By Joel Brinkley
On his first foreign foray as China's new president, Xi Jinping visited Russia and then Tanzania, two countries with which China has frosty relations at best.
"China and Russia, as the biggest neighbors of each other, share many commonalities," Xi declared in Moscow. But in truth the two nations carry on carefully crafted civility, and that's all.
"All of Africa is China's friend," Xi said in Dar es Salaam, Tazania. But many Africans say they hold a different view.
"China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones," Lamido Sanusi, Nigeria's central-bank governor, wrote in the Financial Times last month. This, he scoffed, is "the essence of colonialism."
China is earnestly striving to become a respected world power, one that finally surpasses the United States. The day could conceivably come when its economy, even its military, are larger than America's. But its biggest problem right now, one that's much harder to correct, is the nation's "soft power." China appears to have very few true friends in the world.
Its belligerent, assertive stance on territorial rights in the South China Sea the last few years has driven away almost every Asian nation. Nearly all of them are now asking the U.S. for help -- even Vietnam. China's only regional "friend" is Cambodia, a nation Beijing has virtually purchased with $8 billion in aid over the last few years and another $5 billion promised. Hun Sen, Cambodia's prime minister, no longer openly disparages China.
Beijing used to count Burma as its friend, but Burma's ongoing transition toward democracy came about in large part because Burma's rulers didn't like being dependent on Beijing. North Korea and China routinely criticize each other, but for political reasons they remain inseparable.
China experts point to other allies: Zimbabwe, Iran, Cuba, Sudan -- all brutal authoritarian states like China. Venezuela was an ally under Hugo Chavez, but now that he's dead, the future relationship is unknown. Syria was also friendly, but its future is even less clear.
China is sucking up to Pakistan as America's relationship with that country continues to sour. But Pakistan is likely to go with whomever can offer the most lucrative aid packages. As Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., told me, "China will give them rifles, but they can't give F-16 aircraft."
Beijing solicits an alliance with Serbia, siding with it in the ongoing debate about Kosovo's independence -- even though just last week a war-crimes tribunal convicted two senior Bosnian Serbs of directing a campaign of murder, torture and persecution during the Bosnian war 20 years ago.
What about the rest of the world? Why does China have so few friends? Put simply, China faces trust issues all over the world.
Would you trust a government that tells its people: No worries: the water is clean -- after more than 16,000 diseased, decomposing pigs were found in the river that supplies water for Shanghai's 23 million people? One resident told the London Telegraph, "I'm worried about the drinking water. It really, really stinks."
How about a nation whose students routinely cheat on applications to foreign colleges and universities, according to a report by a college consulting firm there? "Cheating is pervasive in China, driven by hyper-competitive parents and aggressive agents," Zinch China reported. "Our research indicated that 90 percent of recommendation letters are fake, 70 percent of essays are not written by the applicant and 50 percent of high-school transcripts are falsified."
How trustworthy would you find a nation whose young men come to America, infiltrate the workforce, steal industrial secrets and then take them home? Last week, a federal court sentenced Chinese citizen Sixing Liu to nearly six years in prison for passing thousands of files from a military contractor to Beijing.
Sixing's conviction was the latest of about 100 similar cases involving Chinese infiltrators in the past four years.
Not every problem is so grand. Late last month, according to multiple sources, the Swedish car maker Volvo complained that some of its Chinese dealerships had inflated sales figures to qualify for cash bonuses -- when in fact Volvo sales had actually declined.
By now you see the pattern.
Even a senior Chinese official acknowledged that the government often fakes its national economic statistics, like the GDP, inflation and unemployment rates. He once called them "man-made," according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.
Speaking at a university in Moscow last month, President Xi acknowledged that "no country or bloc of countries can again single-handedly dominate world affairs." His unspoken target: the United States and Europe.
But given China's frequent dishonest behavior, that nation won't soon dominate world affairs, either.