I enjoyed the Chinese New Year in London’s Chinatown watching the spectacular lion and dragon dancers as well as eating a lot of tasty dim sum. Similar scenes have been repeated across China while Beijing is currently much quieter than normal, but as politicians and bureaucrats return after the holidays some new policy initiatives will emerge from the capital. I take a look at these and crucially what the implications might be for China’s foreign policy.
Neighbourhood Policy – Non-Interference or Creative Involvement?
There are now a multitude of strategies for China’s neighbourhood region: the Maritime Silk Road Initiative, the Silk Road Economic Belt, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to name but a few. While some of these are well established others have not yet got off the ground. On the economic front things looks good for China as its continues to step up trade and investment in the region, but a more assertive foreign policy particularly in regard to the South China Sea and the Indian border could reverse these gains and frighten its neighbours further into the United States’ embrace.
China’s companies have a reputation for being poor protectors of the environment and the country now has a notorious role in the illegal wildlife trade. The devastating wildlife losses driven by the demand for African ivory in China are not only a catastrophic problem for the countries involved, but the topic is now at the top of many discussions around Chinese investment and is poisoning the country’s international reputation. It is well-known that China has a big problem with pollution, but is this the year the government finally get serious about building an “ecological civilization”? There is a new Environmental Protection Law in the works and the early signs are encouraging.
An improvement in environmental protection domestically could eventually help matters abroad as Chinese firms develop a new mind-set, but these ideas take time to filter down and of course many companies may start offshoring their worst polluting factories to less regulated shores. Efforts to raise awareness among the Chinese public around the issue of ivory are also gaining traction, with Yao Ming, a well-known basketball player leading the fight to save the elephant.
Internal Security and the Middle East
Despite having a major economic stake in the Middle East, China has kept its head down (relatively speaking) letting others do the talking and acting. Now there are reports of Chinese citizens fighting alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which creates the same issue the UK and France are facing, which is the potential for radicalised, battle hardened fighters returning to spread terror in their home country. Politicians and security experts are getting worried as China is already vulnerable to this strain of attack in the Xinjiang region. A large scale attack would undoubtedly lead to further repression in the western province, which in turn will lead to further grievances among the local Uyghur people and possibly encourage China to take a more active role in the Middle East in an attempt to combat the threat.