Editor’s Note: Every week, Wikistrat’s Facebook followers engage in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A drill with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts via Facebook. Last week we featured Wikistrat’s Senior Analyst Mr. Andrew Small.
Q: Drew Wagstaff – Mr. Small: How does Islamic terrorism affect Sino-Pakistan relations? It seems that Pakistan’s inability/unwillingness to deal with the problem would hurt relations, but does this manifest itself in a particular way?
A: China has been broadly tolerant of Pakistan’s approach to Islamic terrorism as long as it deals with the direct threats it poses to Chinese interests. These threats largely emanate from ETIM / TIP, but in Pakistan itself Chinese interests are also threatened by groups that target the Pakistani state, such as Baluchi nationalists or the TTP, which have attacked Chinese citizens. Groups that leave China alone haven’t been a matter of concern, though Beijing has more recently come to see Islamist sympathies in the Pakistani military as a long-term worry.
There have been points of tension between China and Pakistan when Beijing has felt that the government has not been dealing adequately with threats to Chinese workers or acting sufficiently forcefully against ETIM / TIP. On the former count, Pakistan has done a great deal to tighten up security and Beijing is in little doubt about the sincerity of its efforts. On the latter count, there is still a residual suspicion that elements within Pakistan’s security forces have an affinity to these groups, and are willing, for instance, to provide them with warnings ahead of attacks and possibly even direct support. Pakistan’s attentiveness to Chinese concerns is still far, far more solicitous than with U.S. concerns though, and it is more of a periodic irritant than a real source of damage to relations.
Q: Lukas Hoder – Are US-Pakistan and China-Pakistan relations comparable? In their dynamics/issues/framework/conflicts… Is there any good article on that issue?
A: Dan Markey of CFR has a new book coming out that explores Pakistan’s relationships partly in a comparative context, which I expect will be good. Bruce Riedel had an interesting Brookings piece looking at the two together – and the scope for US-China cooperation – but was in my view a little too optimistic about the degree to which interests are converging. If you put a list of concerns together side by side they can look comparable – both countries care about Pakistan’s stability, both would like Pakistan to do more do deal with respective terrorist threats, both care about the stability of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and so on, but the relative weights attached to them, and respective levels of trust, differ markedly. The long-shared quasi-alliance between China and Pakistan, forged by a shared antagonism towards India and cooperation on issues as sensitive as nuclear and ballistic missile technology, means that there is a foundation of trust there that US-Pakistan relations cannot expect to replicate. The spectrum of support for China in Pakistan extends across political parties and the public, and only really excludes those with whom the Pakistani state is itself at war. When China has concerns in its bilateral relationship, it can reasonably expect to have them addressed. It’s also a little more sanguine, and certainly more polite, about “stability” worries. Ultimately, to paraphrase one Chinese expert “If a nuke did get loose, let’s face it – we wouldn’t be the first target, would we?”
Q: Gary Johnson – Does President Karzai’s presence at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization this summer indicate that China is signaling its willingness to develop a security presence in a post-2014 Afghanistan to secure its investments in the mining sector?
A: The short answer is “no”. China is still very cautious about establishing any sort of security presence in Afghanistan. It has been hesitant about building one anywhere in the world, beyond relatively small numbers of PLA operating as “private contractors” and its very modest peacekeeping activities, all non-combat. Afghanistan is one of the places where it sees the greatest risk that any visible security profile will attract opposition, not just in Afghanistan itself but elsewhere in the Islamic world. It may well increase its security support to the Afghan government, albeit discreetly, and it’s the government that provides the special protection force deployed at the largest Chinese investment, the Aynak copper mine. However, China tends to see the best way of securing its investments as maintaining good relations with key local – and international actors – as much as the government in Kabul. That means working through Pakistan, and drawing on its influence over the Haqqanis, when dealing with Logar province (where Aynak is located) – there have been no large-scale attacks on the facility there, only relatively minor ones, most likely launched by the disaffected population around the mine. There was a bit of a hiccup recently with General Dostum, over China’s oil investments in Sar-e-Pul and Faryab, but these companies generally do a decent job at working out who they need to pay off. Security problems for some of China’s investments will doubtless persist, especially at Aynak, where there are still unresolved land claims, but it’s highly unlikely that China will see putting its own people in as the best solution.
Q: Miguel Nunes Silva – Thank you Mr. Small for taking on this challenge. I’d like to ask you about the role of the military in the new Chinese leadership. Are they expected to have more or less influence in Xi Jinping’s and Li Keqiang’s foreign policy making and why?
Q: Richard Purcell – The New York Times recently ran a story discussing the growing clout of China’s military within its government. To what extent should this trend be viewed with concern by U.S. policymakers, and what impact is it likely to have on Chinese foreign policy?
A: There is a running debate over whether Xi Jinping’s military affiliations and Party blue-bloodedness will give the military more influence or will rather give Xi the natural authority over them that Hu Jintao lacked. Xi has kept his cards so close to his chest that discerning any “new thinking” about any shifts to formal decision-making structures over foreign policy is essentially impossible, but it seems reasonable to expect that a more powerful Chinese military will continue to carry more weight as its capabilities expand. Whether “growing clout” should be a matter of worry to the United States though depends on the answers to several other questions. Is the fact that the military can continually demand and expect such rapidly growing budgets a matter of concern? Yes, and it’s impossible to imagine the sort of restraint that Deng Xiaoping imposed through the 1980s. It would be preferable if public demands for spending on social security trumped continued double-digit increases for the PLA, but that seems unlikely to happen.
Does “greater clout” mean more hawkishness? Not necessarily. It would be hard to show with any clarity that the Chinese military is any keener to go to war than it was. In at least one crucially important area – Taiwan – the role of the military has, if anything, been diminished, with diplomatic and economic measures winning out over the sort of saber-rattling we saw in the past. What has increased is the risk of miscalculation, especially in the maritime sphere, where China’s military has undoubtedly become more active.
A lot hangs on the answer to another question though – in the event of political turmoil in China, is a strong, nationalized military that believes itself to be the defender of the interests of the Chinese state and the Chinese people preferable to a military over which the Party wields unquestioned authority? Viewed in civil-military terms, a more assertive military is virtually a priori undesirable, but the sharp edge of the debate is really about Party-military relations rather than civilian authority per se. In this sense, it’s far from clear that another Tiananmen Square scenario is more desirable than a Tahrir Square scenario or that the Party’s authority to launch a “rally-round-the-flag” war is preferable to the military’s capacity to resist it. Not that the analogies are in any sense precise or that there aren’t plenty of other problematic military-led scenarios that could be envisaged but it is worth bearing in mind that the Chinese military shouldn’t automatically be assumed to be the bad guy.
Q: Ali Wyne – (1) What is China’s long-term geopolitical objective (if indeed it has one)? (2) Is it possible to imagine an international system in which the United States and China accept one another as rough peers, or will they continue to contest one another indefinitely? (3) What are the principal risks of America’s rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific?
Q: David Greenberg – Mr. Small: with all the ways that Chinese and American national interests conflict, are there now or in the foreseeable future any common national interests significant enough that the two are encouraged to repair diplomatic relations and start down a path of being partners rather than rivals?
A: If there is anything that can be called a geopolitical objective for China, it combines ensuring a global environment in which China’s economic development is secure, and an accumulation of power and influence in order to serve Chinese national interests. As it stands, the articulation of what those national interests are is rather narrow – its geopolitics, and even its regional politics, lacks an animating ideal, and certainly an inspiring one. Whether or not that changes will heavily condition the second issue – the United States and China are currently rivals for power, but not really for ideas of world order (except, on China’s part, in the most defensive of senses). If China is able to pose a genuinely distinct vision, rather than simply seeking to convert its growth in relative power into tangible “rewards”, then the picture will be different. As it stands, however much they may gripe about the United States, most countries, and especially China’s neighbors, are apprehensive about China’s accumulation of power and would rather exist in a US-led framework that is governed by a more universalized conception of “national” interests. This is a context in which the US and its friends and allies will be able to retain an indefinite edge. If China decided to establish a rival alliance system of its own, it would be a pretty motley crew; the U.S. network of friends and allies has strengthened in recent years, thanks largely to China (and some smart U.S. diplomacy).
The challenge for the United States is to ensure that it sticks to these broad principles – freedom of the commons, support for a multilateral rather than a Sino-centric order in East Asia and so on – that command general assent, rather than being sucked into a cruder bilateral rivalry that will destroy the prospects of a lasting political and security framework in the region. The goal is ultimately to condition Chinese choices so that it does choose to prioritize shared interests with the United States and its neighbors – of which there are many – rather than competing ones. The two sides will be genuine peers when competition takes place in the realm of ideas and in the normal economic sphere, with the two militaries focused on common risks to global stability, rather than each other. But the United States will not help to bring that situation about by simply accepting that China should gain greater coercive capacity to shape its neighbors choices just because it is a “big country” and they are “small countries”, to quote the Chinese foreign minister. Unfortunately, the way thinking has been moving in Beijing in recent years, any notion that a positive outcome might be on cards between the United States and China currently looks like a fantasy.
Q: Greg R. Lawson – Thank you Mr. Small. There has recently been some press that China is attempting to recalibrate how it purchases commodities by using the yuan and diversifying away from the dollar. This looks like the beginning of a long-term plan to wrest control away from the dollar as the single dominant reserve currency. While potentially a long time in the future, do you envision this Chinese strategy as having a legitimate potential for success in terms of displacing the dollar?
A: There have been anecdotes about Xi Jinping being spotted giving out “Currency Wars”, the book by Song Hongbing, as a gift. True or not, there is certainly a view among some in China that sees the power of the US dollar in conspiratorial terms, and the geopolitical dimensions of this thinking cannot be completely discounted as a backdrop for policymaking. However, more pragmatic considerations tend to prevail among China’s money managers. There has been a longer-term Chinese effort to diversify away from the dollar, as much to reduce China’s level of exposure and to improve returns, but the global financial crisis and subsequent flight to safe assets, as well as the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, has made that harder. In the process, RMB internationalization has been expedited – as you note with some of the commodity purchases – but there are still fundamental limits imposed by China’s unwillingness to open up its capital markets and to let its currency float, which it is going to be reluctant to do for some time. Over the longer term though, I would certainly expect the RMB to be one of the principal reserve currencies – if not actually displacing the dollar – and events of the last few years have strengthened the view of those in China who have argued that the US underpinning to the global financial system cannot be trusted and that China may have to step in sooner than it would really like.