Visible military presence in China is not unusual; but in my experience it has been limited to fairly disorganised lines of privates carrying milking stools from one end of the street to the other for some sort of daily briefing. Nanjing has been awash with soldiers these past two weeks, however, as college and university students embark on a pre-term course of military training akin to national service. All day long the choruses of nationalist lyrics can be heard; an easy method of advertising the same values to the wider community, who also received a barrage of recruitment text messages before the summer.
But this instilling of patriotism is at odds with the mentality of the current government. Many young people in China perceive the contemporary Party to be weak compared to the ideal established by Chairman Mao. The posturing and threats against Japan and the Philippines in reaction to territorial disputes in the South China Sea are seen by many as not going far enough. “I would like action to secure Chinese territories such as the fishing island”, says university student Michael, who like many of his age group would also be in favour of expanding the military to protect these interests.
The government make threatening statements – most recently against perceived British interference in Hong Kong where the UK intelligence agencies are accused of widening infiltration and strengthening surveillance since it became a special autonomous region in 1997 – but young people see the outcome as mute: “I don’t think Chinese military is as strong as the US”. The actual ability to mobilise against opponents, who would quickly find strong allies, makes military action more of a wish than a policy. The friendship between the USA and Japan is seen as unfair to China and a barrier to dealing with the territorial disputes. This is reflected in British policy also. William Hague’s visits to Asia in 2010 featured discussions on regional security in Japan, whilst China was the scene for discussions on business, climate change, and cultural exchanges. The same year did, however, see a meeting of senior military officials in Beijing.
Public desire for China’s involvement in international campaigns is mixed. The USA is often described by young people as ‘wanting to be the world policeman’ with France currently branded as ‘[Obama’s] small dog’ for supporting the campaign in Syria. Many people, infact, are unaware of the large numbers of Chinese engaged in UN missions and continue to see their country as isolated from a very foreign community. Meanwhile others see it as a welcome and inevitable progression for China to become the new world policeman.
The FCO website lists four military areas in which the British and Chinese governments are cooperating. The first is to ‘counter the proliferation of conventional and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ in which China’s influence in North Korea has been useful. The second ‘is to reduce regional tensions by working for openness and understanding across borders’ – that fishing island is a diplomatic minefield. Thirdly ‘contribute to conflict prevention and supporting conflict resolution in fragile states’ which China has upheld by committing 21,000 people to 30 UN peacekeeping operations – the figures stated by Cai Yong, Chinese Defence Attache, as evidence of China’s efforts to maintain “world peace”. The fourth mission statement is to ‘deal with non-traditional security issues such as cyber crime, international terrorism, disaster relief, water and food security, and resource scarcity’ where it becomes difficult to assess the impact of the current cooperation.
The main problem of forging closer links with China is that we don’t want to be too closely associated with a government known for human rights abuses and rife corruption. Although China is an economic powerhouse vast swathes of the country remain undeveloped and inhabited by peasant farmers; the border regions are hazardous; and cultural norms can be very different to what we consider ‘civilised’. We’re more comfortable in a relationship with a culturally similar state where we can trade off any dodgy practices with more common ground.
Premier Li called for closer ties between the UK and China on international and regional affairs at the Davos economic forum last week in Dalian. His statement that it is “in both countries’ interests to deepen bilateral cooperation and to strengthen communication and coordination on international affairs” is a positive sign for the UK after David Cameron’s ill-advised May meeting with the Dalai Lama provoked outrage in China and resulted in Cameron being banned from future visits to Beijing.
Increasing numbers of Chinese nationals go overseas to work and study (many in Britain whilst their European counterparts are living the expat lifestyle all over China), Chinese investors are buying foreign homes (including prime London real estate), and Chinese companies are expanding all over the world (China’s largest company, Sinopec, has offices in Paris). China needs to protect all these newfound interests, whilst the UK needs to maintain a good working relationship with a government to whom we are already bound.