The activity of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the foreign policy scene is impressive. Which, however, is just one indication of the overall process of China’s transformation into a global power with interests that are gradually spreading to almost the entire space of the modern “Great World Game”. But Wang Yi’s two-stage (fall 2020 and early 2021) tour of Southeast Asia and, almost immediately thereafter, his tour of several African countries underscore the special importance of these two regions in China’s foreign policy.
Here it seems appropriate to make some general observations about the nature of Chinese expansion beyond national borders, to which the term “positive” would not be too far-fetched.
China comes to some “developing” country with projects, as well as their financial support in order to solve acute problems caused by general lack of economic development, underdeveloped transport infrastructure, inability to withstand natural disasters and all kinds of epidemics, the low level of education of the population.
Whereas in the past the European colonialist would come here to carry its “burden,” typically following the bayonets that “pacified” the local population. Which was then used (most often with a cruelty unimaginable today) in order to extract profits for their own use.
It should be noted that China’s leadership position in the world is brought to it by the “wind of the historical process,” rather than by the machinations or mistakes of others (such as “Xi Jinping-Putin” or “Trump”). China simply raised the banner of globalism thrown away by the United States. The trend for Washington to abandon its claims to world leadership was outlined (at least) during the second presidency of Obama and was only exacerbated by Trump.
Just as Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s famous speech at the 2017 Davos Forum only voiced Beijing’s (already quite definite) intention to raise the abandoned banner of globalism. Incidentally, Chairman Xi used the images of wind, sails, and a ship very appropriately in this speech.
The current Chinese expansion includes a military instrument, but it plays a very auxiliary role, mainly protecting the lines of communication between the mainland and the region with which China is establishing an economic partnership.
The most prominent presence of this tool is in Southeast Asia, one of the two regions of the Chinese foreign minister’s recent foreign tours. However, in response to this thesis China will quite predictably hear the following argument: if you mean the South China Sea, then 80-90% of its water area simply belongs to us, and we have the right to build on its islands structures that we consider necessary in terms of ensuring our national security, including military structures. If you are referring to the 2016 decision of the Court of Arbitration in The Hague regarding our mentioned rights, then that is the problem of this international institution. In general, deeply respected by us.
However, the existence of similar claims in the South China Sea by a number of ASEAN countries is part of the realities of the current situation in Southeast Asia, which significantly complicates China’s relations with these countries. It should be noted that, adapting to its leadership role, China is adjusting its behavior in the region (in this and other areas) on the fly, markedly reducing the level of political assertiveness and, conversely, sharply increasing the importance of economic cooperation with all ASEAN countries (for which Beijing is now its main trade partner), urging them to a mutually beneficial solution of all existing problems.
One of the acts of “on-the-go” policy adjustment with regard to the Southeast Asian countries was Wang Yi’s discussed tour. As noted above, it was conducted in two phases, during which the Chinese minister visited nine of the ten ASEAN member countries. In October 2020, he visited Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Singapore and Thailand. In early January 2021, Wang Yi sojourned in Myanmar, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Perhaps the main thing that draws attention in the comments on this tour is the absence of Vietnam among the visiting countries, which is explained by the complexity of China’s relations with one of the main members of ASEAN. It is noted that Hanoi’s set of claims to Beijing is not entirely limited to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The problem of regulating the Mekong watershed in Tibet (as a side effect of the operation of the hydraulic structures built there), which is of vital importance to southern Vietnam, for instance, is mentioned.
In fact, the success or failure of China’s policy towards Southeast Asia as a whole will be judged in no small measure by the extent to which Beijing can keep Hanoi from slipping directly into the arms of its geopolitical rivals, such as the United States, India and Japan. In achieving this goal, the trade and economic sphere is the main tool, which has so far been used quite successfully: in 2020, Vietnam has become China’s sixth largest trading partner, displacing Germany.
Notably, a month before the first leg of Wang Yi’s Southeast Asian tour, the US State Department announced plans to launch the “US-Mekong Partnership” to, among other things, “support the autonomy and economic independence” of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. More than $150 million are expected to be allocated to support this program (which will continue a series of similar ones that Washington has implemented here since 2009).
This sum is almost negligible compared to the cost of projects implemented in the region by China. But the very fact that the US State Department announced this program on the eve of Wang Yi’s departure for his first tour of Southeast Asia illustrates Beijing’s own policy framework there.
Perhaps nowhere is the fundamental difference between China’s current expansion and the policies of the European colonizers of the second half of the 19th century more evident than in Africa, whose territory was simply divided into control zones 150 years ago. As early as 2009, China ranked first among Africa’s trading partners, and since then it has only strengthened its leading position.
In 2015, bilateral trade amounted to $200 billion, which is incomparably higher than other African partners’ achievements on this indicator. The sharp dips in its curve in 2016 and 2020 are of a different nature. A drop of about 23% in Sino-African trade over the past year is entirely the result of the various negative impacts of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on the world economy.
However, the relationship between China and Africa is by no means limited to trade. Since the beginning of the last decade, China has also been the undisputed leader in direct investment, with an annual average of $4 billion. In addition, a variety of assistance is provided in the implementation of targeted programs in the areas of education, health and social problems.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was created in 2000 to discuss various aspects of the development of relations between the PRC and African countries. The latest 7th summit of this forum was held in September 2018 in Beijing.
The NEO has previously noted that the African continent is becoming an object of competition for influence between the PRC and other leading world players, including new ones, such as India and Japan. This is clearly a negative phenomenon, but unfortunately a reflection of the current general malaise in the system of international relations.
However that may be, these are the realities, and China’s policy in Africa is, of course, based on these realities. An important act in this regard was Wang Yi’s trip to five countries on the continent (Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Botswana, and Seychelles) in the first week of 2021. It was held almost immediately after he had completed the second stage of his tour of the Southeast Asian countries.
The comments draw attention to the fact that China is the only leading world power whose foreign minister for over 30 years has consistently visited one or another country in Africa at the beginning of each new year. Among the tasks he addressed during his latest tour was the preparation of various aspects of the next FOCAC summit, scheduled for this year.
As for the general mood of the hosts who received the distinguished guest, the words of the Nigerian expert that “there is no other country in the world that has demonstrated the same willingness” to cooperate fully with the countries of the continent were hardly an exaggeration.
These words translate more or less accurately the overall outcome of China’s recent policy toward countries that are still designated by the term “developing”.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.