The soft sell

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2010, 12:00am

Several things happened in the closing days of 2009 that could well point to how China is likely to develop in the coming decade. On Christmas Day, the country's best known dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for campaigning for political freedoms, many of them already enshrined in the constitution but neglected in practice. Beijing faced down overseas criticism, with the Foreign Ministry warning 'relevant countries and international organisations' not to 'interfere in China's internal affairs'.

Three days later, the Chinese cargo ship De Xin Hai and its crew of 25, held since October last year, were freed by Somali pirates after a ransom of US$4 million in cash was reportedly paid.

The two events are not directly linked. The first shows that China feels it can now safely disregard international outrage over human rights abuses and is likely to continue to act in a high-handed manner.

The second event, however, shows that China is not as strong, militarily, as it would like to be. Beijing announced that the ship and crew had been successfully 'rescued' - with no mention of a ransom having been paid. Asked at a press conference whether it was true that the 'rescue' had taken place after such a payment, a Chinese official merely responded: 'I do not have the specifics you mentioned.'

China has deployed a naval flotilla in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia to protect its shipping from pirates but, like other countries, it has found the task extremely challenging. For one thing, it has no military allies to count on for support and no overseas bases, unlike the US. As a result, its seamen often have to go weeks without calling at a port.

The day after the 'rescue', an interview with Yin Zhuo , a retired rear admiral who is now a senior researcher for the Chinese navy, was published on the Defence Ministry website. Yin called for the setting up overseas of a 'base for resupply and repair'.

This was the first time any official had publicly argued for China to set up overseas bases - a sensitive issue, as Beijing continues to pledge that its rise will be peaceful.

Within days, however, the Defence Ministry issued a statement that, while 'some countries have set up overseas supply bases', China's fleet in the Gulf of Aden 'is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking'.

So while the idea of overseas bases was quashed for now, it seems that it is just a question of where and when to set them up.

Ironically, while many people overseas believe China is already a superpower, a poll by the Global Times sheds light on what Chinese themselves think. Asked whether China is a global power, only 15.5 per cent said 'yes' - down from 26.8 per cent after the Beijing Olympics. Despite foreign accolades, it seems that Chinese realise their country is far from being a superpower.

Actually, as China's overseas interests grow, it is natural for it to want to be able to protect those interests, and the projection of power through overseas bases is a natural development. This does not necessarily mean China will compete with the US for global supremacy.

It does mean, however, that it will want to be able to protect shipping lanes and, indeed, its citizens overseas.

For now, however, China prefers not to focus attention on such future developments, preferring instead to have the world look at its development of soft power.

And so, perhaps not coincidentally, an advertisement for Confucius Institutes, which spread Chinese language and culture around the world, appeared in the online edition of The New York Times on New Year's Day.

Last month, it was disclosed that there are now 282 such institutes around the world with an enrolment of 230,000 students, an increase of 100,000 in just one year.

At this rate, maybe the West should worry more about the spread of these institutes than the future establishment of Chinese naval bases abroad.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator