China (unfortunately) leads the way

Recent days have seen sharp new evidence of a recurring theme in China’s rise — the comfort it’s providing to those who reject the notion of universal values. That is, if Beijing doesn’t have to observe the popular electoral will or decriminalize political expression, why must anyone else? This is a pronounced knock-on phenomenon in ...

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

Recent days have seen sharp new evidence of a recurring theme in China's rise -- the comfort it's providing to those who reject the notion of universal values. That is, if Beijing doesn't have to observe the popular electoral will or decriminalize political expression, why must anyone else? This is a pronounced knock-on phenomenon in petrostates: Not that Vladimir Putin particularly cares about comfort, but on New Year's Eve, Russian police arrested about 100 activists protesting a judge's addition of six years to the prison term of his political foil, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Another China neighbor, Kazakhstan, which has spent years burnishing its democratic credentials in order to be elected chair of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, closed out its leadership year by acting to dispense with the next two presidential elections, Joanna Lillis reports at EurasiaNet. As for China itself, Beijing announced a further squeeze of rival high-tech energy and electronic product-makers such as Japan and South Korea by reducing the export of essential rare-earth minerals.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is almost no penalty for such behavior. Corruption saps the verve of Russia's economy and dismays foreign investors, as Olga Podolskaya and Dan Murphy write in the Christian Science Monitor, but there is no evidence that anyone serious has canceled an investment because of the seven-year-old Khodorkovsky prosecution alone. In Kazakhstan, Chevron, for instance, has no complaints after finally obtaining permission to double exports from Tengiz, the biggest oil field in its global portfolio, to some 1.4 million barrels a day; unless President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself objects, he will avoid reelection campaigns in 2012 and 2017, giving him three decades in power.

Recent days have seen sharp new evidence of a recurring theme in China’s rise — the comfort it’s providing to those who reject the notion of universal values. That is, if Beijing doesn’t have to observe the popular electoral will or decriminalize political expression, why must anyone else? This is a pronounced knock-on phenomenon in petrostates: Not that Vladimir Putin particularly cares about comfort, but on New Year’s Eve, Russian police arrested about 100 activists protesting a judge’s addition of six years to the prison term of his political foil, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Another China neighbor, Kazakhstan, which has spent years burnishing its democratic credentials in order to be elected chair of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, closed out its leadership year by acting to dispense with the next two presidential elections, Joanna Lillis reports at EurasiaNet. As for China itself, Beijing announced a further squeeze of rival high-tech energy and electronic product-makers such as Japan and South Korea by reducing the export of essential rare-earth minerals.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is almost no penalty for such behavior. Corruption saps the verve of Russia’s economy and dismays foreign investors, as Olga Podolskaya and Dan Murphy write in the Christian Science Monitor, but there is no evidence that anyone serious has canceled an investment because of the seven-year-old Khodorkovsky prosecution alone. In Kazakhstan, Chevron, for instance, has no complaints after finally obtaining permission to double exports from Tengiz, the biggest oil field in its global portfolio, to some 1.4 million barrels a day; unless President Nursultan Nazarbayev himself objects, he will avoid reelection campaigns in 2012 and 2017, giving him three decades in power.

Japan, the United States, South Korea, and others have complained bitterly about China’s latest tightening of rare-earth exports, which are used in wind, solar, and advanced-battery technology, and last month the Obama administration threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Yet Beijing has pushed ahead, explaining that it’s husbanding scarce resources and protecting the environment. At Forbes, John Lee argues otherwise — he says the move is all about developing Chinese high-tech companies and forcing foreign rivals to shift their manufacturing plants to China.

So are we headed into an age of every man for himself? That is probably an overstatement, but one thing for sure is that important leaders around the world are telling Washington to pack up its game board and go home. Given the state of its economy, the United States might wish to listen to the message and get its domestic affairs in order. Gideon Rachman writes on the meaning of the American decline in the latest issue of Foreign Policy (out today):

China’s economic prowess is already allowing Beijing to challenge American influence all over the world. The Chinese are the preferred partners of many African governments and the biggest trading partner of other emerging powers, such as Brazil and South Africa. China is also stepping in to buy the bonds of financially strapped members of the eurozone, such as Greece and Portugal.

And China is only the largest part of a bigger story about the rise of new economic and political players. America’s traditional allies in Europe — Britain, France, Italy, even Germany — are slipping down the economic ranks. New powers are on the rise: India, Brazil, Turkey. They each have their own foreign-policy preferences, which collectively constrain America’s ability to shape the world. Think of how India and Brazil sided with China at the global climate-change talks. Or the votes by Turkey and Brazil against America at the United Nations on sanctions against Iran. That is just a taste of things to come.

China itself is not monolithic on the question of the all-powerful state — indications rather are that a roiling internal debate is afoot. Though we are a long way from any serious shift, an irony will be if China itself decides it must loosen up as a prerequisite for continued economic growth, leaving countries like Russia and Kazakhstan to the past.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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