Chinese President Seeks Closer Ties With Russia, Africa

April 10, 2013 4:50 AM - Updated: April 9, 2013 9:22 PM
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping

China’s head of state has always sought to label his regime with a maxim designed to both inspire and define his new national policies. The new president, Xi Jinping, apparently has adopted—in that respect—fulfilling “China’s dream,” described in China’s Communist Party newspaper as “the greatest dream of modern times is realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation . . . to achieve national prosperity, revitalization of the nation and its people’s happiness.” Xi has not directly included in his “dream” a rigid insistence on all of the nation’s sovereignty claims, most particularly those in the East and South China Seas, but there is no indication that he will diverge from this position, established in Beijing under his direction of the government organization (the Leading Small Group) responsible for these maritime issues.

As the new head of state, Xi Jinping recently made his first foreign visits, to Russia and Africa. His journey to Moscow in mid-March marked recognition of a strategic relationship between China and Russia. The two nations historically have rarely been close. Following the end of the Cold War, however, domestic turmoil and Vladimir Putin’s assumption of power in a nation suffering from disastrous demographic trends and what has become a very simple economy—able to produce little besides petroleum and military equipment—Moscow desperately needs Beijing as an economic market and political sympathizer.

Beijing in turn wants ready access to the vast energy resources that are so abundant in its northern neighbor. Russia’s once prolific armaments research and development industry is struggling for resurrection and eager for a ready market.

Russia’s energy-industry leaders seem eager to maximize sales to China, but Moscow’s military leaders have been extremely reluctant to resume armaments sales to their southern neighbor, suspected of illegally reverse-engineering aircraft engines and other advanced technological equipment sold previously. In fact, until last month’s rumored sale of Su-35 jet fighters to China, Russia’s last significant sale of military equipment to China had occurred in November 2007.

Whether or not Moscow has resumed significant military equipment sales to Beijing, the two nations clearly want to maintain and possibly expand their energy trade. Furthermore, the huge, thinly populated region of far eastern Russia remains a concern to Moscow and perhaps may be seen as a natural outlet for China’s huge population. Another point of concern to both nations is the Central Asian reaches previously almost entirely under Russian control but now consisting of several post-1989 nations. This area is the location of vast energy reserves and is a prize highly valued and contested by Beijing and Moscow. The former seems securely in the lead in gleaning Central Asian energy reserves, but one doubts that Putin is resigned to that event.

Following his visit to Moscow, Xi Jinping continued on to eastern Africa, visiting Tanzania, South Africa, and the Republic of the Congo. The primary purpose of Xi’s visit was to meet with the other leaders of the “BRIC” nations (Brazil, Russia, India) at a conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa. It also afforded China’s new leader the opportunity to reinforce Beijing’s longstanding policies of establishing strong economic and political relations with Africa.

Chinese companies have launched extensive economic forays into Africa during the past decade or more. The leading, most attractive resource to Beijing is the large energy reserves in Sudan, Nigeria, and other African nations. China has also made extensive investments in other mineral resources, as well as in agriculture and other industries.

Those efforts have in general been warmly welcomed by the continent, for more than one reason. First is simply the near-desperate desire by those nations to improve their economies and hence enhance political stability and their populations’ well-being. Second, Beijing typically attaches no political or social conditions to its investors’ activities in foreign lands. The concerns for human rights and other aspects of “good governance” so characteristic of U.S. and some other foreign investment proposals are absent from Chinese economic vehicles.

The past several years do not mark the first major foray that Beijing has launched into the huge, relatively underdeveloped continent. The first, in the latter part of the 20th century, was represented by large construction projects that proved to be of little permanent use to the local populace. Soccer stadiums and palaces did little to raise the economic status of indigenous populations, while the extensive use of imported Chinese labor deprived the locals of the jobs the large construction projects should have created. This lack of economic stimulus was extended when many Chinese laborers remained in their host countries to become small-scale entrepreneurs, further influencing local economies in a negative fashion.

Feelings of resentment and concern were prominently voiced by the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi. Just before Xi Jinping’s visit, Sanusi sharply criticized China’s general engagement in Africa, declaring that “China takes from us primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.” This impolitic observation drew a swift and angry response from Beijing, which denied the Nigerian’s charge, accused Western countries of being the colonialists, and credited China with supporting Africa’s economic development.

Beijing’s hands-off attitude toward noneconomic issues in the nations with which it maintains economic relations does give it advantages over the more morally conscious Western nations. The Chinese attitude also benefits its African partners, certainly in the short term. At a follow-on meeting with the BRIC countries, Xi noted that China will “continue to properly handle differences and frictions” with other nations.[ii] That comment brings to mind the frequent calls by China’s leaders for other nations to agree to “win-win” solutions to disputed issues, such as those involving sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. How “win-win” is defined—perhaps a 90 percent “win” for China and 10 percent “win” for the other party?—is not addressed by those officials, however.

The first trip by China’s new president thus encompassed the country’s top two development priorities: national defense and economic development. Initial press reports indicate significant success in renewing the major armaments relationship with Russia; economic success in Africa is perhaps being shadowed by perceived shortcomings in China’s approach. In the near-term, however, Beijing continues an investment strategy that is bringing success to its efforts and solid benefits to its economic targets in Africa.

What does this international venture mean for the United States? Xi’s emphasis on a “China Dream” is not dissimilar to the popular and similar “American Dream” vision, embracing economic and social well-being and progress for all its citizens. What is crucially different, of course, is the basic difference in views of individual rights, key to the American dream and foreign to the Chinese version. Nonetheless, Xi’s initial statements seem clearly to emphasize his focus on resolving China’s serious domestic problems, not in engaging in gratuitous foreign adventures.

Bernard D. Cole

Bernard D. Cole teaches Sino-American Relations and Maritime Strategy at the National Defense University and is a retired U.S. Navy officer.

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