17 October 2019
Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Massimov greets President Xi Jinping on his arrival Thursday. Photo: AFP
Kazakhstan's Prime Minister Karim Massimov greets President Xi Jinping on his arrival Thursday. Photo: AFP

How China is changing balance of global diplomatic power

This week three “great powers” have big stories at home – and almost no one in the rest of the world is taking any notice.

In Britain (OK, arguably no longer a great power) a historic, perhaps game-changing election is riveting the country – alongside the birth of Princess Charlotte.

In the United States, President Barack Obama is at last girding his loins to fight for the “fast track” negotiating authority that will enable him to get the world’s biggest free trade agreement – the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – past the finishing line.

And in China, President Xi Jinping prepares to visit Russia and two of its satellites.

In diplomatic terms, the “great game” continues to be played as it was 100 years ago – and the same old proverb applies – the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I sense a great indifference in Hong Kong to Britain’s Lilliputian election – though it provides a marvellous example of how even the most time-honored democracies find themselves sullied by tawdry, unprincipled compromises with political enemies in the cynical quest for power.

But in the US and in China, the great game is being played out by more traditional rules.

In the TPP, the US is bringing together 11 allies, above all else Japan and excluding China, that alongside its economic agenda is intended to balance Pacific power in its favour, underpinned by its relationship with Japan.

And Xi’s visit to Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus – alongside his recent visit to Pakistan and a visit by India’s prime minister to Beijing – marks China’s own efforts to rebalance power in Asia and the Pacific around its own interests and priorities.

Since the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s relations with the West have been strained. Friends are in short supply.

Out of invitations to 68 countries to stand alongside him to commemorate Russia’s Victory Day marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, fewer than 30 world leaders have agreed to join.

Japan, Israel, the US, France, Germany – and even North Korea – have given Putin the cold shoulder.

Xi’s presence has huge diplomatic importance.

For China, alongside the raw diplomatic importance, Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus are three anchors for the new Silk Road initiatives that look toward parts of the world ignored by the West for almost a century.

The isolation of Russia has hurt Belarus and Kazakhstan economically, so the hand of China’s political and economic friendship has a great attraction.

For example, Belarus’s exports dropped 22.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, following the Ukraine conflict.

Meanwhile, China’s ties with this region have grown steadily in recent years – driven strongly by the country’s ever-growing need for natural resources as well as the need to stabilize potentially disruptive Islamic forces in China’s west.

China and Russia’s trade has jumped more than eight times over the past decade, making China today Russia’s main source of imports and its second-largest export destination.

Last year, bilateral trade reached US$88.4 billion, up 29.4 percent from 2013.

If Xi’s visit to Pakistan last month is anything to go by, Kazakhstan and Belarus can expect big deals from his visit.

China announced US$46 billion in investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and infrastructure links are certain to be high on the agenda in the upcoming visits.

It was in Kazakhstan where Xi first brought up the Silk Road initiative in 2013, focusing primarily on infrastructure.

This matches Kazakhstan’s own economic stimulus plans, with the government planning to invest US$40 billion in transportation by 2020, building up its role as a bridge between Europe and Asia.

China is now Kazakhstan’s largest trading partner, and it is easy to see here the logic of the China-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, so controversially conceived in the teeth of fierce US opposition.

As China grows, so the balance of global economic and diplomatic power is beginning to change.

The “great game” may include different parts of the world, and some different economic priorities, but in essence the rules of the game remain unchanged.

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Executive director of the Hong Kong APEC Trade Policy Group