China: Dealing with failure
by Ramtanu Maitra on 04 Feb 2011 0 Comment

Sooner or later like all great powers, China will be compelled to protect its vast investments in many difficult and distant parts of the world when things go awry. China’s mantra is that nothing will go wrong. But evidence for that is thin.


China had similar rosy expectations of the economic and financial health of the United States and Europe. China believed it could sell unendingly to them to spur its peaceful rise. That proved grossly optimistic.


India will face identical risks. India is already being tested in Afghanistan. India has invested about $1.3 billion in infrastructure and other areas which would benefit the Afghans, both Taliban and non-Taliban, should they choose to use it. But one thing must be kept in mind. If and when the US/ NATO start winding down their fruitless adventure, Afghanistan will fall in Pakistan’s plate no matter how you slice it. It is arguable how long the post-US/ NATO Afghanistan situation will take to worsen. But India will have to make a hurried exit.


Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows this. But to prevent a damaging open discussion, he has said a review committee is looking at ways to protect Indian investments and interests in Afghanistan. Going by the record of other committees he has set up, this may also come to nothing.


But India’s troubles don’t minimize China’s vaster strategic conundrum. China is investing large sums of money all over the world, particularly in natural energy reserves to feed its insatiable growth machine. Having put the cart before the horse (mistakenly as India has done), China has become heavily dependent on daily importation of such bulk items as coal. Coal not only must be mined. It needs railroads to carry it from pithead to port. And ports require significant idle or new capacity to transfer coal from freight cars to waiting ships.


If China had built significant nuclear power capacity preceding growth with coal, material transport would have posed less of a headache. But Chinese Communist Party commissars conveyed to their bosses in the late nineteen eighties: Give us growth, or we are dead.


Beyond the difficulty of keeping this shipping-in- shipping-out-centred growth cycle going year after year, what happens when things break-down? More precisely, what happens when governments that benefitted from Chinese investments suddenly declare high-profile Chinese presence to be undesirable/ untenable for political/ social reasons?


In more than a dozen African states, for example, political parties exist along tribal lines. The largest tribe does not necessarily rule all the time. Coalition governments of smaller tribe-based political parties are common. Tribal animosities are so pervasive that those not in power are forever undermining those that are. When China provides largesse to the tribes in power, the opposition tribes label it oppressive and imperialistic. If it funds the opposition, it weakens the government and hurts its investments and interests. What could China do if things go out of hand? Land troops in Africa to crush an uprising? That will be the end of its “peaceful rise”.


Protecting far-flung investments and interests is never easy despite trillions of dollars in foreign reserves or possessing massive militaries with powerful weapons. What could China do when its technicians were killed in Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa? It could merely convey its distress to Pakistan.


The US is the only country that has investments and interests across multiple continents. America also has the most number of military bases of any great power. How this came about is important to know to determine if China can follow in US footsteps. The US was the victor in World War II. The US military at the time was known for its prowess, discipline and integrity. Secondly, during the Cold War, the success of the United States to project itself as the protector of the free world against the marauding Soviet Union sucked many countries into its orbit and alliance.


This propaganda was almost always coupled with some financial help, either directly from the US treasury or from the World Bank-IMF through US machinations. This allowed the United States to set up scores of military bases around the world. Thirdly, it must be noted that the United States was a “white” nation. It still could be identified as one, but perhaps less so. It was a “white” nation when World War II ended. The colonial powers that had to leave their happy hunting grounds at the end of that war were “white” too. As a result, the United States learnt considerably about the colonized countries from the ex-colonials. Some of those who assumed power in those former colonies were close to the colonialists.


In essence, the United States was thoroughly briefed by its colonial cousins on the political notables of the countries it planned to ally with/ assert with/ invest in. As with the case of Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, most of those notables were educated in colonial institutions. This made American expansion less arduous.


China never won a war, not counting the thumping it gave to India in 1962. China was on the wrong side during the Cold War and had no “white” colonial friends. Because of Hong Kong, China had contacts with Britain. But the racist British never considered the Chinese their equals to tutor them about empire. The best the Chinese have are Chinese traders and businessmen settled by British colonials much in the way Indians got grafted all over the world. Even in the smallest of ex-colonies, there is really no one at the top of the power-pyramid educated in China.


So how would China protect its investment, say, in Nigeria or Sudan, if things go terribly wrong? Will it sustain losses and look for oil and gas elsewhere? What happens to the monster growth machine, then? How will it be fed in the interim? Will China land troops in Nigeria or in Sudan? I do not believe it could. But before we conclude that, does it have such rapid deployment capabilities?


Assuming China does intervene in Sudan, it will torpedo its “peaceful rise” mantra. These countries, as I pointed out before, do not know the Chinese, have never interacted at the grassroots with the Chinese, and have no idea what Chinese interests are. So long things run smoothly, there’s no problem. But Murphy’s Law says “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” Despite its magnificent rise, China has no clue how to deal with failure. Ultimately, this will come to haunt China.


The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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