The trials of a reluctant superpower

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In 1793 the Emperor Qianlong airily dismissed the emissary of King George III on the grounds that China was the self-sufficient centre of the world and had no conceivable need of imports. Modern China should be so lucky. As well as foreign technology, Beijing now requires foreign oil, foreign copper, foreign iron ore and heaps of other foreign commodities to sustain its “Made in China” transformation.

That is why Chinese companies and Chinese workers find themselves in distant foreign lands that the Qing dynasty emperor would have considered beneath his contempt. It is why, for example, 25,000 Chinese are in Sudan and South Sudan, the latter a recently created country that is China’s seventh most important oil supplier.

Such faraway involvement comes at a price, one occasionally paid in blood. Last weekend 29 road construction workers were kidnapped by rebels in the border region of Sudan. One person is missing, possibly killed. In a separate incident, 25 Chinese construction workers in the Sinai region of Egypt were released yesterday after being held hostage by assailants. These are not rarities. In October, 13 Chinese sailors were killed on the Mekong river in Thailand.

Protecting one’s citizens abroad is tough for any nation. But it may be harder for China, a reluctant superpower that wants to maintain the illusion of having a low international profile. That desire is butting up against reality as China’s commercial needs suck it into a troubled world. The truth came home to many last year when Beijing scrambled to evacuate no fewer than 35,000 Chinese workers from Libya, another oil exporter with unfortunate politics.

At least Libya is still one country. In Sudan, Beijing has been pulled into a nasty tussle between Khartoum and Juba, capital of South Sudan, over the sharing of oil revenues. Most Sudanese oil is in the south, but needs to be piped through the north. Beijing has remained loyal to Khartoum even though its government is headed by Omar al-Bashir, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity. The roads Chinese workers are helping to build near the border have allegedly been used by Sudanese troops in their campaigns against rebels. Neutrality comes in many flavours.

Japan, Asia’s first modern power, had similar problems. Like Chinese nationals, the Japanese were seen as a soft touch for eliciting ransom money. Like Beijing, Tokyo tried to play the non-interventionist card, most notably in 1973 when it broke with the US and swore undying friendship to Arab nations. They obliged by turning the oil spigots back on. Rather inventively, Tokyo called its combination of economic expansion and political neutrality “omnidirectional diplomacy”.

China too has a push-me pull-you diplomacy. It has about 850,000 workers abroad, with hundreds of thousands in potentially volatile corners of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Rachel Shoemaker, a risk forecaster at Exclusive Analysis, says Beijing has worried for years about the exposure of its workers in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. It has quietly encouraged the establishment of “private” security firms, often set up by former People’s Liberation Army officials and staffed with “retired” members of China’s security forces. Some such operatives may have been sent to Sudan to help in the rescue effort, according to some reports.

At home, Beijing made a show of calling in Sudan’s chargé d’affaires for a dressing down. Xie Hangsheng, vice foreign minister, professed to being “deeply shocked” at the turn of events. (What, Sudan dangerous?) To some Chinese it looks as if the great Chinese nation is being given the runaround by a ragtag army. One contributor to Weibo, a micro-blogging site, recalled past Chinese humiliations, saying they were the result of weakness. “Now we have an aircraft carrier, fourth-generation war planes and the second-highest gross domestic product,” he said. “Do we still have to tolerate this?”

That is a dilemma for a country keen not to over-reach. Some naval officials have suggested China will need foreign bases if it is to protect its interests. Ms Shoemaker says that would go against the official ideology since 1949, which maintains that only a colonial power needs a foreign military presence. She thinks a younger generation of Chinese leaders may one day have less trouble squaring the circle.

Even in Africa, where some leaders have embraced China as a no-nonsense alternative to meddling former colonial powers, Beijing gets a mixed reception. In Addis Ababa this week the African Union unveiled its new headquarters, a $200m apparition conjured up by Beijing in miraculous time. To at least some delegates it looked more like a symbol of Chinese power than benevolence.

Jia Qinglin, a politburo member, tried to reinforce China’s non-interventionist message to the gathered African leaders. “We maintain that all countries, big or small, are equal and we are opposed to the big, strong and rich bullying the small, weak and poor,” he said. The one category of nation he didn’t mention was the big, strong yet still poor. That is China. It is arguably the first of its kind in history.

david.pilling@ft.com

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