For the past three months, the story that received the most copy regarding China was the detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei’s skyrocketing popularity and becoming the darling of the western media as the poster child of Chinese internal dissent had western governments and human rights organizations calling for his immediate release and/or charges for the reason of his detention. This continued fascination with Chinese human rights policies and detention of homegrown detractors continues to clog up the headlines in the most reputable newspapers around the world. I am not suggesting that the attention Ai Weiwei’s detention received was not justifiable, nor deserving of the international outcry it has received the past three months. However, the real stories regarding China and the impact their strategic moves of late will have on over a billion people, and not just one activist, are being passed over without a thought by op-ed and senior foreign correspondents leaving a general audience without knowledge of the strategic gains China has racked up over the three month Ai Weiwei saga.
I must confess I have always believed the most important stories are those five to ten line blurbs that most readers casually glance over without understanding the considerable impact those stories may have in the not so distant future. China has aggressively pursued alliances within the region and made moves that could only make the greatest of global hegemonic powers proud. In fact, one almost would wonder if Chinese leaders actually calculated the amount of focus the Ai Weiwei detention would receive, creating a nice diversion to a series of regional strategic moves they were beginning to embark upon, and to some within international security circles, very provocative to say the least.
Here are a few in case you missed them:
China assisting DPRK utilizing it’s own model of growth
The first story should come as no surprise given the relationship between China and North Korea. However, this feel good story of China actually helping their troubled neighbor to the south open a series of economic processing zones (EPZ’s) with the intention of assisting the DPRK with loosening market restraints, and giving citizens access to viable employment in a variety of sectors. Additionally, this may also be part of a “carrot and stick” approach to the DPRK, as well as providing the DPRK with economic growth and possible ways in which an authoritarian regime can relax market constraints without jeopardizing the status quo enjoyed by ruling elites.
China for the past two decades has grown through the use of EPZ’s established by western corporations via subcontractors generally from Taiwan who had a clear understanding of how local politics in China worked, and the ins and outs regarding environmental protections and a lack of workers rights. Regardless of the old argument regarding working conditions and the environmental degradation in the countryside where these zones were established, China would not be the world’s second largest economy without EPZ’s. It is ironic that the Chinese would seek to solve some of the DPRK’s economic and employment problems through such measures. However, the same model was used by both the US and Japan in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore with great success. Who better than China to understand what steps an authoritarian regime must take in order to loosen the economic stranglehold and growth on the economy at home? On the other hand, China must also be responsible not to allow that growth to lead to an expansion over the DPRK’s controversial nuclear program, rather than the tradition laissez faire approach. I would only hope that such measures are structured into the agreement, but like most agreements involving China, one can only speculate given the lack of transparency the Chinese authority prefers to conduct international affairs.
Old problems continue to surface
Over the past week alone, tensions in the South China Sea continue to escalate between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines. For those of you unfamiliar with the South China Sea, it contains some of the highest oil, mineral and natural gas reserves, not to mention a robust fishing area for regional nations as well. Despite decades of third party intervention, working groups hosted by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the rights to these reserves continue to be a matter of debate regarding whose sovereign claims over areas such as the Spratly and Parcel islands are legitimate. Recently the Vietnamese government made a plea for third party intervention due to China’s continued muscle flexing. In an interesting move, the Chinese government issued a warning to the US to stay out of it’s “internal matters”, which according to one DoD official was “surprising given we have not really thrown our weight behind Vietnam with regard to the Spratly Islands, and have long held the stance that regional parties should sort out maritime matters on their own, through regional bodies such as ASEAN or the UN.” However, the stance takes an about face when a much closer ally comes under threat like the Philippines.
The South China Sea maritime issues are nothing new, however the level of escalation between the regional states was a matter of surprise. The fact that China now finds itself in maritime disputes with all of her neighbors at one time displays the confidence that China has in its regional prowess, if not regional hegemonic aspirations. China knows that without third party intervention, there is not one nation state, with the exception of possibly Japan, that has the ability to stand up to China economically or militarily. It will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out for Vietnam and the Philippines, as it may serve notice for what is about to come in the future as China seeks to secure more assets necessary for long-term sustainable growth.
Firmly establishing South Asian footprint, and forcing India’s hand
For decades China has in many ways been a silent player when it comes to security, development and economics in South Asia. Many have little idea that China is actually a player in the Kashmir dispute. Of course, remaining innocuous regarding highly contentious issues is China’s specialty, and when it comes to issues in South Asia; China mastered navigating the minefield of India, Pakistan and Kashmir. However, recent agreements between China and Pakistan, as well as other provocative what ifs raised in international media with regards to Pakistan’s invitation to China to establish naval bases on it’s Indian Ocean coast have thrust this once silent member front and center.
This outreach comes on the heels of some landmark agreements between the Sino-Pak relationship. First, China agreed to provide 50 fighter jets to Pakistan following the killing of Osama bin Laden in a move that showed China was all to eager to fill the void the US would leave given the strains between to the two “strategic” partners. In addition to providing the fighter jets, Pakistan would allow China port access for oil exports via a pipeline from Iran, as well as the possibility of establishing naval bases in order to serve as protection for the increase of traffic of Chinese oil freighters and naval ships. Next, was the establishment of a civilian nuclear agreement between China and Pakistan that has everyone guessing the contents to the framework of the agreement, despite both sides expressing that we take the two parties at their word that this involves to civilian reactors, and that’s it. In addition to the two nuclear reactors, a $15 billion dollar proposal is close to agreement to dam the Jhelum River, a river that is a deep source of contention between India and Pakistan with regards to water rights, as well as hydroelectric energy generation for the sub-continent. The one positive may be that India and Pakistan will now hold legitimate peace talks seeking solutions to their 70 year old disputes, rather that just the occasional photo-op of a meeting.
No more noise please
So as we take a look back at the past couple of months and realize the level of activity China has taken in Northeast, Southeast and South Asia, it should come as no surprise that those in the economic and security realms find it surprising the most attention being paid by the media was on Ai Weiwei. Of course, the portly charismatic artist does make for good copy, especially the way in which he flaunts his spotlight to bring a clearer picture to the outside world with regards to China’s continued policy of silencing any and all internal dissent. For this I am happy of his release and must shout a “Hip Hip Hooray for Ai Weiwei!”