China gambles on trumping cold warriors

Asia Times

BEIJING - On July 3 both the US and European Union delegations to World Trade Organization talks announced significant progress toward resolving their differences with China about its entry into the organization. The same day, a London-based monitoring group said China was barring religious instruction for an 8-year-old Tibetan boy, Pawo Rinpoche, believed to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second most important religious authority.

Also the same day, an information center in Hong Kong reported that some 15 women followers of the Falungong cult committed suicide in a labor camp in the northern province of Heilongjiang. And the deputy director of the World Economics and Politics department of the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Wang Yizhou, said in the China Daily that a new cold war with the US was avoidable.

"An aggravated relationship with China was in the short-term interest of a few right-wingers and arms dealers but against long-term and fundamental US national interests. Therefore, unless it makes some most severe strategical mistakes, the US government will sooner or later turn back from the anti-China policy," argued Wang.

Wang's article betrays a strong concern about the possibility of a new cold war against China, and the news about Tibet and the Falungong, casting an anti-religious shadow on China on a day when Beijing neared agreement on joining the WTO, confirm the fear that some Western quarters do not want appeasement with China. In fact, the alleged Falungong suicides actually obscured the news that on July 3 the US EP-3 surveillance plane was finally flown out of China, settling a dispute that had started three months earlier.

The fact that a few days earlier US President George W Bush had declared that he would not oppose China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics militates against the cold warriors. The US appears not keen on getting entangled in a new cold war with a country that has trade worth $100 billion with Washington.

The decision on the Olympics is expected on July 13, and even Taiwan's Olympic committee supports the Beijing bid. If, as now seems likely, Beijing gets the Games, China will be under scrutiny for seven years. In fact, winning the bid is no guarantee of a successful Games. In 1980, Moscow hosted the Olympics, which were disrupted by the US-led boycott over Soviet human rights violations. In the end, what was supposed to become a Soviet public relations coup turned into a propaganda disaster.

Similarly, the international pressure on China is going to mount. By 2008, China must dramatically improve its human rights record, otherwise it could risk an international boycott similar to the one of Moscow. That would be an even greater loss of face than if Beijing simply were not awarded the Games. In fact, with both the WTO and the Olympic Games issues the Chinese leadership is taking one of the biggest gambles in China's modern history: it is giving the country a timetable for both economic and political reforms.

The economic reforms are necessary to make China able to withstand the competition of foreign companies once it joins the WTO, and the political reforms are necessary to improve the social climate and forestall a possible Olympic boycott. Of course, China has some leeway in moving the goalposts, raising administrative barriers where there were trade tariffs, or relinquishing some social controls while increasing them in politics. Yet such moves would be easily detected and censured if they were too obvious.

The overall picture is that China must largely conform to international economic and political standards by 2008, when China's GDP could have roughly doubled. This doesn't mean that in the year 2007 there will be democratic elections in the People's Republic, but that major political breakthroughs are expected by then. Without them, the Chinese leadership is aware that the 2008 Games could turn into agony.

With its self-imposed timetable, Beijing is also indirectly imposing a time limit on the Taiwan issue. By 2008, a year after the 16th Party Congress, China will be a WTO member and should have announced important political reforms - and it will also expect major progress toward a Taiwan solution, ie, negotiations on re-unification.

In fact, a breakthrough on Taiwan could take place earlier than that. Taiwan holds presidential elections next year, and Beijing has no interest in opening dialogue with incumbent Chen Shui-bian before the vote. Afterwards, whatever the outcome, China could start talking to Taiwan. Chen's rivals, James Soong and Lien Chan, have already indicated they would accept the One China principle. But even if Chen were to win, it is likely that the two sides could find a compromise in principle and start negotiating.

With talks underway, Taiwan would no longer be a real issue for China, and the horizon of re-unification, be it 20, 50 or 70 years away, would take ammunition away from any long-term containment policy against China. This could put in a different perspective the flurry of "negative" news about China: such news could be seen as being for the short term, intended to urge China's transformation and not to crucify it as the enemy of humanity. And this in turn could be very important both for China and the US. China should ignore short-term adversities and think that, after all, it promised change and that change will speak by itself to the world and thus defuse any cold war.

The last Cold War was based on an ideological struggle conducted with careful real politik. If China changes, the ideological motivation for cold war disappears, and if the US were to pursue an adversarial policy with China it would be only for fear of the economic growth of the country. But this would no longer be an ideological struggle.

Furthermore, China's entry into the WTO and mending fences with Taiwan would deprive the US of two important geopolitical instruments to carry on a serious real politik confrontation. Thanks to WTO, China would be part of world trade and thus relatively immune to the kind of trade pressures selectively exercised on the USSR. And discussions on re-unification with Taiwan would deprive the US of the main pressure point on China's internal politics, which are so sensitive on issues of national integrity but largely indifferent to other international questions.

Without these long-term perspectives, anti-China containment policies appear very idealistic and unrealistic, leaving the US with untenable grounds for acting against China. Hard-nosed realists in the US administration, no doubt, are coming to realize this. This entails the need for a broader, more complex US strategy for coping with a rising Asia; a strategy in which Japan is sure not to be the only US interlocutor.

In this Asia there are a number of odd phenomena. Just to list a few: in Indonesia, potentially the Asian Balkans, a stubborn Wahid refuses to go; a neo-nationalist Indian government pushes new economic development coupled with a higher international profile that can allow for talks with its old enemy, Pakistan; China sets for itself a timetable that would fully integrate the country into the world system; Thaksin's Thailand tinkers with a new economic model that, if successful, could give the country moral leadership in development of the region and pose an even larger, positive challenge to the West.

Asia needs the US to cope with all these new realities, which require new political ideas. The Vietnam War was lost because the US had no clear political objectives, not because it lacked the firepower to enforce them. Conversely, the Gulf War was won because the US had clear political objectives. New US policies are now necessary for Asia, and they can't include old-style policies of containment of China, which however important is just one piece of the complex, vibrant Asian map. (2001-07-06 Asia Times)


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