When Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, people started wondering about the U.S.’s world economic power. Every other world leader stayed in the agreement, and it became clear for some countries that they wanted distance from the U.S.
Some have looked at China, a major figure in clean energy, as a potential superpower replacement. Looking at Chinese operations since the turn of the century, however, that was already a very strong possibility.
China And Their Expansion Business
While China is a better superpower for the environment, it should be regarded carefully. China has been in the spotlight recently for the death of political prisoner Liu Xiaobo. Xiaobo was a critic of the Chinese government and dedicated his life to political reform before being imprisoned. Another major consideration is the (sometimes illegal) expansion of Chinese borders. Their island-building and claims in the South China Sea were ruled illegal by the International Criminal Court in 2016.
Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, is just the latest in a long string of expansionist presidents in the country. Jinping’s harsh stances on borders (ie. Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Doklam plateau) are known, but Chinese interests have expanded subtly for years. In Asia, it’s the biggest trading partner of North Korea and India (the other giant in Asia) and a major member of several organizations that establish China as the biggest economic power on the continent.
Asia might be expected, but China has built up power in stranger areas of the world. There have been concerns of unchecked Chinese interests all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and even in Australia.
How China Built Up Influence All Over The World
First, China spreads influence through trade. Through state-sponsored business and financing operations, Chinese trade has exploded since 2000. In Africa, Chinese exports have gone from ~1% to ~15%, while EU exports have gone from ~36% to ~23%. So, for Africa as a whole, China has become the single most important trading country.
Between 2000 and 2010, China grew from making up 2% of Latin American trade to 12%. The U.S. also dropped from 53% of Latin American trade to 39%, while Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Central America will likely decrease this further. In the Caribbean, 2009 alone saw a 5% total trade increase with China, and as of 2010, China is the largest trade partner of Australia.
This leads to one obvious question: what is the end-game? Is China looking for returns on their investments or do they genuinely want to support human rights in other countries? Either way, China has benefited. The increase in money is important, but China has also gotten involved in more concrete operations: natural resources.
In Latin America, since 2005, the majority of $75+ billion in Chinese loans went towards natural resources, including more than $40 billion of Venezuelan oil. Australia was able to largely avoid the 2008 global recession by selling massive amounts of iron ore to China. In Africa, Chinese funding of resource extraction has led to massive economic changes. From Uranium to copper to gems, Chinese-funded African mines have shot from almost none to over 120 since the start of the century.
Taiwan And China
Chinese ties also put pressure on other countries. Taking resources from the US and the EU are examples, but even more important is the pressure put on Taiwan. China’s long-standing conflict with Taiwan, which I covered in another article, becomes more one-sided with every major economic tie China can take. Recently, many Central American and African countries that previously had formal ties with Taiwan dropped them in favor of China.
Panama, Costa Rica, Liberia, Chad, Malawi, Gambia, Senegal, and Sao Tome & Principe have all dropped ties with Taiwan since 2000, and when South Sudan formed in 2011, it made ties exclusively with China. This leaves only 19 countries with official ties to Taiwan.
China usually establishes loans with developing countries that lack money to build their own infrastructure. Chinese financiers help build stadiums, schools, roads, or other highly visible projects. People see grandeur, and have a positive opinion of China, even if Chinese workers are then brought in to take the new jobs. Buildings are easier to see than usual foreign development, allowing China to become a highly influential force all over the world in a short time.
The Chinese Influence
The Chinese government can exert influence over non-developing countries as well. An Australian documentary series, Four Corners, recently released an episode showcasing Chinese influence. Direct – due to Australian campaign finance laws, Chinese interests can donate money to Senators and other politicians – and indirect – the Chinese government has been said to put pressure on overseas Chinese populations.
They supposedly leverage the safety of family members in China, so that relatives abroad won’t criticize the Chinese government. This has allegedly led to college students and scholars (such as Feng Chongyi) abroad receiving threats when critiquing China. Many Chinese publications in other countries have also come under the direct or indirect control of the regime, which they have used to leverage support and crack down on independent publications.
This influence hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some African presidential elections are hinging on reducing Chinese influence. The current Zambian president ran a very anti-China campaign – logical considering that tax avoidance in Zambia by foreign investors costs the country ~$2 billion per year. Even more important, though, Chinese-run mines in Zambia have been heavily criticized for human rights abuses. Chinese mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo has also been linked to similar abuses.
The scale of Chinese investment was also noticed by the Obama administration, who crafted the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership with the hope of reducing Chinese influence in countries around the Pacific.
China is now the largest trading partner of over 100 countries, and its influence continues to expand. Donald Trump’s exit of the Paris Climate Agreement and the TPP signals to other countries that the US may be less reliable than it was previously. This could allow China to build new relations and cement its place as the global economic power. The real question is whether we want to trade one corrupt world leader for an only slightly better one.