Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

China and the West

Chinese intentions towards the rest of the world are likely to become the present period’s major preoccupation, writes Tewfick Aclimandos


You cannot consult any Western think tank’s website without seeing a lot of policy papers and analysis on China’s rise and foreign policy. These deserve close study, as China is likely to become the major question of today. The Egyptian Embassy in Beijing, for example, is one of the most important in the whole foreign service.

However, I want to begin this article by recounting some of the things I have heard when discussing China with various Western experts, most of them French. The first thing sounds paradoxical: when it comes to the economy, China is in a hurry, they say. It wants to become rich quickly and to achieve its goals before demographic decline sets in, as its population is swiftly ageing.  
As a result, it is relentlessly focusing on growth. However, strategically, it is also playing a long game and betting on the longer term, feeling that time is moving in its favour. It is willing to invest in endeavours that make little economic sense in the short term, but which might bring huge strategic and economic rewards in the long one.

Pundits and observers concur in saying that the present Chinese regime is fiercely nationalistic. It is surfing on a nationalism that could quickly become aggressive. An acquaintance working in business circles told me that the Chinese were often frank about their motivations. “We are here [in France] to learn from you,” they say. “But make no mistake: the West humiliated us 150 years ago, and now it is time for our revenge.”

Friends who have deep respect for Chinese culture and the Chinese people downplay such comments. China wants to be the boss in its immediate neighbourhood, but it does not have global aims, they say. China does not have the kind of military force that could project itself overseas, and in any case such ambitions are totally contrary to Chinese culture.

However, one diplomat commented that while such observations are true, the Chinese “are quick learners”. Most Western experts on strategy agree that China has a “grand strategy”, and some even say that China is the only country in the world that currently has one.
I do not want to dwell on the last sentence, as this would entail a long discussion of US foreign policy. The latter might have no grand strategy, or too ambitious a strategy that has failed utterly, namely the democratisation of the planet and the spread of American values, or it might have too many goals and changing priorities.

According to one well-known French scholar, the Chinese strategy aims to contain the United States and Japan, which, especially if put together, are China’s most powerful competitors. A well-known Emirati scholar once quipped that US hegemony would be endangered if Japan and China could forget the past and build a coalition, but this is probably impossible.

China has a very ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that looks like a revival of the old Silk Roads. It also has a “pearl necklace” strategy, which involves investing in strategic ports across the globe from East Asia to Piraeus in Greece. Its naval forces have paid visits to these ports, and they have received the due media coverage.

Chinese progress in Africa has been well-documented. It is investing a lot in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, and in East Africa there is a large Chinese diaspora. More surprisingly, China is trying to build a large presence in Latin America, which, it believes, is not only a part of the western hemisphere, but is also a part of the Third World. Latin America’s interests could collide with those of the United States, but they have a lot of common with those of China.

Chinese strategy tries to avoid wars and military adventurism. Another French scholar has told me that the Chinese “are not cowboys. They are peasants. For them, war means looting and burned crops. It means desolation. It means destroying the goods you want to earn money from.” The Chinese might try to intimidate their foes. However, they will not go to war unless they have no choice
Nevertheless, despite such observations Chinese strategy has two main targets. The first is to strangle India, and the second is to impose a new definition of international norms and codes of behaviour. Many countries, fed up with American whims and crusades for democracy and liberalism, might be tempted to follow China. Others, fearing a regional hegemon and no longer trusting the United States, might long for a more consistent protector. Moreover, the Chinese sell weapons without imposing many political conditions: one foreign-policy paper has underlined the fact that the Chinese, together with the Israelis, now dominate the market for drones carrying weapons.

All this is not to advocate an alliance with China, which would be fraught with “known and unknown unknowns”, to paraphrase former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Pundits and China fans ponder the impact of Chinese culture and political memory on its behaviour and foreign policy. They pay a lot of attention to and may overstate the legacy of the Chinese thinker Sun Tzu, reducing it to an apology for the use of ruses and psychological warfare.

Some say that China was the only great power that was not a player in the two world wars, and that it was a victim of both. Others say that the central state in China has often collapsed, and that the country was for long periods divided into different kingdoms and principalities. This has had many consequences, they say, one of them being that China understands quite well those who are weary of foreign meddling.

Another interesting question is the state of Chinese knowledge of other societies. China is “the absolute other”, comments one Egyptian historian. A French political scientist told me that his Chinese students know a lot about France and its history, and that many of them are even stronger in such fields than French students. However, another expert has told me that the Chinese have many problems understanding the Middle East and the Muslim world. They can see that religion and religious issues play an important role, but they cannot understand why.

Another has told me that Chinese “negotiating culture” is not the same as that in other countries. In France, for example, the head of a delegation is the one who talks. In a Chinese delegation, I am told, this is seldom the case. The real decision-maker keeps silent. A South Korean expert has even said that “this means that the official who speaks feels he is under a thorough examination by his silent boss.”

The Chinese are tough negotiators. They try to exhaust their counterparts and to make them waste time and energy on details. However, they will abide by a deal once it has been concluded. Some Middle Easterners consider this style of negotiation to be unfriendly, and sometimes they feel as if they are being cheated.

The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

add comment

  • follow us on