Can you name China's best regional friends in the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific? Here's a list that has just been expressed by Beijing: Iran, Sri Lanka, Burma and Fiji.
The list is drawn from the hosts for the just-completed international lap-of-honour tour by Wu Bangguo, officially the second most senior official in the Communist Party and China's top legislator as Chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress.
Ponder the list for a moment and see how China might be puzzled, even frustrated, that its growing power is not always reflected in the eminence of its most intimate regional relationships. No wonder Beijing sometimes frets and fumes that the international system is not Sino-friendly. These are the best mates China can muster?
Note the list does not necessarily express regional importance. The word 'best' is used in the sense of the safest and most accommodating friend. If that list expresses China's steadiest and surest friends then it records an unpalatable truth. For Beijing, its close regional mates tend to be pariahs or, at best, middle powers.
On that roll, Iran, Burma and Fiji each comes with its own distinct pariah problems; but one reason among many that China has high comfort levels with each of these nations is precisely because of the various issues of pariahdom. China is the politest of friends which never, ever utters any public criticism.
Seventy-one-year-old Wu is a leading light of the fourth generation of Party leaders who stepped up to power in 2002. At the 18th Party Congress next month, he and most of the other engineer-technocrats of the fourth generation face the transition from being a Big Cheese to just an Old Cheese, making way for the fifth generation New Cheeses.
In preparing an international tour for someone of Wu's standing, the key consideration is that the places he visits must be significant but also safe. The no-surprises necessity means he goes to the countries Beijing sees as its best friends – nations that have reasons to embrace China and pay due respect to its interests and prerogatives.
Such thinking is not just a China characteristic. The safety syndrome was equally on display when Mitt Romney went traveling recently to buff his international image by touching down in Britain, Poland and Israel. Here, too, was a best friend tour. Britain and Israel easily tick those regional top mate boxes. Along with the Polish vote at home, perhaps Poland got in because Romney has an unusual fixation on the challenge posed by Russia. The fact that the Romney visit to three US mates will be best remembered for some supposed gaffes merely shows that US presidential candidates have to do more unscripted stuff than the elite of the Chinese Communist Party.
Follow Wu's footsteps to see the tensions as well as the advantages China has in getting close to pariahs and middle powers. In theory, Iran, as the first leg, seems a risky choice. But issues of risk would only arise if Wu was trying to do something more than touch base with a regional mate. All he had to do was stick rigidly to the nuclear script: dialogue and cooperation are the right way to solve the problem, instead of continuous sanctions and pressure.
The realist translation of Wu's conversation with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have read: you keep pumping that oil, old chum, and we'll keep doing what we can for you on the Security Council.
The next stop, Burma, shows the flaw in making a pariah your top regional relationship. When the pariah status starts to slip, other options open. Eighteen months into the quiet revolution, Burma can happily send its president and its greatest dissident off to an equally warm welcome in the US. Burma might even be prepared to share with Cambodia the title of China's closest mate in Southeast Asia. Certainly, Phnom Penh seemed to be bidding for that status with the ASEAN communiqué controversy in July. For Burma, one great argument for reform is the chance to expand the range of potential friends and escape that invidious pairing with North Korea as China's closest allies in Asia.
Then Wu was on to Sri Lanka to sign 16 agreements and burnish what is becoming a wonderful friendship. Sri Lanka easily beats Pakistan into the top spot as the regional mate because China, just like the US, is all too aware of the unknowable downsides involved in anything but a cautious embrace of Pakistan. Sri Lanka is happy to tweak New Delhi by leaning towards a Beijing which is now its biggest bilateral aid donor. If you want a 'string of pearls' in the Indian Ocean, then Sri Lanka is a gem of a pal.
Having ticked the boxes in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South Asia, the final leg was Fiji, which Wu described as 'a shining pearl in the South Pacific Ocean.' Was that shining pearl or string of pearls? By the fourth leg of grand tour, the metaphors can start to recur. As can the reality that where you choose to go on such a tour says something about the available choices as well as the actual strength of the friendship expressed by the visit.
Photo by Flickr user gfpeck.