A close examination of the emerging Sinosphere–or Chinese sphere of influence–shows an economy that is globally dispersed, multinational and increasingly focused on the high-tech and service sectors.
The Sinosphere’s roots lie with the Han expansion into southern China during the Tang dynasty (618-907). By the 12th century, the newly Sinofied southern Chinese had started moving south. There they created trade-oriented colonies like Vietnam, Burma, Malaya and the island of Java. In the 1600s Chinese settlers overcame the aboriginal inhabitants of Taiwan, creating another powerful base in the South China Sea.
At its height, during the expeditions of the legendary eunuch Admiral Zheng Hein in the early 15th century, China’s maritime “sphere of influence” extended all the way to the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei, Rangoon, Bangkok and Jakarta can be seen as the original testing grounds for Chinese capitalism. In the past few decades North American regions such as Silicon Valley, Southern California, Toronto, Vancouver and New York-New Jersey have been added to the mix. Overall the entire overseas Chinese population has risen to nearly 40 million. Taiwan, which is de facto independent, is home to an additional 23 million, and Hong Kong and Macau, officially part of China but governed under different laws, boasts some 7.5 million.
As China itself has become wealthier, financial flows from the diaspora have continued to increase. Hong Kong’s investment into China grew from $18 billion in 2005 to $45 billion four years later. Singapore’s investment surged from $2.2 billion to $4.1 billion in the same years. This has occurred while new investment from such powerhouses as the United States, Japan, Korea and Germany has stagnated or even dropped.
The second phase of the Sinosphere has been dominated largely by industrial projects, many of them financed or helped technologically by the diaspora. Much of trade, initially, was targeted to the rich consumer markets of North America, Europe and Japan. Between just 2007 and 2009 China’s share of world exports expanded from 7% to 9%.
But today the Sinosphere’s trade flow is shifting. An analysis of trade growth between 2005 and 2009 shows a significant change in focus away from advanced countries to the developing world. In the second half of the last decade, for example, trade with the United States, Japan, Germany, South Korea and the Netherlands grew by less than 50%. In contrast, commerce with key developing countries–including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Mauretania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia Turkmenistan, Iraq and Laos–grew ten times. Trade with large emerging economies, notably Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa, increased five times during the same period.
China’s outbound investment is growing much faster, rising 21% in just the past year; its overseas investment overall has grown from 53.3 billion in 2005 to 224.4 billion in 2009.
The country’s investment strategy seems to be following two powerful trends. One has to do with the acquisition of resources to feed the Chinese industrial machine and its growing consumer market. This explains the rapid growth of investment into the Middle East, South America and Africa. Four of the five fastest-growing investment areas for large scale investments–South Africa, Canada, Nigeria and Australia–are all major commodity exporters. Chinese investment in these countries has been growing from three to five times as quickly as those in the U.S. or Western Europe.
The second, less obvious, trend relates to the idea that these countries, with generally faster growing populations, represent the most lucrative future markets for Chinese exporters. This may be best seen in the rapid growth of Chinese government grants as well as the provision of interest-free and concessional bank loans, such as those provided by the government’s Exim bank, primarily to Chinese companies seeking to invest in developing nations, especially Africa, over the past decade. PRC financial backing for companies and projects in countries such as Angola, India, Equatorial Africa, Turkey, Egypt, the Congo and Algeria have grown over 100 times since 2005.