East Asia

Chinese Takeout

The prospect of cobalt in Kandahar has sparked lively debate about whether new mineral wealth -- if it pans out -- will aid or hinder U.S. policies in Afghanistan, as well as whether the country will fall prey to the so-called resource curse, as political scientist Michael Ross and others fear. But a short-term focus on Afghan-U.S. relations might be a mistake: The real winner from new natural-resource wealth beyond the Khyber Pass will be China. If the United States really cares about stabilizing Afghanistan's central government and eliminating terrorist havens, it needs to start working now to persuade Beijing that these are shared goals.


First, some background: Chinese foreign investment and aid has accelerated dramatically over the past decade, especially in Africa. In November 2009 alone, for example, China's largesse amounted to $10 billion in low-interest loans and $1 billion in commercial loans to the continent. With Beijing as cheerleader, trade has soared from $1 billion in 1992 to $106.8 billion in 2008.

In part this is due to China's willingness to do business with undemocratic, corrupt, and brutal regimes -- for example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Zimbabwe. The DRC provides the best cautionary parallel to Afghanistan: The discovery in the late 1990s of copper, coltan, and other minerals in eastern Congo gave new life to a civil war that has now claimed upwards of 4 million lives. Flagging combatants were funded by mineral extraction, and much of those resources eventually flowed to China. The fact that violence is still simmering in eastern Congo -- and despite the costs that extraction imposes on the Congolese people -- has not been enough to deter Beijing from wooing Congo's government for access to the country's abundant resources.

So, if there's any thought that war in Afghanistan might dissuade Chinese investment there, it's best to dispense with that notion immediately.

China, which has a narrow land border with Afghanistan, already invests heavily in the war-torn Central Asian state. The state-owned China Metallurgical Group has a $3.5 billion copper mining venture in Logar province. Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei are building digital telephone switches, providing roughly 200,000 subscriber lines in Afghanistan. Even back in the war's early days in 2002 and 2003, when I worked in Afghanistan, the Chinese presence was acutely visible in Kabul, with Chinese laborers on many building sites and Chinese-run restaurants and guesthouses popping up all over the city. As Robert Kaplan has pointed out, these investments come with a gratuitous hidden subsidy from the United States -- which has defrayed the enormous costs of providing security amid war and looting.

With its massive wealth, appetite for risk, and willingness to underbid others on labor costs and human rights conditionality, China is the odds-on favorite for development of any new Afghan mineral resources. Chinese firms will control the flow of new funds, and the way those funds are distributed between the central and local governments. It's all well and good that Barack Obama's administration has recommitted to building civil projects in rural Afghanistan, but consider the relative scale of building a school to establishing a multimillion-dollar mine (not to mention the transport networks and infrastructure required to get the extracted minerals out) and it's easy to see what kind of influence the Chinese will bring to the table.

It is critical for Washington to start making the case to Chinese leaders that pure self-interest mandates they leverage this power wisely -- to promote stability, not catalyze new conflict, in Afghanistan. So far, China's investment in Logar has been in keeping with its "noninterventionist" foreign policy and was accompanied by development aid, but no overt political strings. Washington must require more from Beijing, however, to avoid upending all its hard-won gains.

The Obama administration has already asked China to contribute troops to the Afghan effort. This is a good first step, but a few hundred token soldiers will not make China a strategic partner in its Afghan campaign. It needs to persuade Beijing that the campaign is indeed China's campaign, too -- if not by touting democracy promotion and human rights, then surely economic benefit -- and that U.S. and Chinese strategies on Afghanistan converge.

This is not as hard as it sounds: As China-Africa expert Deborah Brautigam's careful work shows, China has on some occasions acted as a surprisingly responsible lender, for example using resource-backed infrastructure loans that force some gains to be reinvested in development. Although many have warned of a new Sino-colonialism, Brautigam's work suggests that perhaps China's awareness of its gargantuan and growing need for foreign export markets will make it a better "colonial" power than any European country ever was.

For China as much as the United States, the goal of a stable, central Afghan government that provides no haven for terrorists is a desirable goal. China has worried in the past about whether Afghanistan might provide a refuge for Uighur separatists. Leaving aside the ethics and wisdom of Chinese policies in the Uighur community's home region of Xinjiang, it's safe to say that Washington and Beijing share a common goal in preventing terrorism. Both countries would benefit from a stabilized government in Kabul that is able to command the loyalty and respect of provincial governments and populations. That, however, requires that Hamid Karzai's government deal with its endemic corruption problem. And though no one expects Afghanistan to turn into Norway, perhaps it can be nudged away from the DRC path and toward the model of a Saudi Arabia or a Kazakhstan.

When it comes to corruption, however, state-run Chinese firms have not seemed troubled by greasing the wheels of power brokers in Sudan, Zimbabwe, or elsewhere. Getting Beijing to understand the rot this breeds seems a hard sell for the Obama administration. If that fails, however, Chinese ears might perk up somewhat at the mention of how integral a stable central government in Kabul is to the security of Pakistan, a close ally of Beijing.

Stability in Pakistan should be an important goal for China. It is by now clear that the Taliban's campaign west of the Durand Line is inextricable from the destabilizing efforts of Islamist militants in Pakistan. If China does not want another nuclear basket case on its border, then it should care deeply about instability in Afghanistan. Currently, however, Beijing is still freeloading, relying on Washington to provide security for its limited interests. Perhaps the tantalizing prospect of $1 trillion in minerals might be enough to change the strategic equation.

Working together, China and the United States have a better chance of guiding Afghanistan to a happy outcome for all than will Washington on its own. To be sure, this is no easy task: There's plenty of evidence that aid conditionality by Western governments has not done as much good as hoped. But cold economic realities dictate that Chinese firms are likely going to be the big players in this new gold rush, and Washington had better wake up to the fact that it has a short window in which to convince Beijing to collaborate in making Kabul a better place.

China wages maritime "lawfare"

The battle of ideas behind China's naval agression.

By James Kraska and Brian Wilson

China’s bold and dangerous maneuvers against the USNS Impeccable, a U.S. Navy military survey vessel that was operating about 120 km from the island of Hainan in the East China Sea, is the latest salvo in China's ongoing campaign to upset traditional notions of freedom of navigation in order to deny access to its coastal waters, or littorals, by foreign warships and aircraft. The event marks the first test of the Obama administration regarding China’s efforts to reshape the international law of the sea.

Following the Cold War, the littorals have emerged as the primary maritime battleground for peace and stability. International law, as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, recognizes that all states enjoy the right to conduct military activities throughout the near shore environment -- generally beyond the 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea and extending out to 200 nm (one nm = 1.85 km). This coastal zone is the primary operating area for “Seabasing,” amphibious, expeditionary, and littoral operations, and generally encompasses the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of a coastal state, a special resource zone created by the Law of the Sea. Although coastal states have exclusive rights to exploit natural resources in the zone, they cannot claim a  security interest in the area, agreed Shen Dingli, director of the Center of American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University. Regardless, China wants to exert control that extends beyond its economic interests, creating the potential for conflict with the U.S. Navy. Dingli stated, “China considers that international law only allows innocent passage for military vessels [in the EEZ], not activities that could be considered to have a military purpose.”

Chinese sailors getting drenched by fire hoses while harassing a U.S. Navy ship might make a great headline,, but the real fight is going on much more quietly on land. China has recently begun to engage in a resourceful legal warfare, or “lawfare” strategy to deny access to its coastal seas to warships and aircraft of the United States, Japan, and other countries in the region. This strategy, which was set forth in a recent Chinese defense white paper, proposed the“gradual extension of strategic depth for offshore defensive operations,” and for “enhancing [Chinese] capabilities in integrated maritime operations and nuclear counterattacks.”

A 2007 Department of Defense report to Congress on China’s military power explains that Chinese strategists have taken an increasing interest in international law as an instrument to deter adversaries prior to combat. Through an orchestrated program of scholarly articles and symposia, China is working to shape international opinion in favor of a distorted interpretation of the Law of the Sea by shifting scholarly views and national perspectives away from long-accepted norms of freedom of navigation and toward interpretations of increased coastal state sovereign authority. By doing so, China is misreading the law of the sea.

The United States should ensure navigational freedom and littoral access as a cornerstone of world maritime security. The U.S. Navy has spent hundreds of millions on building a new generation of high-tech Littoral Combat Ships and implementing “Seabasing” amphibious warfare tactics to effectively operate in the coastal zone—capability that is undermined by restrictive interpretations of the law. But all this planning will be for naught if China continues to advance on the battlefield of international law. The United States would be on a far stronger footing at diplomatic summits and military-to-military meetings if it joined the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention. To ensure the right of U.S. vessels to enjoy unhindered global mobility, the United States should continue resisting excessive coastal state maritime claims through diplomacy and operational challenges.

James Kraska  is a professor of International Law at the Naval War College, a guest investigator at the Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and previously served as the oceans policy adviser for the Director of Strategic Plans & Policy, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Brian Wilson leads a Navy region legal office in Washington, D.C. is an MIT Seminar XXI fellow, and previously served as oceans policy adviser for the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. The views are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the Department of Defense.

Don’t rush to judgment on Clinton

Why it's far too early to label the U.S. secretary of state a failure.

By Kenneth Weisbrode

Hillary Clinton's trip to Asia marks her first venture into the "vast external realm" as secretary of state. She is spending this week in Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and China in order to give and gain what most likely will be salient first impressions.

The trip already has been met with mixed commentary. The New York Times pointed out that she's the first secretary since Dean Rusk (a notable Euroskeptic of his time) to visit Asia first. Does this mean other parts of the word -- particularly Europe and the Western Hemisphere, not to mention Africa and the Middle East -- are lower on her priority list? Has Clinton returned to the Republican roots of her youth and become an Asia-firster?

Her husband's one-time political confidant, Dick Morris, suggested that the trip, coming on the heels of the appointment of high-level diplomatic envoys for Afghanistan and the Middle East and a resurgent National Security Council, means nothing less than an "incredibly shrinking role" for Clinton in the Obama administration. In this interpretation, East Asia was a consolation prize.

Time will only tell if any of the predictions are correct. For now, they are absurdly premature. And they overlook two critical points.

The first is that where a secretary, or a president, for that matter, goes first doesn't necessarily mean much in the long run. All manner of pressures and events will intercede from now on. Nobody's priority list is fixed on day one. President Nixon's first trip abroad was, in fact, to Europe. It was followed by one of the darkest periods in trans-Atlantic relations.

In any case, it's only comparably recently that secretaries of state or presidents traveled very much at all. Franklin Roosevelt's secretary, Cordell Hull, whose tenure in the job was the longest, spent a great deal of time in the hospital, as did John Foster Dulles toward the end of his term. They traveled abroad for the occasional diplomatic conference but left most of the "fact finding" to their men and women on the ground, that is, America's ambassadors.

Dulles's predecessor, Dean Acheson, however, noted the strange trend in government whereby routine diplomatic activity appeared to move up the totem pole of power in the 20th century. First there were ministers, then ambassadors, then secretaries of state, and soon presidents themselves were drafting talking points and engaging in what Henry Kissinger made famous as "shuttle diplomacy."

Acheson had a point. Once upon a time diplomats proposed and politicians disposed. Now, politicians appear to have a monopoly on both. But there's nothing natural or preordained about it, or about the symbolism of destinations. Colin Powell came into office determined to cut back on the amount of time he spent in airplanes. Nobody recalls now where he went first as secretary or whether the volume of his travel was a critical factor. Condoleezza Rice reversed the practice and traveled a great deal, but it is hard to say now whether that made much of a difference in her effectiveness; her relationships back home with the president and other members of the administration were probably more important.

The second critical thing to remember is that the success or failure of a secretary of state -- indeed of an administration's diplomacy -- is not wrapped up entirely in its handling of the crises of the moment. In this respect, Clinton may be thankful that the biggest possible pitfalls now have other people's names written on them.

Rather, the stewardship, or cultivation -- which George Marshall and George Shultz described as akin to gardening -- of America's relationships with the other major powers and regions of the world is vital. It grabs fewer headlines and tends to be neglected, as it was badly in the past two administrations. But it matters tremendously. Whoever is giving Clinton advice has probably made this point. And it is a good one. Bon voyage.

Kenneth Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright fellow in history at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Italy.