The Ties That Bind Beijing

This column was written by Peter Brookes.
The "message" Chinese President Hu Jintao most wants the American people to come away with as he visits the U.S. this week and meets with President Bush today is: Although China is a rising global power, there is no need to fear its ascendance because Beijing is committed to being a responsible international player.

At first blush that may appear to be true — at least on the trade front. Chinese leaders spent weeks in the U.S. before Hu's visit buying billions in Boeing airliners and legal copies of Microsoft software. It even hinted at revaluing the yuan to ease the U.S.'s $200 billion trade deficit with China.

But there is another, dark side to Chinese foreign policy that is grossly underreported. That is China's cozy relationships with a string of rogue states that aids and abets such vexing problems as political repression, human-rights abuse, poor governance, WMD programs, and, even, conflict.

Beijing's close ties with some of the world's most repressive regimes in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia call into question the credibility of China's assertion that its rise to global prominence will be a wholly positive evolution in international politics.

Let's start with North Korea, arguably the world's most repressive regime. While China has been hosting the stalled Six-Party Talks aimed at addressing North Korea's nuclear-weapons program, Beijing is also Pyongyang's chief protégé.

Besides a mutual defense treaty, dating back to the Korean War, China is North Korea's main food aid and energy donor, too. This arrangement keeps the teetering Stalinist regime from collapsing completely — while keeping it under Beijing's sway.

The Sino-Iranian relationship is getting plenty of attention lately, too — and for good reason. Although speaking out about its concerns over Iran's nuclear (weapons) program, China is reluctant to go beyond diplomatic means.

The unwillingness to take tougher measures such as economic sanctions is no surprise: Beijing is not only investing in its political relationship with Tehran, it's protecting a $100 billion investment in Iranian oil/gas over the next 25 years.

Less well known is China's relationship with Sudan. While the U.S., the E.U., Japan, and others have sought to impose U.N. sanctions on the Sudanese regime over Khartoum's support for civil war and genocide in the Darfur region, China opposes U.N. Security Council actions.

Why? Because like its relationship with Iran, China, as the world's second-largest energy consumer, wants to prevent economic sanctions from interfering with Beijing's $3 billion investment in Sudan's oil and gas industry.

Moreover, while 4,000 Chinese People's Liberation Army troops guard Sudanese oil pipelines, Khartoum recently built three weapons factories with Beijing's assistance, complicating international arms embargos against Sudan — and a conflict that is now spilling over into neighboring Chad.

And then there is Africa's other political nightmare, Zimbabwe. Like Sudan, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's repeated political and human-rights abuses led the U.S. and the E.U. to impose punitive political and economic sanctions against the regime.

The Chinese response? China sold Zimbabwe over $200 million in unneeded fighter aircraft and military vehicles. Beijing has also provided equipment for jamming anti-government media broadcasts, and gave surveillance equipment to Harare's security services to monitor Mugabe's political opponents.

Last summer, Britain and the U.S. backed yet another U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Mugabe's policies. Meanwhile, Mugabe flew to Beijing, seeking a handout for his beggared economy and Chinese support at the U.N. — which Beijing gave, killing the resolution.

In Asia, China is undermining efforts to isolate the military government in Burma, which has had the country under almost constant martial law since 1988 and holds Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize winner and opposition democracy activist, under house arrest.

Beijing supports the Burmese junta with military assistance and millions in aid and infrastructure projects, including roads, railroads, airfields, ports, and dams in exchange for access to the Indian Ocean, and intelligence and economic cooperation.

In this hemisphere, China and Cuba have signed numerous economic agreements that will help keep the Castro's "island prison" afloat. In a 2004 visit to Cuba, Hu proclaimed, "We sincerely wish that the Cuban people march without surrender on the road to building socialism."

Across the Caribbean in Venezuela, China is enhancing strongman Hugo Chavez's grip on power by investing over $1 billion in the energy sector. Beijing is also positioning itself to invest another $500 million in oil/gas fields, not to mention broadening bilateral military ties.

While China is involved here and abroad in a sophisticated public-relations campaign to create the appearance of being a mature, responsible actor in the global system, sheltering some of the world's worst regimes from international pressure undermines that notion completely.

We should welcome a China that plays a positive, constructive role on the world stage, but if Beijing is serious about that engagement, it's going to have to turn its well-rehearsed words into deeds.

Peter Brookes is senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He is author of A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States.

By Peter Brookes.
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online