China’s Achilles’ Heel
Image Credit: Chinese Foreign Ministry

China’s Achilles’ Heel


The seizure of 29 Chinese workers by Sudanese rebels in the southern part of Sudan last week exposed one of the most vulnerable links in China’s ambitious plan for extending its economic influence abroad. To be sure, this isn’t the first time workers sent by China to dangerous regions were kidnapped or harmed. Five years ago, three Chinese engineers were murdered by a militant group in Pakistan. When civil war broke out in Libya nearly a year ago, Beijing had to dispatch a fleet of ships and airplanes to evacuate more than 30,000 Chinese workers from the country.

Despite the release of the workers this week, such incidents – and there will be many similar ones in the future – raise several important questions about China’s strategy of “going out” in general, and its quest for natural resources in particular.

The motivations for Beijing to expand its economic reach across the globe are easy to understand. The Chinese economy is resource-intensive and depends on secure access to energy, minerals, and other commodities to sustain its growth.  Unfortunately, the geopolitics and economics of natural resources are tricky. Most of them are located in unstable or war-torn countries, with poor infrastructure, corrupt governments, and intractable ethnic conflict. The global markets for natural resources are notoriously volatile and frequently go through boom-bust cycles. Worse still, as a late-comer to the scene, the low-hanging fruits have already been picked by entrenched and powerful Western multinationals, such as Exxon, Shell, BP, Rio Tinto, BHP, and the likes, which have established seemingly unchallengeable advantages in technology, capital, and risk management.

Faced with such a strategic landscape in the competition for natural resources, China has long concluded that it will risk letting its economic security held hostage by the vagaries of the market and the entrenched Western giants if it doesn’t make a concerted all-out effort to gain direct access to strategic natural resources. The policy and actions flowing from this strategic assessment in the past decade are easy to see: China has become the world’s most aggressive player in competing for access to natural resources. It has tied its foreign aid program to gaining concessions on exploiting natural resources. Its state-owned companies, supported by access to cheap (if not free) credit from Chinese banks, often outbid foreign competitors in securing contracts and exploration rights. It is willing to take excessive financial and security risks and encourages its companies to venture into areas, such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Congo, where their Western rivals don’t dare to tread.

But in executing this strategy, the Chinese have found themselves facing a fundamental dilemma: it’s a rising power with global economic interests, but no global power projection capabilities to protect these interests.

On most occasions, to be sure, China can free-ride on the security provided by the West, especially the United States. For example, with the U.S. Navy patrolling the sea lanes and keeping a close watch on conflict-prone areas, China gains free protection. One of the most illustrative cases is China’s $3 billion investment in an Afghan copper mine, which is protected by the U.S. Army.

July 17, 2012 at 16:55

China's current crop of leaders are useless – dumb, spineless, deference to personal convenience, irresponsible, lacking in leadership attributes, no intiative, ignoramus, ..  they are just mere managers running an organization that is too big for them.  The job is too big for these under-performers.  The sooner they leave the better.  I can't stand dummies who can't tlak or debate to defend our interests.  Away with Hu and Wen and the rest!

February 21, 2012 at 05:55

Clearly, you know very little about Chinese history. There was probably more people killed by war in ancient China than the rest of the world combined at the time. There were many huge armies, and war was constant. Read a book.

February 19, 2012 at 01:44

You ask how the Chinese government is what it is today based on what you just described. I think a few things explain it. First, in every society, the minority always end up affecting change for the majority. Even in the West, most people are generally apathetic and don’t care, choosing to stay out of the way. The American Revolution, the French Revolution- all these events were carried out by the minority. In other parts of the world, the Iranian revolution was also carried out by the minority, a minority of people roam around and terrorize the poor people of Burma, or did all the killing in Rwanda. The Chinese are no different. A minority of idealistic communists (useful idiots) rallied around Mao, and the end result was something like ten million killed before the revolution was over, and anywhere between an additional 40-90 million died because communism is such a miserable failure of an economic policy.

In ADDITION to all that, Chinese society, perhaps all or most Asian society, is more apt to accepting what happens and, for lack a better term, “going with the flow.” In the West, we complain, we riot, we rebel, we demand things we want. In Asian society, sure you have an occasional protest, but it’s not as mainstream to do so as it is here. And it appears that it’s usually inspired by people “thinking like Westerners.” At least that’s my understanding of the culture, admittedly not living in it. To sum up: Chinese culture is more primed for a tyrannical government because they are more willing to take orders. In the West, don’t tend to tolerate authority so much.

As for the foreign expats who couldn’t handle Beijing, I can tell you that Japanese culture, (and from what I understand of Chinese culture, they are similar minded in this,) considers itself superior to the rest of the world. They look down on other, dissimilar people far more than the politically correct West would ever allow someone to do openly without derisive criticism, marginalization and, ironically, intolerance.

February 17, 2012 at 07:41

@ari: Claiming the illegal 9-dotted line, cutting cables, hasrash and fill VN + PH fishermen in their EEZ, having generals calling for nuclear war with the US and assimilation of VN are all actions of “peaceful rise”?

February 17, 2012 at 07:37

@Lung Sha Shou: Very well said! You understand the CCP at the core.

Lung Sha Shou
February 15, 2012 at 18:55

Chinese “culture” and behaviour is an extension of Mongol Empire, who conqured China and became absorbed into it. The way the Mongol’s used terror and threat to obliterate and demolished numerous cities and nation states is the standard way that China wished to behave against perceived competitors and opponents. Thje rest of the world will again be treated in this way if they don’t see China for what it REALLY is with some moral clarity and be ceratin that they can guarantee the complete obliteration of China many many times over, destroying all that they leaders cherish and care about.

In this way, the CCP may not start a war – remember the party considers its survival far more important than China’s. They would rather see China in ashes than it evolve per the people’s wishes into a system where anyone else had the power and the wealth.

The John Chan’s of this world are prepared to enslave or impoverish any number of Chinese or others to keep power in the hands of people who benefit his interests and those of the morally bankrupt party members. People who have no business affecting the lives of others

February 14, 2012 at 16:29

This is a misleading counter-point by aaron. The situation between PRC and Taiwan is an unfinished civil war. It has nothing to do with China’s declaration of peaceful intention to the rest of the world. Next time please think before replying. Irrelevance and scoring cheap argument points does not go down well with the thinking readers.

February 13, 2012 at 22:40

“Beijing had always declared its intention as peaceful” – Yes, and I’m sure the 2,000+ ballistic missiles that China has pointed at Taiwan have a peaceful role as well; perhaps they really contain fireworks rather than warheads…

February 11, 2012 at 06:23

I believe the diplomat is about the discussion of theories, not the discussion of proofs.

John Chan
February 11, 2012 at 00:42

I am not sure whether modular construction is invented by the USA, it has been around decades, that’s how Japanese ruin European shipbuilding dominance. Norwegian probably is the leading nation in terms of shipbuilding technology.

BTW aerospace industry talks about ounces and pounds, but shipbuilding industry talks in tons mainly. 680 tons may be impressive to the ordinary people, but in an industry builds as large as hundred thousand tons a unit, few hundred tons won’t impress people in the field. China builds the best heavy lifting cranes; probably China supplied the cranes in Ingalls.

Large module only shorten dry dock time, but without precision large module only waste time.

February 10, 2012 at 15:47

John Chan wrote: “@Reason,
You need to be honest, lying thru the teeth is not a right thing to do, smearing USA’s aircraft carrier might and technology is a wrong thing to do like lying thru the teeth. USA has so many aircraft carriers, it must be something good in it; following the American will do no wrong.”

I hear you John Chan, there is nothing better than a Aircraft Carrier to show your might and bully nations near and far. China should build 2 Aircraft Carrier fleets for every Ocean, it should send their Naval Aircraft to fly high and proud through every nations airspace.

It should show those imperialistic lackey running dogs just who really is their Lord and Master. Go ahead, spend the money, you know you want too.

“Since USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carriers were manufactured in modular construction (USS George H.W. Bush was constructed from 161 ‘super-lift’ modules). This means that whole sections could be welded together with plumbing and electrical equipment already fitted, improving efficiency. Using gantry cranes, the modules were lifted into the dry dock and welded. In the case of the bow section, these can weigh over 1,500,000 pounds (680 t).[15][16][17] This method was originally developed by Ingalls Shipbuilding and increases the rate of work because much of the fitting out does not have to be carried out within the confines of the already finished hull.[18]
The total cost of construction for each ship was around $4.5 billion.”

Just show them the superiority of Chinese engineering and build bigger better Aircraft Carriers. Don’t forget the Planes, you will need them too.

Oh, by the way, its just a small thing but you wouldn’t mind passing over the plans for those missiles you are developing?

“But for less technologically advanced navies of the Asia-Pacific region, it is becoming difficult to see how in the decades ahead they can stand up to an opponent that can target surface ships with hypersonic homing warheads that can range more than 1,500 km (900 mi.)—and perhaps much farther.

China Daily is citing a range of 2,700 km for the revolutionary missile, the DF-21D, presenting the crucial data point in a report based on comments by the chief of the Chinese general staff, Gen. Chen Bingde. The Pentagon said last year the DF-21D’s range is “in excess of 1,500 km.”

I know you don’t really need them as they are solely a defensive weapon according to Chinese military leaders and they really are cluttering up your backyard. I will lend you a Kangaroo for your Kids petting Zoo in exchange for a few of them.

Well, I may need to ask my neighbor for one of his, but they are a great animal. You can even train them to hold a flag and wave it high from the front of your new Aircraft Carrier.

Cant you just see it now? Good bye to that running dog Imperialistic backstabbing WestPac and USA. Welcome to the new and improved Imperialistic China, with free tourist vacations to North Koreas Gulags, weekend drinking trips to the Conquered Philippines, with sightseeing trips to the nuclear hole that was Hanoi.

Oh, I can just bask in the glory. Oh, but where to start? Yes John Chan you guessed it. With a brand new Aircraft Carrier.

February 10, 2012 at 06:25

I have posted many replies to posts addressed to me. But they seem to have all disappeared. Come on, Diplomat, why all these censorships? They contain no foul language only facts and figures about the amount of iron ore imported by China, the population increases in Tibet, number of people killed in American Civil War, etc. Why does Diplomat find these truths intolerable?

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