Beijing’s Most Embarrassing Allies

As China has grown into a major economic and military power in the last two decades, its mad scramble for energy resources and trading partners has led it into alliances with some of the world's most unsavory governments. Here are five regimes that couldn't survive without Beijing.

STR/AFP/Getty Images; Guang Niu/Pool/Getty Images; AFP/AFP/Getty Images; ANDREW WONG/AFP/Getty Images; Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images; Guang Niu/Pool/Getty Images; AFP/AFP/Getty Images; ANDREW WONG/AFP/Getty Images; Jason Lee-Pool/Getty Images


Beijing’s interests: Stability, bilateral trade, and a buffer between China and South Korea

The relationship: Chinese support for North Korea dates back to the 1950s, when Beijing loaned military aid and fighters to Kim Il Sung’s communist government during the Korean War. China quickly became North Korea’s primary benefactor and trading partner, a relationship that has continued under the rule of Kim Jong Il. Ninety percent of North Korea’s energy imports, 80 percent of its consumer goods, and 45 percent of its food now come from China.

The relationship isn’t all one-sided. An increasing number of Chinese firms are investing in North Korea to take advantage of its rock-bottom labor costs and large coal and mineral deposits. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $2.79 billion in 2008, up more than 40 percent from the year before. More importantly for Beijing, North Korea provides a friendly buffer zone between China’s northeast and capitalist, democratic South Korea — as well as the 37,500 U.S. troops based there.

China has frequently used its position on the U.N. Security Council to block harsher sanctions against Kim’s regime. Since North Korea began its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Beijing has seemed more exasperated with Kim’s belligerence and at times, has even supported international sanctions. Although the support is not as unconditional as it once was, China remains North Korea’s most important ally, as evidenced by the reclusive Kim Jong Il’s recent trip to Beijing, where he met with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao and reportedly suggested once again that he might be willing to return to the negotiating table.

Most embarrassing moment: China was instrumental in cajoling North Korea into participating in the 2003-2005 six-party talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, which culminated in a 2005 agreement by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for foreign aid. So when Pyongyang tore up the agreement and tested a nuclear weapon in October 2006, it was widely perceived as a “slap in the face” to a Chinese government that had repeatedly stuck its neck out for its troublesome southeastern neighbor. One week after the tests, China agreed for the first time to support U.N. sanctions on North Korea, and the political relationship between the two countries has been strained ever since. Fearing the chaos and potential refugee crisis that might result if the Kim regime were to fall, however, China is still wary about applying too much pressure, and trade between the countries continues to increase.


Beijing’s interests: Oil and gas

The relationship: The economic relationship between Iran and China dates back to the days of the Silk Road, but has taken on a new geopolitical importance in the last decade, as China has sought out reliable sources of oil to fuel its growing economy, and an increasingly isolated Iran has looked eastward as relations with the United States and Europe have deteriorated.

Iran is China’s third-largest source of oil, supplying about 11.4 percent of its oil imports. Bilateral trade between the two countries totaled $21.2 billion in 2009, up from 10.1 billion in 2005. The China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) has reached deals to develop new oil and natural gas fields throughout the country. Because Iran lacks the capacity to refine its own oil into gasoline, it’s also a major importer of Chinese petroleum products.

As Iran has, over strong U.S. and European opposition, continued to develop its nuclear program, China has repeatedly opposed, on the Security Council, international sanctions against its new business partner, generally proposing that diplomatic efforts be given more time.

Most embarrassing moment: China’s stated position, that the Iranian nuclear issue could be resolved through negotiations, took a hit in November 2009, when Iran rejected a deal to ship its uranium abroad for enrichment. China joined with the other members of the Security Council in expressing disappointment with Iran’s decision and has publicly urged Iran to accept the new agreement. China welcomed a similar fuel-swap deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey this May, but it was apparntely too little too late. The United States quickly announced that China had finally agreed to tougher sanctions, but the devil is in the details, and it’s still unclear whether Beijing will sign on to the most punitive measures backed by the other big powers.


Beijing’s interests: Oil

The relationship: As China’s insatiable demand for energy has led it to invest more and more in Africa, it has come under frequent criticism for its relationship with unstable and unsavory regimes — but none has been more controversial than Sudan. Cooperation between the two countries began during the 1970s, when Mao Zedong provided the country’s then-Marxist government with loans and medical aid. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that energy cooperation between the two countries took off, after American oil companies pulled out due to U.S. sanctions.

The international sanctions applied to Sudan following the country’s bloody civil war and the ongoing violence in Darfur have allowed China overwhelming dominance over the country’s energy sector. CNPC is the largest investor in Sudan’s state-owned oil company, and China purchases 40 percent of the country’s oil output, accounting for about 6 percent of China’s imports.

Even more controversially, human rights groups allege that China has sold Sudan more than $55 million in small arms — weapons that have been used to kill more than 300,000 people in the Darfur region. Chinese cooperation with Sudan has continued even as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. China, along with Russia, has blocked sanctions against Sudan on the Security Council.

Most embarrassing moment: Next to Tibet, China’s relationship with Sudan is the most frequent cause of anti-Chinese ire from human rights activists. In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, for instance, Darfur activists disrupted the the Olympic torch relay and then U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton called on President George W. Bush to boycott the opening ceremony. Bush went, but another high-profile guest, American film director Steven Spielberg, who had signed on as a consultant to the opening ceremonies, pulled out of the project over his objections to China’s policies in Sudan.


Beijing’s interests: Natural gas and mining

The relationship: Burma has traditionally exported raw materials like timber and gemstones to China, but nowadays Beijing has its eyes on a much bigger prize: Burma’s estimated 21.19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. CNPC signed a 30-year natural gas deal with Burma in 2008, and a pipeline carrying gas to China’s Yunnan province is expected to come online in 2012. China has also begun work on an oil pipeline through Burma that will save Chinese tankers a costly trip through the politically sensitive Strait of Malacca. China gave Burma about $2 billion in military aid between 1995 and 2005, including fighter jets and naval vessels.

Although China has been more than willing to turn a blind eye to Burma’s crackdowns on political opposition and has stood up for the Burmese junta in the Security Council, there are signs that the relationship has begun to deteriorate. Burma’s long-running military campaign against ethnic minorities in its northeast has sent thousands across the border into China, bringing narcotics and HIV/AIDS with them. China expressed its “deep concern, in August 2009, prompting the junta to issue a rare apology. Above all, China is looking for stability from its southern neighbor and energy provider, and the increasingly isolated junta seems unable to provide it.

Most Embarrassing moment: Burma’s 2007 anti-government protests were a wake-up call to China. The images of Buddhist monks taking to the streets en masse to challenge the junta’s authority was not a sight that Chinese leaders particularly wanted to see replicated throughout the region, particularly in Tibet. Burmese Foreign Minister U Nyan Win was publicly admonished on a trip to Beijing that year by senior Chinese diplomat Tang Jiaxuan, who told him to “restore internal stability” and “push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country.” Perhaps hedging its bets, China has lately begun to reach out to imprisoned Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. China’s wavering commitment to the junta will likely be tested again later this year, when the government has tentatively planned to hold elections with Suu Kyi’s party banned from participating.


Beijing’s interests: Precious metals

The relationship: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is a long-time Sinophile, dating back to his days as a rebel leader fighting the white-dominated Rhodesian government, when he received arms, training, and funding from Beijing. Mugabe made a point of visiting China in 1980, the first year of his leadership, to thank the Chinese for their support.

The Chinese government has publicly supported Mugabe’s controversial land-reform policies and has granted the country billions in agricultural aid. China has also sold Mugabe’s regime the latest military technology, including FC-1 fighter jets, 100 military vehicles, and a state-of-the-art radar system at Mugabe’s mansion in the suburbs of Harare.

In exchange, Mugabe has opened up Zimbabwe’s vast mineral deposits, including the world’s second-largest supply of platinum, to Chinese investment. Chinese companies have pumped millions into rebuilding the country’s struggling mining sector, expanding economic cooperation as Western governments have slapped increasingly harsh sanctions on Mugabe’s regime.

Most embarrassing moment: During the Zimbawean government’s 2008 crackdown following a disputed presidential election, China was caught red-handed when a ship carrying small arms intended for Zimbabwe — including 3 million rounds of ammunition and 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades — was turned away by South African authorities at the port of Durban. After it was prevented from unloading at several African ports, the ship was eventually forced to return to China.

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