Is China "newly assertive" in the Middle East and Africa?
The New York Times article, "China Reaps Biggest Benefits of Iraq Oil Boom" got some traction on the Web recently and the headline even made it to the Jon Stewart Show. Deborah Brautigam's older publication,The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, found a wide readership when it released. Both these publications and the many other like it are considered "novel" in the way they provide a new perspective on how to view China. Should China no longer be viewed in merely an Asian context, but also Middle East and African contexts? This would be similar to the way the U.S. can be viewed in different cultural contexts (Middle East--duh, Europe during the World Wars, Africa for aid, Asia for our naval presence) without this jarring our imagined picture of America in the world. When will China no longer be viewed by the public as merely an Asian power, but as a Eurasian one? Is such a shift in perspective even a valid one to make?
Without any empirical evidence, but widespread anecdotal observations, I would posit that the majority of Americans have a vague sense of a Chinese threat, but don't have a geographic perspective for what that might look like. We, as Americans, don't have a good feel for where there are Chinese feet actually on the ground. Usually this "sense of threat" is in broader terms of economic weight and a modernizing military, more abstract concepts. We could call this a strategic perspective without any tactical evidence or legs. The unfortunate result of this vagueness is that whenever something that might be labeled "tactical" appears, it's added to an arsenal of squishy arguments for a strategic conspiracy.
Following onto this, I would reluctantly argue that whenever Sino-African and Sino-MENA issues pop up in the media (which it seldom does, but when it does), there's a predilection to see a looming Chinese giant squid with tentacles that have a global reach. This is specifically toward "westward" issues (Central Asia, Africa, Middle East) because China's eastward relations are well-reported in the press. By heavy exposure to these cold conflicts, this Chinese assertiveness is familiar and potentially less threatening since we know what's going on and the U.S. government seems to be doing a good job "containing" China. Admittedly, the official policy is not "containment," but the average American Joe is confident that's what's going on. But a westward Chinese foreign policy is not familiar territory for most Americans that only watch CNN or Fox for their world news. To put this perspective or "syndrome" simplistically, the U.S. was busy containing China in East and Southeast Asia, but then China snuck out its western backdoor.
By focusing on these individual issues, whether it be Chinese investments in Iraqi oil, or maneuvering in Central Asia, Beijing may seem a lot more conspiratorial than it really is. In the big scheme of things, these initiatives are not currently major issues for the United States, but can easily be snatched up by the fearful mind. That's not to say China's influence in these areas won't be an issue in the future, but the seismic shift has not occurred. We can easily latch onto such articles as the aforementioned NYT publication or China Brief's "China's Iraq Oil Strategy Comes Into Sharper Focus," or the recent Chinese foray into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and find evidence of a new era of Chinese foreign policy that has secretly been kept under the radar. We have been caught unawares!
I don't know of any systematic treatment on this topic yet. Alistair Iain Johnston provided such a treatment for Chinese foreign policy in "How New and Assertive is China's New Assertiveness?", but dealt primarily with Beijing's relations with its Asian neighbors. Johnston convincingly argues that China's "new assertiveness" is not actually new at all, but is following the same foreign policy principles and prerogatives it always has. A similar comprehensive investigation needs to be conducted about whether this "new assertiveness" meme can truly be applied to China's westward tactics. My inclination is such an investigation would reveal similar conclusions to Johnston's article.