By Joyce Barnathan
For the past two decades, China has been flexing its economic muscles as it builds itself into a global powerhouse. Yet when it comes to politics, Beijing often has taken a back seat, letting the U.S. and other powers carry the day. That's about to change.
Again, it all boils down to economics. The new leadership, as did the old, needs strong growth to justify its existence. Job creation and continued prosperity aren't just desirables, they're essentials. Without them, the authorities risk a popular backlash. With the economy in overdrive, Chinese businesses need to secure the raw materials essential to fuel the country's go-go development. That has forced Beijing to look far beyond its borders for needed supplies. It also means China is likely to exercise more clout on the global scene as it seeks to protect its far-flung expansion.
Latin America and Africa are two areas of opportunity for the Chinese, and the new web of interests coincides with a diminished U.S. presence in these regions. Seeking oil, China has successfully cozied up to Venezuela. (During a December visit to China, President Hugo Chávez unveiled a statue of Simon Bolívar and even ventured some historical revisionism by calling his country's conservative founder a kindred spirit of Marxist revolutionary Mao Zedong.)
Eager for access to raw materials, Chinese President Hu Jintao toured Argentina, Brazil, and Chile last November. He signed agreements worth some $30 billion, including big-time investments in infrastructure, which, of course, will help transport those materials out of the country.
China is just as active in Africa. According to South Africa's Business Day, two-way trade between China and Africa hit about $29.5 billion last year, a 59% increase over 2003. In Nigeria, where there's oil aplenty, the Chinese are building roads and railways. Across the continent, the Chinese are buying timber companies, exploring for gas, and buying up mines.
The alliances can sometimes be unsavory: Beijing is investing heavily in Sudan's oil sector, despite the barbaric attacks by pro-government militia against civilians. Chinese laborers "work under the vigilant gaze of Sudanese government troops armed largely with Chinese-made weapons -- a partnership of the world's fastest growing oil consumer with a pariah state accused of fostering genocide in its western Darfur region," reports The Washington Post. Strongman Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is another of Beijing's favorites.
Chinese citizens also seem in tune with the new national direction. Given long-standing resentment over brutal oppression by the Japanese during World War II, ordinary Chinese are launching a campaign to keep Tokyo from joining a revamped U.N. Security Council. The government is covering the event in official newspapers, a hint that the authorities may veto the proposal to give Japan a permanent seat.
Add it all up, and a much more assertive China seems to be in the making, one that's already subtly changing the tenor of geopolitics. In the past, China has felt most comfortable in the shadows, abstaining on U.N. votes, hiding backstage during controversial world events.
Now, in perhaps an early sign of coming tensions with Washington, U.S. efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on Sudan were met with a veto threat by China. In the future, you can expect Beijing to take sides -- and you can safely assume that its interests won't necessarily dovetail with the U.S. agenda. Indeed, it may turn out to be a major rival.
It's only natural that a rising superpower would want to protect its interests. While China's new stirrings overseas are mostly grounded in economics rather than politics, it's likely they will lead to a more muscular stance if its commercial pipelines are jeopardized.
The battle lines have yet to be drawn, but brace yourself as the world awakens to what it means when Beijing asserts itself as political heavyweight.
Barnathan is an assistant managing editor for BusinessWeek in New York
Edited by Frank Comes