In about 10 years, China’s GDP will surpass that of the US. What does China’s economic and military power mean for the Muslim world?
China and Pakistan have embarked on an ambitious $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project (estimated to rise to $51 billion) that would connect Kashgar in China with Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan through a network of roads and other infrastructure. Once the project is completed, China would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year by shortening China’s route for energy imports from the Muslim East (aka the Middle East). This corridor also gives China greater access to the Indian Ocean.
Pakistan meanwhile expects a huge improvement in roads and highways infrastructure. The deal also includes the construction of several power plants that would help reduce Pakistan’s severe power shortages. The value of these projects would be equal to all foreign direct investment in Pakistan since 1970. Such massive investment from China has created great excitement in Pakistan. Pakistanis are hoping perhaps this can finally free the country from all the burdensome conditionalities that are usually attached with US and other Western aid disbursements.
In January 2016 Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Hassan Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran declared that they intend to increase trade volume between the two countries to $600 billion within a decade, a tenfold increase from their present volume. This would make Iran-China trade close to the total volume of current trade between the US and China.
In his book, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington suggested that the US should continue to prop up the military industrial complex to prepare for a violent “civilizational” clash against a Confucian-Islamic alliance. How did he come to such an astonishing conclusion about a belligerent anti-west alliance taking shape when there is no ideological, religious, or cultural affinity between communist-cum-free market China and Muslim countries? He argued that both China and Muslim countries share grievances against the West’s colonial past and Western dominance of the present world order. Further, Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Iran have engaged in extensive cooperation with China. Huntington also threw in Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s rhetorical statement (murdered by US-backed terrorists in October 2011) about a future fight between the Christians and Jews on one side and Muslim countries and China on the other as proof of the emerging clash.
Do the two events cited in the first three paragraphs above indicate a movement toward a belligerent anti-western alliance between China and the Islamic world? In what follows, there will be an attempt to discuss what the Muslim Ummah can expect from a rising China beginning with a brief detour into history.
“Seek knowledge even if it takes you to China.” This well-known hadith is a call for Muslims to seek knowledge even if that implied traveling to the cradle of an ancient repository of knowledge, a great civilization like China. For most of human history, China had been a great civilization with a rich economy and superior technology. Modern civilization cannot be imagined without books written on paper, a Chinese invention. After being at the top of the world for more than two millennia, and enriching the world by numerous inventions like porcelain, silk, alcohol, the clock, bronze, cast iron, abacus, compass, and gunpowder, China was defeated and colonized starting with the Opium Wars in 1839–1842. Thus began a “century of humiliation” at the hands of the imperialist powers.
The process of reversal in national humiliation began with the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 under the leadership of Mao Zedong, who embraced communism as the state ideology. After 1978 China opted to abandon communism in favor of market oriented reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. The new economic policy used market with a strong role for government. Within a few years China embarked on a path of economic growth that resulted in raising the standard of living of the average Chinese by more than 20 times within three decades. This exceptionally high and sustained economic growth catapulted the size of China’s economy to the second position after it overtook Japan in 2010. If the current trend continues, China will overtake the US as the largest economy in the year 2028.
The spectacular success of such a large country like China surprised the pundits, because the Chinese experience of economic development ran counter to conventional wisdom. Development experts used to believe that economic development could only occur through a process summarized by the so-called “Washington Consensus.” The IMF, the World Bank, and the US Treasury Department used to prescribe a single formula to crisis-wrecked countries. They used to demand of countries needing assistance that if they wished to come out of poverty and crisis they would have to deregulate, privatize, and limit the government’s role in the economy. The Chinese experience shows that a strong, efficient and dedicated government may be more effective than the free market alone for achieving economic development with more equitable distribution.
Economic growth of a country not only raises the standard of living of its citizens but also enables it to play a much bigger role in the international arena. The role that a more powerful China will play is a matter of deep interest to every major player on the world stage. Sinologists and other experts have conducted numerous studies to determine how the rise of China may affect the world order. They have tried to discover the goals or policy objectives of the Chinese leadership. An understanding of the role of those goals and objectives seems important for assessing what to expect from a rising China.
After abandoning communism, the CPC leadership had to redefine itself as the best guarantor of China’s national interest. What do the Chinese leaders mean by China’s “national interest”? The answer seems to consist of three Ps: namely preservation, prosperity, and power. Preservation means protection of territorial integrity and maintenance of internal stability. The prosperity goal is encapsulated in the slogan: fu-min-qiang-guo, meaning rich people and strong nation. Power means the capacity to achieve the first two goals: preservation and prosperity. So it could mean having a strong military or soft power to create or maintain a world that is suitable for a stable and prosperous China.
Among the three elements of national interest, the goal of preservation is the most important. The Chinese feel that the main reason for their defeat and colonization was their disunity and instability. They do not want to go through that experience again, ever. That is why they attach such great importance to the goal of reuniting Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, territories that had been dismembered from the Chinese empire.
China’s differential treatment of its 11 million Hui Muslims and the eight million Uighur Muslims is another instance of how sensitive the Chinese are about the country’s territorial integrity. While Uighurs of China are treated with suspicion and often dealt with harshly, the Hui Muslims are fully integrated into Chinese society. When a Sufi Master from the Hui community, claiming 1.5 million followers across China, openly talked about his meeting with Osama bin Laden, the authorities were not bothered because he professed his unwavering loyalty to the CCP leadership. On the other hand, Uighurs are viewed with suspicion and subjected to discrimination. In Xinjiang, the Uighur Muslims employed by the state are barred from fasting during Ramadan while there is no such restriction on Hui Muslims.
Uighur women are discouraged from wearing hijab while Hui women are free to do so. Every year, the number of Hui Muslims going for Hajj increases while the Uighur find it difficult to obtain government permission to perform the pilgrimage. Although according to Chinese law children are forbidden from obtaining religious education, Hui Muslims’ violation of the law is ignored as they send their children to madrasahs. When media publishes reports about the religious persecution of Uighur Muslims, it is often misunderstood as Chinese Islamophobia. The truth is that Chinese officials are extremely sensitive about separatist tendencies among the Uighurs and often employ heavy-handed methods against them.
Even a brief consideration of China’s relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran would provide a better assessment of what the Muslim Ummah can expect from a strong China. Analysis of the Iran-China relationship is important because among all the Muslim countries, Iran has the deepest and most multifaceted relations involving trade in many kinds of goods, investment in multiple fields, and cooperation in nuclear research and defense technology with China. The true character of China is far more likely to be revealed because the relationship has faced great international attention, scrutiny, and pressure.
Right after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Tehran cut off relations with Beijing because of the latter’s support of the Shah. But the Chinese government was very eager to establish a close relationship with the new revolutionary government that professed intense desire to be free from both the US and Russian domination. The Chinese government sent high-level delegations to convince the Iranian leadership that China was opposed to all external (American, Russian or European) interference in the Muslim East. The Chinese delegation pointed out that China and Iran were both successors of great civilizations and both had been victims of external domination. They reassured their Iranian counterparts that China would never interfere in Iran’s internal affairs.
Iran found China’s promise of noninterference convincing and resumed diplomatic relations. Within a short period, the internationally isolated Iranians discovered that they needed Chinese defense cooperation to defend their country against the Iraqi imposed war. Although Chinese arms and technology were less sophisticated than their Western or Russian counterparts, Iran had no better option. China also offered help with technical advisors to build Iran’s own capacity to produce missiles and other defense equipment. This was a win-win transaction for both parties because China needed buyers while Iran needed the arms from a source that would not wish to dominate them.
After the war ended Chinese firms won lucrative contracts for the reconstruction of the country’s devastated infrastructure. In 1992 when China turned from an oil exporting country to a net importer, Iran became a principal exporter of oil to China. When Japanese and European firms started leaving Iran due to US pressure in 2002, Chinese firms quickly moved in to become the biggest investors in the development of Iranian gas and oil fields. With Chinese firms entering into development of oil fields, building of highways, rail network, ports, dams, and nuclear research facilities the Chinese economic interests became far deeper and multifaceted than a simple dependence on oil.
In the face of mounting US pressure, China played a useful role in shielding Iran from sanctions and easing the burden of sanctions. Supporting Iran in difficult times served China’s national interest, not only for safeguarding a stable and secure source of oil and gas (prosperity), or protecting its billions of dollars of investments (prosperity), but for Iran’s potential for serving its political (protection) and strategic (power) interests as well.
China has been consistently vocal against using sanctions that it considers as a form of interference in Iran’s internal affairs. This emanates from China’s own preservation goal, as Beijing also had been a victim of sanctions. China’s support for fiercely independent Iran serves China’s long-term strategic interests because US monopoly of the oil rich Gulf region presents a long-term security risk to China. In the event of war over Taiwan, the US could choke off China’s oil supply. An oil rich country like Iran that can defy the US to supply China with its vital energy needs in times of crises is a valuable strategic partner for Beijing.
China’s support for Iran is based on weighing the substantial economic, political and strategic cost of abandoning Iran against the benefit of being with it. Therefore, China could move away from Iran if the cost of staying with it became too great. On a few occasions, when the pressure on China became too great, it allowed the Security Council to impose unjust sanctions on Iran by abstaining from voting. Under heavy US pressure, China also reduced its dependence on Iranian oil, fulfilling one of the goals of American policy against Iran. Thus the same national interest that led China to support Iran could one day lead China to move away from it.
Unlike the US, a rising China has shown itself to be a noninterventionist and non-interfering power. And unlike Western economic aid that comes with hundreds of stringent conditions, China’s economic assistance and investment projects do not have any conditions attached. China believes in a multipolar world free from hegemony. These characteristics make China an attractive ally and partner for any Islamic or non-Islamic country. However, China’s foreign policy decisions are based on sophisticated calculations of cost-benefit analysis to its national interests. If an alliance or relationship does not add significant benefits to its national interest, there is no reason to expect China would form any alliance with any country, Islamic or not.
A country that is not committed to the ideals of justice cannot be an unshakable ally or an all-weather partner of the Ummah. China has developed deep collaboration with Israel in technological, economic, and defense fields. During Israel’s barbaric massacre in Gaza in 2014, a poll conducted in China showed that a majority of Chinese approved of Israel’s actions. Another worrying manifestation of valuing economic interest over human costs was evident when the Chinese government declared its support for the Saudi-led coalition, despite the obvious monstrosity of ongoing Saudi massacre in Yemen.
There is no ideological affinity between a secularist, realpolitik China and Islamic countries. Therefore fruitful and mutually beneficial deals can take place only if the interests are complementary. Muslim countries would do well if they carefully consider what they can offer to satisfy China’s national interests and what the latter can provide to satisfy their own needs before deciding whether the countries benefit from a rising China. Miscalculation of China’s interests, like Pakistani government’s expectation about the Chinese coming to rescue Pakistan against India in 1971 war with India, could spell disaster.
Manzur Alam Tipu obtained his PhD in Economics from the University of Houston. He has served in teaching, consulting and research positions.