By Ivan Eland
One day recently, the New York Times, following Donald Trump’s lead, ran two articles that demonized China—although the elite newspaper did so much more subtly than the crudities of “the Donald.” One article talked about how China, through its trade with and investment in Iran, had allowed Iran to survive Western economic sanctions and now had the advantage over Western companies now that most such measures had been lifted. The article stated that China, to fuel its rapid economic growth, was thirsty for the cheaper oil from Iran (discounted to sell during the sanctions regime) and is also interested in a “silk road” strategy to extend its economic influence westward. The other article reported that the economies of poor African countries, whose exports of raw materials to the growing Chinese economy had allowed them to begin to grow out of poverty, were now crashing because of China’s slowing growth. As usual, both of the Times’ articles had a subtle odor unfavorable to China.
In U.S. foreign policy, the luxury of being probably the most intrinsically secure great power in human history—with large ocean moats, nuclear weapons, weak and friendly neighbors that make the probability of an attack from another great power extremely rare—has allowed the U.S. government and its citizens to be rather sanctimonious in telling other countries that they should improve themselves. In China’s case, the United States has repeatedly and publicly told China that it needs to improve its human rights record and has regarded China’s “economic penetration” of the developing world with suspicion. U.S. government broaching of the uncomfortable subject of the circumstances of dissidents with authoritarian regimes, such as China, is fine as long it is done behind closed doors. As Jimmy Carter found out during his presidency, publicly scolding such countries about human rights usually leads to a backlash that only harms the dissidents.
Both of the New York Times articles, as with many other U.S. media outlets, subtly demonize all China’s economic activities in the third world. They do so with few other countries, but do so with China because they are already gearing up for China to be the next rival superpower. Thus, all of China’s activities, including overseas trade and investment, must be regarded as trying to garner pernicious “influence” in the developing world. However, “economic penetration” (note the scary language), unlike military penetration is not a zero sum game. Economic transactions are mutually beneficial at both ends of the transaction. Thus, Chinese economic activities, even by state-owned enterprises, are much less scary than Soviet military stoking of armed communist rebellions in the developing world during the Cold War, which didn’t help the developing country or the United States.
In the aforementioned article on the economic penetration of Iran, the Chinese economic lifeline to Iran during the period of economic sanctions probably merely indicates that sanctions are being given too much credit for Iran’s agreement to limit its nuclear weapons. Economic sanctions, even multilateral ones, are often easy to evade, and there are elevated profits to be made in doing so. As for the economies of developing countries sagging because of China’s slowing growth, China undoubtedly would like to rectify this situation. And China should hardly be blamed for raising the standard of living in such countries in the first place by importing their raw materials. When China’s economy comes out of its slump (if you can call a remaining growth rate of more than five percent a slump), the economies of these developing countries also likely will rebound.
But what of China’s grabbing oil in the developing world? Doesn’t that harm the United States and its oil consumers by raising prices. In a study, the U.S. Energy Department said no, declaring that such Chinese activities were neutral to the U.S. petroleum market. In fact, because a worldwide market for oil exists, if anything, Chinese state-owned oil companies exploring for oil in the developing world—many times in places where private Western companies don’t find it profitable to do so—brings more oil onto the world market and may be a de facto subsidy for U.S. and other consumers of oil.
And what about China’s territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas at the expense of Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries in those regions? Although related to oil and natural resources on the seabed, these disputes are mainly nationalistic. One would never know it from American media reports, but other countries besides China have also reclaimed land on remote islands there to support their nationalist claims. Instead, of inserting itself further into this petty regional squabbling by deliberately sending U.S. warships into the contested areas, the United States should stay out of such faraway bickering that doesn’t affect America’s vital interests. U.S. meddling in such purely regional quarrels, however, could lead to an unnecessary and inadvertent nuclear confrontation with China.
Demonizing China, however subtly, by the U.S. media and government could lead to an unnecessary Cold War with that nation. For a long time, China prioritized economic growth over military power, but its military is now predictably growing as it gets richer–however, the powerful U.S. military is still light years ahead of its Chinese counterpart. In addition, a vast ocean separates China and the United States; the British took advantage of a similar oceanic security buffer in the nineteenth century to allow the United States, then a rival, to peacefully rise as a great power. The United States has the luxury of doing the same with China.
This article appeared at Huffington Post and reprinted with permission.