As though there had not been trouble enough in 2009, the year ended with a nasty spat between Britain and China. A spat that might portend more trouble ahead as the world comes to terms with China’s new assertiveness.
The proximate cause of rift was the execution in China of a Briton, Akmal Shaikh, for smuggling heroin into China. The family of the 53-year-old father of three say he was mentally unstable and was duped into carrying a suitcase stuffed with heroin.
According to Shaikh’s family, he traveled to China because he was told he could become a rock star there.
The British government pled for clemency; and made 27 representations to China, after it failed to have the man examined by psychiatrists. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown condemned the execution.
China responded by accusing Britain of interfering in its judicial affairs. The Chinese also referred to the two Opium Wars that Britain fought with China in the mid-19th century to protect the opium trade conducted by British merchants. The Chinese embassy in London said the Shaikh case brought back “bitter memories of history.”
The opium was grown and processed in India. Then it was shipped to China, where addiction was encouraged by British merchants. Those merchants included Jardine Matheson, which is still a power in Asian business.
The Chinese government tried to ban the opium from entering China. But the British would have none of it, and went to war in one of the most shameful of imperial adventures. The British argument was that the Chinese were willing buyers and opium was not illegal in Europe.
At the heart of this lethal trade was an imbalance as familiar now as it was then: There was high demand in Europe for Chinese goods– porcelain, tea and silk–and low demand in China for European goods. Although always technically illegal, the opium trade grew so large that it became an important source of revenue for the British administration of India.
The two wars, 1839-43 and 1856-60, humiliated the Chinese and undermined the Quin Dynasty. Now China says Britain is up to its old tricks: supporting illegal drug dealers and undermining Chinese law.
If China were not so self-confident in its new role as a world power, the latest dispute would have been papered over by China agreeing to the reasonable British demand that the executed man be examined for mental competence. But not so. And not so on many fronts.
Last year China consolidated its grip on Africa, where it signed scientific cooperative agreements with 47 countries and entered natural resource tie-ups with as many. It also has natural resources tie-ups in Latin America.
China is beginning to throw its considerable weight around–just enough to remind the world that it is too big and too important to be seriously challenged.
Consider that China refuses to revalue its currency; won’t sanction Iran; undermined the climate change conference in Copenhagen; and makes outlandish territorial claims on the South China Sea and the outer continental shelves of its neighbors. Also, China coddles pariah states North Korea and Sudan.
One cannot blame China for succeeding, but one can blame the international business community for fleeing to Chinese manufacturing. Americans can blame budget deficits for China’s holding of more than $2 trillion in U.S. debt. We put ourselves willingly in the noose. In criticizing, as it has done, the buildup in the U.S. deficit, China reminds that it can tighten the noose at any time.
It looks as though 2009 was the year when we began to pay the high price of cheap sneakers at Walmart.