Diplomats, pundits and academics unanimously refer to the threat of an emerging Chinese military in terms of its capability to make war and more specifically to interdict the Taiwan Strait in the event of a military confrontation over Taiwan.
Worrying as this may be, the ongoing military buildup is not China's greatest threat to the international community -- but its amoral foreign business policy is.
Although partner countries welcome Beijing's policy of not interfering with their internal affairs and not making business conditional on respect for human rights, many fail to see that the practice will hurt international security in the long run. From Sudan to Myanmar, China's indifference to human rights violations in countries that provide it with natural resources has led to grave abuses and fed wars. In Sudan, violence now threatens to spill into neighboring countries and disrupt regional order.
Further indication of the nefarious effects of this policy is Beijing's "exploitation" -- as US Representative Joseph Lieberman put it at an international security conference over the weekend in Munich, Germany -- of the vacuum created by economic sanctions against Iran to further its business interests. While Germany makes the "principled decision to curtail its exports to Iran," Lieberman said, "the People's Republic of China exploits that decision for its own commercial advantage" by picking up business opportunities.
Beyond bad business practice, Beijing's behavior also undermines international efforts to prevent Tehran from successfully developing nuclear weapons. By weakening the effect of the sanctions, Beijing makes it likelier that states like Israel, which feels threatened by the specter of a nuclear Iran, will act preemptively and open a Pandora's Box of conflict in the Persian Gulf, with repercussions on a regional -- and global -- scale.
What makes the situation doubly ironic is that China is one of the handful of states involved in talks on strengthening sanctions against Iran.
History has shown that irresponsible leaders feel no compunction in selling weapons to states or groups that will likely turn them against their neighbors, their own people or against the very state that sold them the weapons.
This is where the nexus of China's military growth and its irresponsible business policies possibly creates the greatest threat. Led by their domestic military-industrial complex, modernizing military powers begin to produce their own weapons. After a certain period, the military-industrial complex reaches a point where it needs to export weapons to finance its growth and continue to meet the demands of government. There is no reason why China would not go down that path and, in time, become a major arms exporter.
Left unchecked, China's trade policy and lack of transparency in the arms trade will feed wars in countries all over the world -- especially in resource-rich regions in Southeast Asia and Africa -- that cannot afford to purchase Western weapons or, because of their conduct, are barred from doing so. Non-state groups like al-Qaeda, and conceivably Hezbollah, would also have better access to more modern and deadlier weapons made in China.
For the sake of fair trade, international security and the countless lives at stake, the world must unequivocally tell Beijing that powers worthy of respect must act responsibly in every sector.
The US intelligence community’s annual threat assessment for this year certainly cannot be faulted for having a narrow focus or Pollyanna perspective. From a rising China, Russian aggression and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, to climate change, future pandemics and the growing reach of international organized crime, US intelligence analysis is as comprehensive as it is worrying. Inaugurated two decades ago as a gesture of transparency and to inform the public and the US Congress, the annual threat assessment offers the intelligence agencies’ top-line conclusions about the country’s leading national-security threats — although always in ways that do not compromise “sources and methods.”
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