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China gets a free ride…

October 13, 2009

Since the mid-1990s, China’s rapidly growing economic belly has been hungry for resources and minerals from across the world, most notably in Africa (and most controversially, at least in the eyes of westerners confronting a deflated sense of importance, Sudan). Now the world’s second largest consumer of oil and the third largest importer, energy security sits at the forefront of Chinese foreign policy. Without the fuel to burn the furnaces of economic growth back home, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) fears its legitimacy will come under serious domestic strain: Since Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening, good old material and economic development has been what the Party sees when it ponderously stares into the mirror of existential meaning. But it is not only the state that matters, but the huge array of special interests: state-owned mini-state companies, arm manufacturers, People’s Liberation Army business interests, Minister’s sons (“little princes”), capitalist tycoons and respected party members. All of these actors have a role in pushing China’s global scouring for energy and other minerals.

All together now, in mutual win-win south-south comrade solidarity… right?

All together now, in mutual win-win south-south comrade solidarity… right?

Most recently the Chinese state-owned CNOOC was in talks with the government of Nigeria ‘to buy large stakes in some of the world’s richest oil blocs in a deal that would eclipse Beijing’s previous efforts to secure crude overseas’ as well as attempts to get at Guinea’s valuable minerals and black stuff, an especially opportunistic move in a time that the ruling party there has come under some (but as of yet not wholly consequential) criticism from Western powers. The EU is considering sanctions, and France announced it would no longer export arms: so its not just the possibility of free access into an oil country which western oil companies cannot access (a la Sudan), but a market for weapons too (not particularly for profit, but it always sweetens a good energy deal). When those whishy-washy civil society types in western countries prevent their oil companies investing in slightly fragile countries with somewhat distasteful regimes who may or may not commit massive human rights violations, well “hey” China thinks, “I mean, you know, if no-one else is allowed that oil, we might as well take it… is that ok? No? Oh well. Sucks to be you guys.”

China’s search for energy security has not, however, meant that it is at all willing to project military force. For example, it has no troops (besides Blue Helmets) based in Africa, unlike the Americans who have a whole AFRICOM. It has contributed to anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, but even this has been rather low key and inconspicuous. This is reflected in persistent claims that China is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm. This follows Deng’s mantra: Tao Guang Yang Hui, or “hide your brightness, develop your capabilities.” China’s unwillingness to visibly deploy power for its own ends stems from an extreme paranoia not to actually piss any one off, especially the US (NB: By actually I mean like more than supporting somewhat dodgy regimes, which only irks the US cos then it has to organise meetings with Matt Damon and George Clooney and the rest of the Save Darfur Campaign roadshow.)

But it’s not only that China can take time in building itself up domestically, and dealing with the array of difficult domestic issues the party still needs to confront, before it feels confident to project power internationally but that it can do this on the cheap. Why infringe the great costs of the direct utilisation of power when Uncle Sam will do it for you? This is undoubtedly the case in Iraq, where China is reaping the benefits of America’s war. And when the inevitiable tower of oil-induced rentier shit finally falls in Angola or in Nigeria, who’s going to come to the rescue? When the Sudan peace agreement collapses, who’s going to bring Khartoum and Juba to the table? Who’s going to make a lot of noise of Kenya goes salty again? Who’ll keep the Gulf of Alden trade flowing? Who’ll keep fighting piracy in West Africa too? If this happened tomorrow, well the answer is the US of A. If it happens sometime in the next decade though, well that’s more of an open question…

With a single global superpower (fuck it: empire)  to bear Atlas’s weight on his shoulders, it appears that at least for today, and probably tomorrow, the ride to the top is a free one for China.

How long can this go on though? Won’t the US get grumpy? Don’t Chinese-US interests clash? Won’t China find itself getting entangled in conflicts and regime-drama across Africa and elsewhere? Isn’t the PLA like, getting more awesome? Didn’t they have that whole 60th b-day parade thing? What does this mean for UN multilateralism? What’s India thinking? And where, where on earth, is that other economic giant/military worm, the EU stand? And what about them Africans themselves, huh? And what about African development?

Lets get to all of that next time…

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