. (That certainly sounds like influence…just not the kind Beijing wants to have.)
At the same time, the South African government led by President Zuma failed to provide the Dalai Lama with a visa to attend the 80th birthday party of his fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, prompting an angry outcry from the Archbishop. In addition, my colleague Josh Kurlantzick has suggested that China’s influence in central and parts of Southeast Asia is expanding through Beijing’s programs to manage social instability. Although given the significant annual increases in numbers of protests in China, it’s not clear to me what they are teaching, exactly; and given the already authoritarian predilections of these states, China’s influence, while not negligible, is not terribly surprising. Finally, opening the newspaper on any given day, it is easy to get the impression that without Chinese investment, the entire world economy would be down under.
So, is China’s influence waxing or waning? The answer is that it depends. Read more »