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John Rapley: The China challenge

Published:Monday | May 4, 2015 | 5:00 AM

During his recent stopover in Jamaica, United States President Barack Obama shared his concerns about China's growing assertiveness. While Washington is particularly concerned with China's activities in the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, the Asian behemoth's growing footprint is evident even in our own backyard.

Should we be concerned about China's increasing presence? Yes. But will China's rising power pose a strategic threat to us anytime soon? Probably not.

It would be foolish to assume China's actions in the Caribbean are not primarily motivated by a desire to advance its own interests. As the Chinese economy continues its relentless ascent, its overseas entanglements - its markets and resource supplies - will only multiply. So it's to be expected that the country will be looking to defend its needs diplomatically, and in extreme cases, with force.

Hard power will be the exception, since China has been able to exercise a good deal of leverage through its foreign-aid programme. As Western governments cut their budgets, gaps in aid provision are opening up, which an increasingly flush Beijing has been only too happy to plug. And one concern expressed by many observers of China's aid strategy is that it shows scant regard for democracy and human rights. Provided it can gain good access, Beijing seems happy to cooperate with anyone, including some unsavoury regimes.

 

historical context

 

Nevertheless, it's important to put China's growing confidence into historical context. China's return to the world stage, which began in earnest in the 1980s, followed a century of relative decline and introversion by the Middle Kingdom. During that time, it largely ceded the seas off its coast to first the Japanese, then the Americans, as it fought its internal battles. But once the economic reforms begun in the 1980s took hold and the economy took off, it became inevitable that China would one day restore its historic position as the world's largest economy.

Inevitably, this would require China to build the military capacity to defend its interests. Beijing's military spending has boomed as it develops its ability to operate overseas and makes the transition from being a land-based, labour-intensive, but rudimentary fighting force to having a technological capacity that puts it on par with its rivals.

Nevertheless, when one looks at the share of its economy China devotes to military spending, it is only restoring itself to its historic position. Equally, its growing assertiveness in its own neighbourhood, if concerning at times, only reflects what would be considered the legitimate interests of any state. That's not to say its regional rivals, like India, Taiwan or Vietnam, don't have a lot to worry about. It is to say that they probably have no more to worry about than China does with regard to the US Pacific Fleet or Japan's increasingly assertive government.

 

China's aid policy

 

As for China's aid policy, there may be more than naked self-interest in the country's refusal to chide dodgy partners. There is a tradition in China's aid programme of striving to work as equals rather than patrons, and thus avoiding using aid to impose a particular agenda. Besides, the truth is that the respect Western governments actually pay to human rights and democracy in the way they dole out aid has often been more symbolic than actual. As with its military strategy, China's use of aid and diplomacy is doing no more than promoting the country's interests abroad. That may not be especially noble. Nor is it so sinister.

As far as we're concerned in the Caribbean, China neither can nor wants to replace the United States as the region's dominant power. A more pluralistic aid and diplomatic environment may be one that we can play to our advantage. But doing so successfully will depend on clear-eyed and realistic assessment of the threats and opportunities, and not attachment to one or other ideological position. The truth is that when it comes to foreign policy, none of the players are looking to do more than advance their well-being. So should we.