China: Would Machiavelli be proud?

Chinese President Hu Jintao reviews army troops.  Source:  CCTV
Chinese President Hu Jintao reviews army troops. Source: CCTV

Machiavelli, more than any thinker in history, made his name synonymous with a type of human behavior — self-interested, cunning, ruthless.  He wrote about ancient Rome as well as Italy and the Mediterranean world of the 15th-16th centuries, extolling such leaders as Ferdinand of Aragon, the successful king of Spain who oversaw his empire’s aggrandizement, as well as the expulsion of alien elements from the Iberian peninsula. 

The extent to which a truly Machiavellian leader must be  cruel has been exaggerated.  If you read his treatises closely, the Florentine statesman was no fan of cruelty if it failed to strengthen the state.  Orgies of killing usually engender hatred in a state’s subjects, and Machiavelli argues that being hated is worse than being feared.  Being feared is better than being loved, he says, if one cannot be both.  According to Machiavelli, leaders must imitate both the lion and the fox — employing both military power and diplomacy — in order to outwit the wolves. 

I have argued for some time in this blog that the West, led by the United States, has done a fairly good job of anchoring China into international institutions wrought after the Second World War (see my post “Anchoring the Dragon,” of October 2009).  Privileges and power must be matched in international relations in order to avoid instability and conflict.  Machiavelli, were he around today, might not criticize Western diplomacy on the China question. 

Since 1979, China too has managed its foreign relations relatively well.   Deng Xiaoping, who led China after 1978, opened his isolated nation to the world, culminating in 2001 in China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, which this giant nation has used as a platform to become the greatest manufacturing juggernaut the world has known.  Likewise during the Cold War, China and the U.S. deftly used each other in classic Machiavellian fashion to balance against their mutual enemy, the Soviet Union, a quasi-alliance that deserves some credit for burying the Soviet empire late last century.

China’s exchange rate policy can be called Machiavellian.  The currency is kept low to promote exports in order to avoid the dependence on foreign capital that drove China’s Asian brethren — Korea, Thailand and Indonesia — to the brink of bankruptcy during the 1998 Asian financial crisis.  Still, China periodically revalues its currency in baby steps in order to blunt the anger of its trading partners, whose external borrowing expands to finance nagging trade deficits.

A NYTimes article today discussed how China is currently seeking to mend fences with the Obama administration over its exchange rate policy, as well as over tensions related to the Korean peninsula, the South China Sea and Taiwan.  Things are not as cozy with the United States these days because the US government is run by Democrats.  Democrats are more prone to grandstand against China on currency manipulation, human rights, and the environment than Republicans were.  The Chinese will compete this century with the U.S. for hegemony in Asia, not to mention globally, yet today they wish to do so quietly.  Surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest economy this year with GDP in excess of $5 trillion, the Chinese economy still falls well short of US GDP of over $14 trillion.  Hence, the need to be both a lion and a fox.   

Do not doubt that China intends to take over its renegade province of Taiwan one day, or to become the dominant power in East Asia.  China does not yet have the actualized military capability to obtain these prizes, so it bides its time and makes nice with the global hegemon as necessary.  On the other hand, China builds strong economic and diplomatic links globally to secure sources of raw materials and moral support, and continues to pump money into its military.  It plays a cute game on the Korean peninsula (see The Economist article below), alternately prodding and bolstering the tottering regime in Pyongyang, in order to show the Americans it is a player to be reckoned with on all things Asian.   Machiavelli would be proud.

(From a Sept. 9, 2010 post.)

From The Economist, September 2:

What lies behind the Dear Leader’s latest trip to China?

Sep 2nd 2010 | Beijing

NORTH KOREA’S leader, Kim Jong Il, must have been on an urgent mission when he boarded his bulletproof train and headed to China for the second time in less than four months on August 26th. With America’s former president Jimmy Carter in town, devastating floods in the north and a rare conclave of his ruling party only days away, Mr Kim had much to keep him at home. But buttering up China appears to be a new priority.

Both China and North Korea, as is their wont, kept quiet about the visit until after Mr Kim’s return on August 30th. By then Mr Carter had left with an American, Aijalon Gomes, who had been serving eight years’ hard labour for entering the country illegally in January. Mr Gomes’s release was a rare gesture of conciliation to America after months of heightened tension caused by the sinking in March of a South Korean naval vessel.

America responded, however, by giving details of sanctions on several North Korean individuals and entities suspected of “illicit activities”, such as dealing in weapons or drugs, or procuring luxury goods for Mr Kim or others. The decision to impose them had been announced in July.

China has complained loudly about America’s recent muscle-flexing, particularly its joint military exercises with South Korea. These are due to resume on September 5th with drills in the Yellow Sea, which China regards as uncomfortably close to its own shore. China began its own naval exercises in the Yellow Sea on September 1st. The official news agency, Xinhua, called them “routine”, but a decision to draw attention to them could be intended to show resolve in the face of the American and South Korean manoeuvres. The results of an international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean ship, which blamed it on North Korea, were released after Mr Kim’s last trip (his first foray abroad in four years). China has refused to accept the findings. By rolling out the red carpet again, it showed it has no plans to reconsider.

Less clear is why Mr Kim wanted to go back so soon. Much speculation has suggested that it could be related to the forthcoming party conclave, the first on such a scale since 1980. North Korea says it will be held early in September. One popular theory is that Mr Kim wants the gathering to endorse the appointment of his son, Kim Jong Un, to a senior party post. The idea would be to groom him to succeed his father, whose health has not been robust. The younger Mr Kim is in his late twenties and is believed to be jobless. Rumours of his rise as heir apparent have long been circulating, and it is plausible that his father would want to inform China if confirmation of this is imminent.

No mention was made of Kim Jong Un or the succession issue in official Chinese and North Korean reports. It is not even known if he went on the trip. But Kim Jong Il did spend some time inspecting sites related to the revolutionary days in China of his own late father, Kim Il Sung. Mr Kim spoke of the need to “hand over to the rising generation the baton of the traditional friendship” between the two countries.

China’s president, Hu Jintao (pictured with the Dear Leader), wished the party meeting in Pyongyang a “signal success”. The Chinese media played up Mr Kim’s reported agreement with his hosts on the need for an “early resumption” of multinational talks on North Korea’s nuclear programme. Prospects for this remain dim, but some analysts believe that North Korea might try to get negotiations restarted as a way of relieving economic pressure. For the moment, China is North Korea’s lifeline. Diplomats say trade between the two countries has picked up in recent months. In return for food, North Korea has given China a new lease on harbour facilities in the north-eastern port of Rajin.

The prospect of a power transfer in Pyongyang worries China. Global Times, an English-language newspaper in Beijing, accused America and South Korea of wanting to “create turmoil” in North Korea and said a smooth transition there was “vital” for stability in north-east Asia. Victor Cha of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, says that Mr Kim’s mysterious visit at least made it clear that China would stick with its ally to “the bitter end”.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: