HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The 800-pound Gorilla

Note: This is the first of two upcoming posts that will reveal my inner international-relations nerdiness. They will probably not be of interest to everybody.

These days, it seems that a majority of international news stories have some connection to China. The Middle Kingdom’s influence now reaches across the globe, although in a much different way than the U.S.’s, the dominant power of the last half century. Whereas America likes to back up its financial assistance and cultural goodwill with the most powerful military the world has ever seen, China prefers, for the most part, to just let money do the talking. Whether they are building refineries in Angola, pipelines in Uzbekistan, or ports in Pakistan, China is an increasingly powerful force, most notably in the developing world.

There is growing consternation in the West over this reality, since China usually turns a blind eye to human-rights abuses or restrictions of freedom in the countries they do business with. While the EU and the U.S. try to force autocrats in Africa and Asia out of power, Chinese experts are flying in to lend their technical know-how to major projects that may only benefit the elite. This tug-of-war is likely to continue well into the future.

This is just one example of the many ways that China is rewriting the rulebooks when it comes to international economics, foreign policy, and the environment. Pretty amazing when you consider that, a century ago, China was a backward nation largely controlled by a few Western powers; before it was humiliated by Japan during World War II.

Thanks to the astonishing economic growth China has experienced in the last three decades, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, and the country has recovered from the devastating impacts of World War II, the Great Leap Forward, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Massive cities have arisen where backwaters once sat. The extent of this economic tear’s influence is difficult to even comprehend. Everyone knows about showcase cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but there are numerous cities within China, such as Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Tianjin, without which the global economy would come to a sudden halt, despite the fact that few people have heard of them. Another example: Did you know there is a city called Chongqing that is home to roughly 30 million people, as well as a concentration of skyscrapers that would make Manhattan jealous? And here's an interesting statistic: China is building the floor-space equivalent to two New York Cities each year.
While this flood of money, electronics, cars, and new buildings has obviously been a boon to the Chinese people, major problems remain. Much of the growth has been restricted to the country’s eastern seaboard, where most of the major cities are located. The vast interior is still largely undeveloped, and quite poor. The environmental cost of China’s rise has been simply devastating: cities constantly shrouded in dense smog; once-beautiful rivers befouled by wastewater and industrial runoff; massive deforestation; and enormous disruptions to nature’s ancient flow, something that is most visible in the Three Gorges Dam project. This environmental destruction doesn’t just impact China, either. Smog and dirt clouds that form within the country can spread all the way to California, and the carbon emitted by the country’s huge number of coal-burning power plants are certainly not helping to prevent climate change.

Despite these problems, it is abundantly clear that, moving forward, China will be a major player on the international scene. It is already flexing its muscles in its region; something that has become increasingly noticeable in Vietnam. Tensions have flared recently over the East Sea, which is called the South China Sea by most countries. Home to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and, it is speculated, massive natural gas and oil reserves, this body of water seems set to become the 21st century’s Persian Gulf. Five countries – Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and China – lay claim to parts of the East Sea. According to international law, the first 200 miles of sea extending from a country’s coastline belong to that country. It is free to explore it and exploit any natural resources that are found. The current problems extend from this stipulation.

There are two groups of rocky, windswept, and storm-battered islands located in the East Sea: the Spratleys, and the Paracels. Vietnam claims stretches of these groups as their own, but so does China. In fact, China has decided that almost the entire area belongs to them, much to the chagrin of its much weaker neighbors. The recent spat, however, has mostly been between Vietnam and China. These islands sit in the middle of the East Sea and, if one country is officially in control of them, they will have access to the 200 mile radius surrounding them. This could lead to a potential economic goldmine; one that neither country wants to cede to the other. While tempers have cooled somewhat in the past couple of weeks, they were boiling last month.
China's claim looks like a giant tongue sticking out at the other countries in the area.
On May 30, a Vietnamese ship was surveying the seafloor within Vietnam’s recognized exclusive economic zone, when three Chinese ships began to harass it. Ultimately, they cut the ship’s cable, rendering it unable to complete its job. The Vietnamese government was outraged, and responded with live-fire naval exercises off the northern coast of the country. The people of Vietnam also took exception, and anti-China demonstrations were staged in both Hanoi and Saigon. The two countries don’t have the most cordial past, especially since a border war was fought in 1979, so the Vietnamese had no reservations about voicing their feelings.

This did not go down well with China, and there was concern over what would happen next. One Vietnamese friend of mine actually asked me what I thought would happen if the countries went to war. Such a question startled me but, luckily, there is little chance of that happening. Both countries have too much to lose from war to risk such an escalation, and Vietnam would get crushed, anyway. As of right now, the governments of China and Vietnam appear to have ‘made nice’, but there has been no resolution to the issue that sparked the actions in the first place.

Countries like Japan and South Korea, who receive most of their oil shipments from tankers plying the East Sea, certainly do not want to see conflict erupt in the region. The U.S., as well, has made it clear that it wants to see a peaceful solution to the problem. In fact, the American military has taken advantage of the suspicion with which China’s neighbors view many of its actions by tightening ties with regional militaries, in an attempt to balance China’s reach. Weirdly, considering what happened here 40 years ago, the most rapidly-developing relationship is that between Vietnam and the U.S. One of the Navy’s aircraft carriers actually visited Da Nang last year.

Perhaps the biggest question looming over the rest of this century is this: what will happen when China’s growing power and influence begins to run into the U.S.’s power and influence, both more frequently and more sharply? Since the end of the Cold War, America has had practically free reign to do what it pleases with its military equipment. Need to launch a cruise missile at a factory in Sudan? No problem. Want to fly stealth bombers half-way around the world to bomb Iraq? Go ahead. However, as China completes deep-water port projects in countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and rolls out major military machines such as aircraft carriers and stealth fighter jets, America’s reach will likely become restricted.

How will the people, not to mention the government, of the U.S. handle that? We’ve been on top of the world for a long time, and most people seem reluctant to allow that to change. There is a sizeable global consensus on the fact that China’s economy will overtake America’s as the world’s largest in a couple of decades. (Although it will be much longer before they can match the U.S.’s per capita economic numbers.) The last round of elections included a number of ads criticizing China, a trend that will surely become more pronounced in the coming years. In 40 years, will China’s disputes with its small neighbors be mirrored on a larger scale, with more powerful countries? The answer to that question will be a major determiner in how this century turns out. Stay tuned, because China is coming.

1 comment:

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