The People’s Republic of China constantly warns against any return to “Cold War thinking” as inappropriate because Beijing is committed to a “peaceful rise” that does not threaten the interests of any other country. In a joint appearance with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the G20 summit in South Korea on Nov. 11, President Barack Obama seemed to agree, saying, “The U.S.-China relationship I think has become stronger over the last several years.” State Department cables released by WikiLeaks reveal, however, a competition for influence between the U.S. and PRC in strategic areas very reminiscent of Cold War intrigue with the Soviet Union.
A Feb. 23, 2010, cable from Johnnie Carson, asst. secretary of state for African Affairs, reported:
China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. … There are trip wires for the United States when it comes to China. Is China developing a blue water navy?
Have they signed military base agreements? Are they training armies? Have they developed intelligence operations? Once these areas start developing then the U.S. will start worrying.
A cable from U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger sent six days earlier indicates it is time to start worrying. Ranneberger reports:
China is also providing weapons to the GOK [Government of Kenya] in support of its Somalia policies and increasing their involvement with the Kenyan National Security and Intelligence Service.
As in other parts of Africa, Beijing’s motive is finding and exporting energy and mineral resources back home to power Chinese industry. “The China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) is drilling for oil in the Isiolo region. China may be a potential partner in the development of the new mega-port at Lamu,” writes Ranneberger. Furthermore, “Kenya’s leadership may be tempted to move ever closer to China in an effort to shield itself from Western, and principally U.S, pressure to reform.”
China’s involvement with the brutal regimes of Sudan and Zimbabwe, noted by Carson, is based on oil and minerals, respectively. And as Beijing adds Africa to the Middle East as a source of raw materials, its need for a “blue water navy” will increase. As the Pentagon’s 2010 annual report on China stated, “Civilian leaders, PLA Navy officials, government writings, and PLA journals have argued that China’s economic and political power is contingent upon access to and use of the sea, and that a strong navy is required to safeguard such access.” Chinese warships have been deployed off the Somalia coast to combat piracy.
The willingness of Beijing to deal with dictators, war criminals, and corrupt regimes has proven advantageous. The initial response of the U.S. to increasing Chinese activity in Africa was to propose cooperation. Beijing was not interested, and most African governments have been cool. A Feb. 11, 2010, cable from U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman reported:
African countries principally fear that the U.S. and other Western countries will use trilateral cooperation to try to attach governance conditions to Chinese development. [South African Minister Plenipotentiary Dave] Malcolmson echoed [Kenyan Ambassador to China Julius Ole] Sunkuli’s comment that African countries also fear losing their bargaining power. China’s emergence in Africa as a counterbalance to U.S. and European donors has been very positive for Africa by creating “competition” and giving African countries options.
Africa is not the only place where Chinese actions have sent up warning flags. A May 13, 2008, memo from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complains:
We have demarched China repeatedly on its conventional arms transfers to Iran, urging Beijing to stop these transfers due to unacceptably high risk that such weapons would be diverted to militants and terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere. Beijing has typically responded by asserting that its sales are in accordance with international law, that it requires end-users to sign agreements pledging not to retransfer the weapons.
Rice finds Beijing’s argument “disingenuous.” The WikiLeaks documents also contain numerous references to China’s growing cyber warfare capability, and the fears of other countries about Beijing’s aggressive behavior.
A March 23, 2009 memo, on a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd expresses hope that China can be integrated into the international community. But Rudd said they should be
…preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong. The Australian intelligence community keeps a close watch on China’s military modernization, and indicated the forthcoming Australian Defense White Paper’s focus on naval capability is a response to China’s growing ability to project force.
In July, when WikiLeaks exposed U.S. concern for support of the Taliban by elements of the Pakistan military and intelligence services, China reasserted its “all weather friendship” with Islamabad. Pakistan is armed primarily with Chinese weapons and Beijing has aided Pakistan’s missile and fighter aircraft programs to forge strong bonds with its military. Beijing has built port facilities at Gadwar and several airfields which could be available for Chinese use.
The revealed cables indicate a State Department more worried about China’s rise than President Obama has shown in public. Last summer was marked by a series of diplomatic clashes along the Pacific Rim backed by shows of air and naval force by both China and the U.S. The American initiatives, particularly in Southeast Asia, were led by Secretary Clinton, whereas Obama seemed reluctant to send a carrier group into the Yellow Sea until December in response to repeated North Korean provocations and against Chinese protests. To the extent that WikiLeaks draws public attention to Chinese ambitions, it should strengthen Clinton in administration debates over policy.
For its part, Beijing blocked internet access to WikiLeaks documents. An editorial in the Communist Party newspaper Global Times asked whether there might be a “tacit understanding between the website and the U.S. government.” It then states, “Countries like China … must have a line of defense against a hurtful information campaign.”