For years, Françoise Nicolas has studied the development of relations between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. It is thus able to measure how the dialectics of trade relations and political influences gradually alter regional strategic and economic balances, including outside China's immediate neighbors.
China is developing the "Belt and Road" Initiative (RB Initiative) on maritime and land routes linking it to Europe. It increases its strength and a military military presence from the seashore to the Indian Ocean. Her business diplomacy and her investments are on all continents. Is it in the process of conquering the place of global hegemonic power?
China undoubtedly has a relatively structured global strategic vision, especially since the arrival of President Jinping in power. This is not necessarily a fully defined or finalized strategy, but it follows a fairly simple slogan: to restore to China the place that has existed in the world before the Europeans entered its sovereignty, beginning in the middle of the nineteenth centurye century. This strategy therefore has narrative, "narrative," "regeneration," but on the ground practices are very variable. The Chinese change their behavior as they meet the realities they face …
But is not this a radical break with Beijing's previous position, still under Day Xiaoping, wanting to be "modest" and to give up any interference in the affairs of the world except in its immediate borders?
Actually. Chinese leaders now believe they have the economic means to reach their ambitions and can go out of their traditional expectation to go to the offensive and plan the Chinese influence in the rest of the world. Beyond the heavy infrastructure – ports, roads, railways – "new silk roads", there is a desire to spread Chinese standards, Chinese ways to do things.
Then, as in the Maoist era, to export Communism as a model of development? Or is it just realpolitician to gain control over trade routes and resources that are essential to an energy-consuming and resource-rich export economy?
We can not iron these concepts so easily on the Chinese case. Westerners have long believed that once they have gone through the stages of industrialization, liberalism, colonialism to achieve democracy, China will do the same. But we are unusually deprived of imagination.
Of course, China wants to ensure the security of its supplies, but unlike European colonialism or American imperialism, there is no political ideology behind, the desire to impose a social model, economically, on culture. On the other hand, the Chinese are convinced of the decisions that allow developing countries to progress as they did. But they do not even ask the question of proving that their model should be followed: they are the Empire of the Middle, the fact that the past centuries have been temporarily hidden from the eyes of the world.
China's strategy is not in this sense "imperialism", which seeks to impose its hegemony on other peoples, but only the confirmation of the evidence of the place of China in the center of the world, the closing of historical brackets, during which China can not play the role it should have. And this is even logical in their eyes, given the demographic weight, and now the economic, on that side of the planet. Today, China's share of world trade is the same as that of the United States when it reached its peak in the early 1960s.
But the world is different from the XVIe century, when China alone weighs more than half the world's wealth …
The speech of "the return of the Empire" is indeed mythical because the present forms are, of course, very different. In XVIe century, the empire was certainly "in the middle," but it was not open to the world. Today, this is not a matter of rebuilding the past, leaving then, as ever, world wealth streams gathering in China and foreign sovereigns to come to pay tribute to the Emperor, but to project its power to the outside world. , to the rest of the world. Chinese-style help is high interest, default clauses in the case of default by the borrower, which are limited to the abandonment of sovereignty: have we not seen that Beijing imposed on Sri Lanka the concession of a port for ninety-nine years. .
That's what the British imposed on the Chinese Emperor for Hong Kong in 1898! Is not this a re-issue of "hunting policy" when the European colonial powers took a first step towards the door before the conquest by imposing their presence on countries that could not pay their debts?
The difference with European colonialism is that with China, the state does not come to support the commercial interests of its bankers or traders: it is from the very beginning of maneuvering. The two main Chinese investors abroad – whether in the "new silk roads" or other projects – are China Development Bank and Exim Bank (export-import), both state-owned banks. The main and almost only beneficiaries of the main works are the large state enterprises (DP, State-owned enterprises) – not required by the central state: The Tianjin Economic Development Region (TEDA), owned by the authorities of Tianjin Province, has invested in a large free zone in Suez, Egypt, which is to host Chinese companies.
Another difference is that the Chinese do not seek to conquer political power in the target countries but to influence it. Of course, the weight of their claims to the budgets of some small countries like Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka offers them considerable leverage. Especially since China also uses other influential vectors, such as university education, student exchange, party relations – the diplomatic activities of the Chinese Communist Party with "political parties". Brothers, whose scope far exceeds Communism, are significant.
But it does not work everywhere, and some governments oppose these sirens, as in Mongolia, or practice a policy of switching between Chinese, Western, Japanese and Korean, such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Burma. We recently saw that the Prime Minister of Malaysia condemned "The New Chinese Colonialism" and the terms of certain contracts; even Pakistan is opposed to some resistance. No doubt Beijing will have to change its way of working.
China is not such at the beginning of the XXI centurye century, inheriting the United States as the world's leading force, as the United States had done before in the early twentieth century.e century at the expense of the UK?
China is definitely taking advantage of the withdrawal of the United States and major European countries in some parts of the world. This is evident in Africa and partly in Latin America. But Chinese expansionism is not without weaknesses and is different from European expansionism since the 18th centurye and XIXe centuries and American XXe century.
First, because it is an action that is run by the state, not by private companies, investments and large projects do not always have the purpose or condition for financial profitability. While China has deep pockets, there is a time when it will be necessary to ask the question of return on investment or debt repayment, especially since these projects and these loans are causing more and more criticism. in the respective countries. Above all, it may soon respond to the constraints of the financial system of the financial cavalry, backed by markets as unstable as real estate or as vulnerable, as large uncompetitive state-owned enterprises and local communities are too indebted.
Another big difference with the United Kingdom and the United States is that China lacks the main attribute of global hegemonic force: money. This is the sterling of the pound sterling, and then the dollar in international trade, which was both a sign and an instrument of British and then of American imperialism.
Of course, Beijing has received that the yuan integrates the basket of International Monetary Fund currencies or that some regional exchanges are denominated in the yuan. But the path to the internationalization of the yuan will continue to be very long, especially since the political power does not seem ready to accept the consequences of the free convertibility of the national currency. When he took two steps in that direction two years ago, this led to massive capital flight, and Beijing went back.
Beijing is also far from the match with the United States in another great dimension of power: the military. China, whatever it is, is far from mastering the most advanced weapons, even if it is ready to catch up. In its fleet there are still only two carriers.
Surely the United States, probably learned from its many failures in recent decades at various open theaters, are less active and present on the world stage. These are all opportunities that Chinese people can use. But if Washington reacts, apparently, by President Donald Trump – even if his behavior seems brutal and irrational – America can score points against China, which has more to lose from diplomatic and commercial conflict. Because, from a military point of view, as a monetary one, the United States remains the first world power.
Francoise Nicola is an economist, director of the Asian Center of the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI). She also teaches in the languages, science and science Po Lyon. She is an OECD consultant. She is a co-author of "France Facing New Chinese Silk Road," IFRI Surveys, October 2018, and "China, New Power", a dossier of Ramses 2019, IFRI, September 2018
This interview with Francois Nicolas was taken from "World Report 2019. Geopolitics, Environment, Economics", 218 pages, 12 euros. Sold in newspaper stands and in Boutique.lemonde.fr