The 7,000 Chinese troops and numerous ships, fighter planes and amphibious vehicles showcased in joint military exercises with Russia late August aren't the only signs of China's growing geopolitical might. China is shaking the international order through bilateral trade deals with nations the West would prefer to isolate.
This summer, Iran continued constructing nuclear reactors, unfazed by threats of economic retribution from the EU and comforted by the US$2.54 billion China spent on Iranian oil in the first six months of this year. Uzbekistan, late July, evicted the US from a military base strategically located near Afghanistan leased since 2001, a few weeks after a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an organization – of which both China and Uzbekistan are members – designed to promote Central Asian integration.
"We can no longer rely on all the relevant actors to abide by our sort of code of conduct now that there's this huge player that won't necessarily go along with it," said Jason Kindopp, China analyst at Eurasia Group.
China's voracious appetite for natural resources is fueling economies across the globe, to the point that many – now less dependent upon the markets of America and Western Europe – can say, we'll send our oil and our metals and our cotton and our minerals East, thank you very much.
Trade between China and Iran increased 50% in 2004 to about US$7 billion, making China the number two importer of Iranian products. China is the top trade partner of North Korea another "Axis of Evil" member, is by far the largest importer of Sudanese goods and the second largest buyer, after Russia, of Uzbek imports. China is also one of the largest importers from Zimbabwe, Cuba, and Burma.
"When Japan rose to power, it did so in a predatory fashion, pushing its products and investments in other countries but keeping its own market closed. China has done the opposite, opening itself up to foreign trade and investment. The result is that growth in countries from Brazil to Australia increasingly depends on the China market. China is making itself indispensable to the world," US pundit Fareed Zakaria wrote in a recent Newsweek column.
So, despite a hardline agenda from the west, multilateral retribution for Iran's nuclear ambitions seems likely to fail, as any Security Council resolution will be vetoed by China and Russia, member nations with significant economic ties to the rogue nation, and the effect of economic sanctions will be limited as long as Eastern trade routes remain opened.
The EU has offered a carrot: giving Iran a major role in the transport of oil from Central Asia to Europe in exchange for abandoning nuclear dreams. Iran rejected the offer, as they already have a major role in transporting energy to the world's second largest consumer of fuel. In October, Iran signed a thirty-year agreement to supply China with natural gas and granted China's state-owned petrochemical company, Sinopec, a US$92 billion dollar deal for a 51% stake in Iran's largest oil field, Yadavaran.
China continues trading with North Korea, despite repeated pleas from the US for China to impose various economic sanctions on its neighbor and despite the inconclusiveness of the fourth round of 6-nation talks thus far.
Meanwhile, China has helped to undercut US efforts to promote human rights in Central Asia. When the US criticized a government crackdown that may have left hundreds dead in Uzbekistan, the Uzbek government evicted the US from a military base that had brought US$15 million to the country. The Uzbek president, however, was f?ted in Beijing only weeks later. The Central Asian nation will also risk losing as much as US$22 million in aid from Washington but this is small change compared to the US$600 million deal signed in May between China National Petroleum Corp and its Uzbek counterpart – just one among 14 bilateral trade agreements.
Some critics believe that in cooperating with global undesirables, China has so far failed to grasp the responsibility associated with being a superpower, but others point out it is perhaps a little premature to grant China superpower status. Further, as Kindopp said, "In many ways China is actually trying to be a responsible global citizen."
Kindopp points to China's restraint over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and to the openness of Chinese markets – an openness much greater than that of Japan or South Korea. And after all China was responsible for at least getting North Korea to the negotiating table.
And in the end, China can only push the US so far. Even after the display of Sino-Russian military prowess, each nation's relationship with the US is the one that matters most.