What We See When We Look at China

Tom Ricks flags a Chinese “soft power” bridge-building project in Africa and worries about Chinese military contractors:

. . . Bridges don’t bother me somuch. What really worries me is the day when Beijing starts deploying “private securitycontractors” to African countries, in part because that might be when theprecedents established by the U.S. government in Iraq come back to haunt us.Among other things, Chinese mercenariesare gonna be much cheaper than their American counterparts — and also are likelyto be even cozier with their own government back home.

Now, Ricks is right when he says, previously, that “China is serious about Africa.” It’s involved in a lot of bilateral arms deals on the continent, in large part to secure access to energy and mineral resources. He’s also right to suggest that American precedent-setting policy moving forward should be assessed with an eye to how other global actors might take advantage of it.

But his concern about military contractors seems to fall into the common trap of forecasting China’s future behavior through the lens of our own past behavior. For instance, China does have a military presence in Africa, but it’s in the form of expanded participation in multilateral peacekeeping missions. And while some have pointed to China’s increased defense spending with alarm, it has been consistent with China’s established strategy of theater access prevention, rather than the sort of force projection concerns that have been raised. The same goes for China’s minimalist approach to nuclear deterrence, which takes advantage of cost-effective asymmetry to save money and effort. In other words, China really does seem to be developing its own model of strategic rise, rather than following ours.

Not that China’s intentions are angelic. As well as being perceived as the next major Asian power in this CSIS survey (.pdf, via a bullet-point rundown from the Interpreter) of “strategic elites” in the U.S. and Asia, it is also viewed with the most suspicion. But despite the limited success of its soft power approach (the Chicago Council’s “soft power index”, again via the Interpreter), China does seem genuinely committed to it as the preferred vehicle for expanding its reach and influence.

That could change in ten or fifteen years. But so, too, could a variety of other things, including the degree of Chinese government control over the private sector, the level of its integration into multilateral global governance mechanisms, and its desire to play the stabilizing role in the interests of global commerce currently assumed by the U.S.

All of which to say, I’m still more worried about tarnished American military contractors rebranding themselves under Chinese-sounding names than I am about Chinese military contractors.