With growth comes power, and vulnerability

By Geoffrey Murray
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, February 11, 2012
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 Xia Wenqiong (R), who was just rescued from abduction in Sudan, hugs her relatives in Pengshan County, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Feb. 9, 2012. A total of 47 Chinese were caught in the attack, which occurred in a southern Sudanese state 13 days ago. Twenty-nine of them were abducted by the assailants while the other 18 managed to flee.  [Xinhua]

Xia Wenqiong (R), who was just rescued from abduction in Sudan, hugs her relatives in Pengshan County, southwest China's Sichuan Province, Feb. 9, 2012. A total of 47 Chinese were caught in the attack, which occurred in a southern Sudanese state 13 days ago. Twenty-nine of them were abducted by the assailants while the other 18 managed to flee.  [Xinhua] 

Recent attacks on Chinese working overseas demonstrate how hard it is to become a true "superpower". The United States long ago discovered this uncomfortable fact and the country now being touted as the world's "second biggest economy" finds itself in the same situation. For all its accumulated wealth in foreign reserves and trade surpluses, China has insufficient strength to protect its nationals abroad.

Recent incidents include the killing of 13 crewmen from two cargo vessels sailing on the Thailand section of the Mekong River, and the kidnapping of Chinese workers in Egypt and South Sudan. The Mekong attack quickly led to the establishment of joint river patrols with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, while the hostages in Egypt were quickly released; however, the Sudanese terrorist incident took longer to resolve through intergovernmental negotiation and intervention by the International Red Cross Committee.

China's increasing global profile has inevitably drawn some unwelcome attention from various foreign insurgent and terrorist groups and even criminal gangs looking for cash.

Chinese state-owned companies are now major players in international construction and are involved in infrastructure projects across the developing world. Rather than use local labor, the companies bring their own workers. At the end of 2010, there were an estimated 810,000 such laborers scattered on work sites, often in remote areas with limited security. Their presence ensures good communications which get the job done quickly and cheaply and also helps ease unemployment at home; but such workers are also a source of temptation for those seeking financial gain through ransom payments.

Unofficial figures show 13 other abduction incidents in 10 countries in Asia, Africa and South America in the past five years in which 14 hostages have died; one worker was also killed in the Sudan incident. So, how can China address this problem in the future?

The recent successful rescue in Somalia of a kidnapped American aid worker and her Danish colleague in a daring attack by U.S. special forces may well have produced some envy in certain circles in China. However, not all such actions are successful. You only have to look at the abortive raids to rescue hostages in Iran and Somalia years ago to understand that even the most powerful military force on earth cannot always produce miracles.

Wikipedia defines a superpower as "a state with a dominant position in the international system which has the ability to influence events and its own interests and project power on a worldwide scale to protect those interests." Meanwhile, Alice Lyman Miller, professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, goes slightly further in describing it as "a country that has the capacity to project dominating power and influence anywhere in the world, and sometimes, in more than one region of the globe at a time, and so may plausibly attain the status of global hegemony."

Apart from the U.S., there was a time when Britain (through its empire) and the Soviet Union had such status. Now, only the U.S. remains, although China is considered a possible candidate. Nevertheless, I tend to agree with those academics who doubt the existence of superpowers now given today's complex global situation in which even very small countries, or even segments of the population within them, seem able to tweak the noses of the "big boys" with some success.

For the U.S., there have been the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which some critics argue show the limits of American military power. American diplomacy and the promotion of its values of freedom and democracy have enjoyed some success. Such efforts have failed to bring about peace between Arabs and Israelis and stop violence erupting across the North African crescent and into the Middle East; Iran and North Korea remain defiant against every U.S. attempt to stop them developing a nuclear capability.

One key plank in China's international diplomacy has been "non-interference in the internal affairs" of other nations; this is often cited to show the difference between it and the old "colonialist" powers of the West. This is a very fine principle, but it can sometimes mean that China engages in world affairs with one hand tied behind its back as its non-interference principle leaves tactful negotiation as its only remaining option.

Sudan well illustrates this point. The situation in the region is extremely turbulent, exacerbated by the secession last July of South Sudan, where the recent abduction of the Chinese workmen occurred. The area had been supplying considerable quantities of oil to three Asian nations, China, India and Malaysia, but, inconveniently, the pipeline to the outside world runs through a hostile Sudan that is demanding higher transportation fees. There's not much China can do to change this without becoming embroiled in domestic politics.

Ordinary Chinese may fume over the seeming lack of protection for citizens working abroad, but, realistically, what can be done? In the 19th century, imperialist Britain never hesitated to "send in the gunboats" to deal with such mistreatment of its citizens. China succeeded with quiet diplomacy in the Sudan but it's likely there will be more such incidents in the future. There's little China can do other than impose tighter security at vulnerable foreign work sites.

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/geoffreymurray.htm

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.


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