April 16, 2014 4:45 pm

Xi dreams of shaking docile China from its slumber

The Ukraine stand-off offers Beijing a broader role, writes Jonathan Fenby

East Sea China Naval excersice©Reuters

For the first three decades of economic reform and growth, China followed Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide brilliance, cherish obscurity” in global affairs, keeping a low profile as it expanded to become the world’s second-biggest economy. The current leadership under Xi Jinping does not hold with such self-abnegation. That much is clear, both from its campaign to assert itself in the South China Sea and its islands dispute with Japan.

Yet Beijing still fails to play a political role commensurate with its economic clout. Hobbled by domestic concerns, resource dependency and a reluctance to get involved in the quarrels of others, it has little to say about significant international issues and has been reticent about advancing proposals to reform global political and economic structures.

Since November 2012, when he took the top job as general secretary of the Communist party, Mr Xi has emerged as the strongest Chinese leader since Deng. In addition to his party role Mr Xi is state president, head of the Central Military Commission and chairs three new bodies. One of them, the National Security Commission, is charged with ensuring domestic stability. China spends more on internal security than on its armed forces.

But the NSC also has another role: sorting out China’s often disjointed foreign policy, which traditionally has been in the purview of a confusing array of overlapping ministries and Communist party bodies, each with its own agenda. In the past China was content if it could get its hands on foreign commodities, prevent outsiders from meddling in Tibet or Xinjiang, and deter them from poking their noses into its human rights record. The current leadership has grander ambitions. But, so far, it seems Mr Xi has not come close to achieving his “China dream” of national rejuvenation and recognition from the world’s great powers.

Events in Ukraine have provided an early test of China’s new foreign policy set-up. While global attention is focused on President Vladimir Putin’s trial of strength with Kiev and the west, what Beijing does in the coming weeks will reveal whether the Xi administration is ready and able to engage with a situation that could either embarrass it or open the potential for economic and foreign policy gains.

The embarrassment for Beijing is all too evident. China had cozied up to Viktor Yanukovich, notably when the former Ukrainian president paid it a state visit at the end of last year. China’s only aircraft carrier originated in Ukraine. The People’s Republic loaned Kiev a total of $6bn during Mr Yanukovich’s tenure, supposedly in return for wheat supplies and farm land. Those deals seem to have gone awry, with China getting little in return for its money.

When street protests in Kiev led to the overthrow of an authoritarian government, China’s Communist leadership was hardly minded to cheer given its own repression of dissent. But it could not approve of the annexation of Crimea, either, since a cardinal plank of its foreign policy is that states must not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries

Beijing had little choice but to abstain when the matter came before the UN Security Council. When US President Barack Obama met Mr Xi at The Hague last month, he seemed to accept this was the most Washington could expect.

Meeting Mr Xi in Beijing on Tuesday Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, thanked China for itsunbiased position on Ukraine” and said ties were at an “unprecedented height” – though informed sources said China had not been happy when Mr Lavrov stated last month that Moscow and Beijing were in agreement.

Mr Putin travels to Beijing next month. On the table will be a big deal for Russia to supply gas to China, which wants to diversify its energy mix away from coal and cut air pollution. If the west tightens sanctions, Moscow might look to China as an economic partner. Mr Xi could push for a lower gas price, investment opportunities across the Siberian border, and an enlarged Chinese role in Russia’s oil and gas sector.

But if the Sino-Russian relationship becomes too close, it risks being seen as an anti-western coalition. That would raise Washington’s hackles. Midterm elections in the US will again bring attacks on the weakening of the Chinese currency, criticised by the US Treasury on Wednesday. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, might be emboldened by such developments – and Washington might become less inclined to rein him in.

Britain has been exercised this week by Beijing’s cancellation of talks on human rights between the two countries after criticism of its record in a government report in London. But this is only a speck on Mr Xi’s horizoneven if David Cameron, the British prime minister, had hailed the talks as signal progress. The Chinese leader must now decide whether the world’s second-biggest economy is ready to play a bigger political role. If it does, what happens next could change the shape of our multipolar world.

The writer is China director of the research service Trusted Sources and author of ‘Will China Dominate the 21st Century?’

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.

Venezuela’s Unending Ordeal

Rodrigo Pardo

APR 17, 2014
Newsart for Venezuela’s Unending Ordeal

BOGOTA Venezuela is descending ever deeper into violence, with street protests spreading rapidly across the country. President Nicolás Maduro’s government appears to be losing controlusing both a strong hand against protesters and a timid attempt to begin a dialogue with political rivalswhile the opposition is divided and appears incapable of taking power. Since the current crisis began in February, more than 40 people have died, roughly 650 have been injured, and some 2,000 have been detained.

Meanwhile, Venezuela’s inflation rate is the highest in the world, basic goods are in short supply, and street crime has reached unprecedented levels. And, rather than address these issues, Madurowho has just completed his first year in office – has denounced the protests as part of an attempted coup.

Maduro’s party controls all three branches of government and most of the major domestic media outlets, and there are no upcoming elections that might break the deadlock and resolve the worsening power struggle. Though there are signs of discontent in the armed forces, the coup scenario seems far-fetched – and certainly hard to prove.

But the government is taking no chances. Three air force generals have been detained, national and foreign news media are being censored, and officials have even cut off supplies of newsprint to all but the government’s supporters.

Venezuelans, unlike much of the international media covering their country, are accustomed to inflammatory rhetoric from their political leaders. But the current crisis is different, for it reflects the painful divide that has become all too apparent since the death last year of Maduro’s charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Maduro, Chávez’s hand-picked successor, narrowly won the April 2013 presidential election over Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young, energetic moderate.

Hopes of change, however, have since dwindled. The government won a larger majority in local and regional elections last December, and Maduro has failed to develop the ideas and policies needed to end the street violence and political paralysis. And, though Maduro has contained infighting within his own party, his position is far from secure. Still new to the job, and facing mounting economic and political problems, he has yet to prove to the party faithful that he is a worthy successor to Chávez.

The opposition, for its part, has learned its lessons from the failed 2002 coup. It has patiently constructed a coalition capable of competing in elections, a field previously dominated by Chávez (helped in no small measure by his government’s unrestrained social spending). As a result, the opposition has been able to score some regional election victories, and mount a credible effort to win the presidency.

But Maduro’s opponents are divided over what direction to take. Capriles wants protesters to play by the constitutional rules, which would take longer, and probably be less effective in unseating the government. By contrast, two protest leaders, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado, want to bring down the government more quickly. López is now in jail, while Machado has been stripped of her parliamentary seat for speaking against the government before a session of the Organization of American States.

The OAS’s response, like that of other international organizations and foreign governments, has been ineffectual. Venezuela’s government barred a commission of foreign ministers sent by the OAS from entering the country to evaluate the crisis.

The Union of South American Nations, which is more friendly to the Maduro government, has called for dialogue with the opposition, to be mediated by an emissary of Pope Francis (who has met both Maduro and Capriles) and the foreign ministers of Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador. The first meetings of government and opposition representatives have alleviated tensions, but no one expects a definitive solution to the crisis to emerge.

But no other group or country from the region seems ready to enter the fray. Colombia and the United States have interests to protect, despite their unease with the Maduro government’s growing authoritarianism. Brazil wants to avoid a risky intervention with no clear benefit. Members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, the regional bloc established by Chávez, either benefit from Venezuelan oil or are too close to the government to provide good offices.

That leaves the government and the opposition to fight it out, with all of the political, economic, and human cost that this involves – and with no obvious end in sight.

Rodrigo Pardo, a former foreign minister of Colombia, is the news director at RCN television, Colombia.