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What Xi Jinping's Diplomatic Agenda Tells Us About the Emerging World Order

05/04/2013 11:11 BST | Updated 04/06/2013 10:12 BST

Business is usually thought to be a rather cold and heartless affair. There surely is a great deal of truth in this assumption, but even the basest monetary transaction cannot transcend a certain degree of "humanity." Emerging players in the global economy all have one thing in common: if not former colonies in their own right, they were, and still are to a kinder extent, considered pariah-nations with little more to offer to the world if not a tad of folkloric exoticism or their proverbial villainy. They are countries whose exploited workforce, natural resources and enforced compliance constituted the economic engine of once thriving western democracies. They are no more.

History changes fast and the former servants have now gotten better at their masters' game, questioning thus their supposedly eternal dominion. Xi Jinping's recent diplomatic trip outlines converging economic interests and shared geopolitical aversions between China and the countries its new president has decided to visit first.

To be frank, diplomacy is the ceremonial pretence behind which business deals are discussed and signed. During his Russian stopover, Xi Jinping brokered a 30 years supply contract with Gazprom, Russia's main gas supplier. Gas was not the only card on the table. Oil too was obviously part of the wrangling, with Rosneft, Russia's oil main producer, granting China an increase in exports due to reach 50 million tons by 2018. Given falling demand from its European neighbours, Russia saw fit opting for China as its new main commercial partner.

The visit and its consequent commercial deals also constitute a significant step in the diplomatic reconciliation of two nations once locked in an intra-socialist cold war dating back to Mao's rule. Once divided by diverging political visions, Russia and China seem to be reuniting under the universal church of profit. But while Russia cannot exactly be considered a "third world" country, Xi Jinping's following stop on his first diplomatic trip is definitely a place that up to these days has experienced the violent greed of colonialism on its very own soil: Africa.

Africa and China are no strangers with each other when it comes to business; Chinese businessmen having travelled the Dark Continent up and down for quite some time now. According to the Standard Bank Group, commerce between China and the African continent has doubled since 2007, reaching a $200 billion turnover. China's policy in the region has been one founded on the bartering of (African) natural resources in exchange of (Chinese) infrastructure. For the African continent this represents a welcomed diversion from centuries of savage looting at the hands of European countries (by no means concluded, see the recent French invasion of Mali, the third gold producer in the world...).

Critics have warned of the risk that the Chinese presence in the area would turn into just the same exploitative relation that has characterized the previous European one. The last of said critics, in chronological order, has been Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the head of Nigeria Central Bank. He complained about how Chinese investment in infrastructure did not directly benefit the local population who was often left out in favour of Chinese workers. While concerns about the unbalance of power between the two contracting parties are understandable, the (fresh) wounds of history play no minor role.

Obviously China is on no humanitarian mission (unlike its western counterparts...), but the vivid memories of colonialism impressed on the African psyche won't be beneficial to eager western businessmen or humanitarian armies. Though China is likely to exert growing influence on Africa as their trade relationship tightens, literal comparisons with western colonialism might be a bit precipitous. That Xi Jinping's third stop, before heading to Tanzania, was the BRICS summit in South Africa, is the only too logical extension of what his diplomatic journey delineates in geopolitical terms. The economic crisis paining Europe and the U.S. is surely one of the factors that has pushed China in new directions in its search for trade partners. Especially if thinking of the long term, China has to expand its network beyond the struggling American and European markets.

That said, and to return to the opening suggestion, the emerging economies' sentiments are not to be underestimated. In the face of ongoing, patronising BRICS-bashing campaigns by western journalists diligently plying their countries' crumbling narratives, the hopes that the emerging world order will kindly include its waning rulers are perhaps misplaced.

Even in the most cynical of all marketplaces, the global economy, human feelings (and grudges) will once again prove crucial. Crucially profitable for the long-scorned global South, which is likely to replace the North in the long term as the leading economic hemisphere. One has to hope that with the geographical shift in global power will also come a shift in policies concerned with social justice and the general wellbeing of the planet.

This article has previously appeared on China.org.cn