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China gambles on the Third World

The Asia-Africa summit currently underway in Indonesia  commemorates the landmark conference of 1955 that catapulted Communist China out of  international isolation. NBC News' Eric Baculinao reports from Beijing on how China's efforts in the Third World are finally paying off serious dividends.
Chinese President Hu arrives for opening of Asian-African leaders summit in Jakarta
Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives for the opening of the Asian-African leaders summit in Jakarta on Friday.  Darren Whiteside / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

China’s venture into the Third World that began with the first Asia Africa summit in Bandung, Indonesia, 50 years ago is finally paying dividends for the lumbering economic giant.

As China goes where few others will venture — fostering diplomatic and economic ties with nation's viewed with various degrees of disdain by Washington such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela – its economic star is rising while undercutting the United States as well as its main Asian rival, Japan.

China’s President Hu Jintao, is in Indonesia this weekend to confer with other top leaders from Asia and Africa and commemorate the landmark conference that provided then fledgling Communist China with its first platform for breaking out of its international isolation.

The fact that Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used the international event Friday as a platform to issue an apology for his country’s aggression in Asia during World War II, in an effort to defuse rising tensions between Japan and China, demonstrates the importance of the gathering.

Adroit diplomacy
At the height of the Cold War in 1955 and faced with diplomatic and economic sanctions, China nearly did not make it to the historic first world summit of former colonized Asian and African nations, as organizers wrangled over the issue of whether to invite the U.S.-backed Taiwan, which then occupied China’s seat in the United Nations.

With adroit diplomacy, China eventually joined and actively influenced the assembly of some 300 delegates representing 29 Asian and African nations — a meeting of the “underdogs of the human race,” as one American observer Richard Wright put it. That provided a crucial support for the beleaguered Communist-led regime in Beijing that was still recuperating from the Korean War.

The Bandung conference, which brought together the leading lights of the then Third World —India’s Nehru, Egypt’s Nasser, Indonesia’s Sukarno, China’s Chou Enlai, Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh and many others — created the core base for the Non-Aligned Movement, which China supported in its long struggle against the United States and the former Soviet Union.

China’s efforts in cultivating Third World allies eventually paid off when it assembled enough votes to topple Taiwan and regain its seat — and the veto power — in the United Nations in 1971. 

Central actor with new thrust
As the leader of the fastest-growing economy, which has recently overtaken Japan as the world’s third largest trader, China’s President Hu may well be a central actor in the Indonesian summit, which will map a new Asian-African partnership. 

His trip was preceded by a state visit to the oil-rich Sultanate of Brunei, and will be followed by a trip to traditional U.S. ally, the Philippines, now a major recipient of Chinese aid and investments, in moves that very much bear the hallmark of China’s current diplomatic thrust.

“China’s Third World diplomacy today is more sophisticated than in the time of Mao,” observed Professor Shi Yinhong, a noted foreign policy expert at Beijing’s Renmin University.

“While before it was nearly 100 percent strategic, uniting with any forces against the United States, it’s now more moderate and comprehensive, with a prominent economic component, driven by trade, investments, and our need for energy and other resources,” said Shi.

“Of course, political influence develops with more trade, but our principal consideration now is economic advantage, mutual advantage,” Shi added.

Engine of Asian growth
True enough, China’s role as the main engine of Asia’s economic growth is reshaping the region’s economic alignments, as witnessed by last year’s pact with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to establish a free-trade community of almost 2 billion people by 2010, potentially bigger than the U.S.-led NAFTA and the European Union. 

With a recent diplomatic breakthrough with India, China is pushing for an even bigger economic bloc that combines the world’s two most populous countries.

Other important U.S. allies are increasingly being drawn to China’s expansive economy, with export-dependent South Korea pouring nearly half of its overseas investments to China, and resource-rich Australia signaling its desire to initiate free trade agreement talks with Beijing.

“The real challenge for the U.S. is how to deal with East Asia that is increasingly going under China’s political sway,” said Philippine political scientist JCM Romero.  China’s pact with the Southeast Asian countries is “part of a Chinese strategic plan to project its influence in Asia to outflank Japan and match the presence of the U.S.  But who minds?” echoed Singapore’s Strait Times.

Big push in Africa
China’s more controversial but dramatic headway is playing out in the vast continent of Africa, and even in the U.S. traditional backyard of Latin America, showing China’s ability to extend its influence where the U.S. or Western presence is on decline.

Most of Africa’s 54 countries are now forging various economic, political and military links with China, with overall China-Africa trade growing by leaps in bounds, reaching over $46 billion last year, a 35 percent increase, according to Chinese figures, after nearly doubling from 2000 to 2003.

“China has simply exploded into Africa,” Walter Kansteiner, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said recently.

  • In Ethiopia where the U.S. scaled down aid programs after the country went to war against neighboring Eritrea in the late 1990s, China saw the opportunity to expand links and now, with a large embassy, maintains a dominant presence, involving infrastructure projects, oil exploration, military installation and the strategic dam construction on the head waters of the Blue Nile River.
  • In war-torn Sudan with a military regime that is accused of complicity in humanitarian crimes, U.S. oil companies had to halt investments in compliance with a 1997 law. 
    Chinese oil companies came in and invested over $2 billion, eventually transforming the oil-importing country into an exporter, with about half of its yearly $2 billion oil exports going to China. 
  • China also has energy projects in Nigeria, Angola and Gabon, and is prospecting for a partnership in Kenya.

The China connection is even more important for countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, which have been ostracized by the U.S. and European countries for their human-rights abuses.

With China’s veto threat, Sudan escaped harsh U.N. sanctions that would have been imposed for its involvement in the Darfur atrocities. Chinese aid and investment is also blunting the impact of Western sanctions on the government of President Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Move into Latin America
Meanwhile, China’s global search for resources has brought Hu himself to Argentina, Brazil and Chile late last year, resulting in business agreements worth some $30 billion. Stronger partnership with oil-exporting Venezuela was forged after a December visit to China by President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of the U.S. administration.

China’s growing influence in Latin America is “an emerging dynamic that could not be ignored,” warned Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the U.S. Southern Command, in a recent congressional testimony, adding that the recent U.S. aid cuts and sanctions against 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries has created an opening for China to extend its military influence as well.

China represents a "slowly and calculatingly awaking giant,” said Indian political analyst Siddhartha Reddy. "It has consciously opted for the diplomatic and economic route, rather than the military route.”

China does not deny its intentions. “Of course one goal of Chinese diplomacy is to raise China’s international influence and prestige and in the process check the excessive influence of the United States, but for now our main goal is to promote trade and business links,” Professor Shi said.

“Maybe if China’s rise continues, then perhaps there may be some change in the balance of power, but that’s a very long future,” he added.