THE BLOG

The End of China's 'Peaceful Rise' Doctrine?

03/11/2014 14:38 GMT | Updated 02/01/2015 10:59 GMT

The new Chinese leadership has, over the last 18 months, shown itself to be very different from that of successive Post-1980 reformist administrations. The 'market reform' rhetoric is still there. The assertions about Communist Party supremacy and dislike of Western democratic values, are still there. So is the appeal to Eastern Asian countries to 'solve problems together with China' without 'third party' (ie US) interference. But there are more than just a few hints that Chinese foreign & domestic policy has entered a second Post-Mao phase.

Generally, within China, gone are the ideological debates about future political & economic direction; for example the competing movements, model futures or intellectual clusters that became common among the elites under Hu Jintao. Also gone is the cautious collegiate approach to decision-making and balances of power. Xi Jinping has moved swiftly to consolidate power both on military and security committees, and civilian institutions. Part of this is justified by an emphasis on 'clean hands' and anti-corruption measures, but the current enthusiasm for chasing after corrupt officials has been no less 'politically selective' than under Hu Jintao. The central justification however is the need for more radical economic reforms and tough centralised decision-making.

Increased military assertiveness in the South China Seas under Xi Jinping has been accompanied by highly focused military development, especially naval technology, even at risk of precipitating new unlikely military alliances like India-Vietnam-Philippines. But further afield ?

Chinese investment and political relations in Africa have almost precipitated a new 'US vs. China' analysis industry. International attention has focused on Angola, Nigeria, DRC and South Africa. The effect has been to prod China into being more careful about international image. However a key locus of Chinese investment in the Xi Jingping era, the fractious Eastern and Horn of Africa, has been much less in the limelight, and to an extent a better litmus test for China's new approach.

China has for decades had growing investments in Sudan. After South Sudan separated, China struggled to maintain control over its Southern Sudanese assets. Perhaps stung by China's treatment in the Libyan revolution, over the last year China has shed its shyness about being involved in South Sudanese politics, and became involved in calming warring factions (albeit away from media attention). Pipeline investment to Port Sudan (and new routes) has provided glimpses of an emerging Chinese 'Eastern and Horn' regional political effort.

For example, effort has been made under Xi Jinping to deepen relations with Ethiopia. Its main operations have been in the restive, ethnically Somali Ogaden desert region of Ethiopia; rich in large-scale oil and gas deposits. In contrast to the Chinese approach after the 2007 Abole oil field raid by Somali Ogaden rebels in which Chinese workers were killed, Chinese state companies in 2014 signed an initial agreement for Ogaden to Djibouti pipelines, despite major political and security risks. Chinese state investors have also moved to agree hydrocarbon processing investments in the new Tadjoura port area of Djibouti, potentially also served by a pipeline from South Sudan: an insurance policy adding to China's negotiating strength in relation to the Port Sudan pipeline. In line with this approach, a pipeline to Berbera in Somaliland has also been under discussion with Chinese state firms.

This new Chines regional approach appears to be a more coordinated Chinese strategy than Western diplomats are used to. One of the limitations to Chinese foreign policy in support of its Africa resource supply policy has been the difficulty in controlling the large number and fragmentation of Chinese companies involved. Chinese reputations (and project sustainability) have been damaged by quick-buck trading companies, the use of (and poor treatment of) Chinese imported labour, and the practice of 'dual business cards' ... where state enterprise officials also work for private trading firms with scope for the 'state ownership of costs but the private ownership of profits'.

The East and Horn of Africa area may be the start of Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign extending to Africa investments. Indeed, in order to implement a regional investment strategy, it may be wholly necessary to address such sources of political and financial unsustainability.

The effect of Xi Jinping's military roles may be emerging in East and Horn of Africa too. The Chinese have had considerable success in the development of military relations with Ethiopia and Djibouti.

In early 2014 General Chang Wanquan signed a security and defence strategic partnership agreement with Djibouti. Chang Wanquan is a state councillor and Minister of National Defence and the sole general in the new cabinet headed by Xi Xingping's Premier, Li Keqiang. He is also the man responsible for China's assertive new stance in the South China Sea.

This agreement with China was signed under the noses of the US military in Djibouti. Djibouti hosts the only major US base in Africa. The multi-agency Camp Lemonnier houses more than 4000 US military personnel and a key base for US armed drone attacks across the entire region. American National Security Advisor Susan Rice is reported to have protested to Djibouti's President Guelleh.

To no avail ? In another sign of Xi Jinping's new coordinated approach, there has been much afoot in Djibouti's ports. Djibouti's main source of income is its port complexes. State-controlled China Merchants Holdings International purchased a large stake in the main Djibouti Port last year. In Mid 2014 it was reported that Chinese state firms would take over current port concessions, and that government-controlled China State Construction Engineering Corporation Ltd would be awarded a $400m contract to further develop the container port.

Commercial-military relationships in China foreign policy have important implications. Djibouti's ports were originally developed by the French, due to Djibouti's position at the narrow (16km) Straights of Mandeb, through which a quarter of Europe's maritime oil passes, on its way to the Suez Canal. The scope for future Chinese 'smart leverage' is clear, as may be the weakness in the USA's 'military first' foreign policy approach in the region.

China's new military-commercial 'Xi Jinping approach' may be apparent elsewhere in the neighbourhood. Chinese state agents and representatives have been developing security and commercial relationships with a view to future participation in exploration of assumed vast oil and gas reserves in South/Central Somalia, via Mogadishu... and in Nairobi, Kenya, where much of the 'aid & governance activity' of South/Central Somalia takes place. Kenyan newspapers recently reported attempts by Chinese officials to influence Kenyan security institutions, reportedly denied. Three weeks ago the new Chinese Embassy opened in Mogadishu.

Chinese investment in Ethiopia in 2014 is expected to exceed $1bn with much infrastructure work on roads, bridges and the capital's airport. Trade between the countries this year is expected to total $1.5bn. Against this background, China-Ethiopia military relations have developed, with Chen Bingde taking a personal interest and spending much time in Addis, notwithstanding close Ethiopia-US security relations. Chen Bingde is the commanding general of People's Liberation Army General Staff Department in Beijing, (equivalent to Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff) and overall commander of Chinese ground forces, globally. No doubt, the security of pipeline deals in on their agenda.

Whilst the jury may still be out on whether China's relations in Eastern and Horn of Africa mean that 'Peaceful Rise' is dead, the evidence is mounting from this region that Xi Jinping's dual civilian-military approach is a reality, and that the days of fragmented and disconnected Chinese foreign and commercial policy in Africa and elsewhere are over. The post-Mao phase of domestic economic development and foreign policy shyness now seems over. A new phase appears to have arrived.

Has Western foreign policy noticed ?