China, US and the new world order

Asia Times

The day after the attacks on the United States, China's President Jiang Zemin called his American counterpart George W Bush and pledged support for the US anti-terrorist campaign. The next day, the official Xinhua news agency reported the story and the official Chinese-language China Daily carried an editorial with the title "Serious threat to world peace and civilization".

"The international community was shocked at what happened in the United States on Tuesday, when a series of terrorist attacks resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, causing devastating casualties and suffering to large numbers of people. The government and people of China have joined others around the world in expressing condolences to the victims and condemnation of such barbarous acts," the paper said.

On September 12, a group of Chinese journalists, invited to the US, cheered the attack on the World Trade Center and were soon sent back home. On the 13th, China banned anti-American postings on the Internet and Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen assured Secretary of State Colin Powell of Beijing's cooperation in fighting terrorism. On September 14, the official Xinhua news agency said Qian had promised "enhanced cooperation" with Washington although he gave no clues on how China might help.

"We have constantly opposed any kind of terrorism and we believe that the fight against terrorism needs cooperation of the international community," Xinhua quoted Qian as telling Powell by phone on Thursday night. "The Security Council of the United Nations unanimously adopted a resolution condemning terrorism and we are willing to, together with the US side, enhance cooperation in this field."

Then, at the end of the week, China was eager to deny reports of some kind of cooperation between Beijing and the Taliban, including one report suggesting a military agreement with Afghanistan.

The reality is that China is very concerned because in Xinjiang province there are about 1,000 active Taliban-sponsored separatists. Beijing has been for years eager to cut the umbilical link between the Xinjiang separatists and the Taliban, and Beijing's tactic had been to coax governments hosting anti-Chinese groups into cooperating with China.

There is still some hidden disagreement between China and the US on the definition of terrorism, but the cheers of the Chinese journalists and the need to ban anti-American Internet postings are in stark contrast to the official pledge of cooperation. Actually, internal and external factors produce a delicate mix in China these days.

The terrorist attacks came at a delicate time for China, with many officials still hotly debating Jiang's July 1 speech on allowing entrepreneurs into the Communist Party. So as soon as the media announced Jiang's support for the anti-terrorist campaign, a series of letters from some party cadres started pouring in, opposing the "angelization" (tianshihua) of Americans. They argued that this angelization was as wrong as the previous "demonization". Americans can't be angels; China's hopes in them should not be too high.

Some letters voiced support for "Comrade" bin Laden and former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, forgetting that bin Laden is an anti-communist millionaire who cut his teeth fighting the Russians. Many link their opposition to Jiang's position on terrorism with their opposition to his July 1 speech, and arguably are right, as both initiatives appear important moves in changing the Communist Party from a revolutionary party to a ruling party. This implies a reconsideration of China's political role in the world, away from the old "Third-Worldist" theories and toward greater responsibility as an emerging power.

The change causes a huge ideological problem for the country. Although since the early 1970s China had developed a de facto alliance with the United States, the official rhetoric still pushed non-alignment, maintaining that China was a Third World country, neither pro-USSR nor pro-US. Public opinion in the meantime became pro-American, seeing the US as a kind of basic model for development.

Things changed again after 1989. Beijing reached out to Moscow. Gorbachev came to China, and China, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, warmed to Moscow's leadership. At the same time a strong trend toward nationalism was building up. Many people, who had felt somehow betrayed by the US position after Tiananmen, became anti-American, believing that the US goal was to weaken China and stall its development. This new Chinese rhetoric in turn fed on parallel American rhetoric about a possible future Chinese threat.

Behind the rhetoric there was the reality of bitter clashes over human rights, trade, intellectual property rights, and the conditions for China's accession to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and later the World Trade Organization. In this atmosphere, the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade seemed to prove to many Chinese America's evil intentions. The leadership also fostered this nationalism, considering it an important element for a new national spirit now that communism was fading.

Throughout this process, China's goal was to maintain an independent policy that would bring back Taiwan, despite the island being defended by the US. This American intervention is officially branded "hegemonism". China, in other words, refused to acknowledge the American role as sole superpower and strove for a multipolar world.

However, there is a new reality today. The terrorist attacks on the US have revealed a new dimension of international affairs that changes all geopolitical standards. The gigantic dimensions and brutality of the attacks dwarf any other friction the US may have with other countries. The main issue is a conflict between accountable and non-accountable countries. That is to say, between countries which largely control their territory and do not shield internationally dangerous criminal or terrorist organizations, and countries which do shield such organizations or which could launch violent attacks against other countries.

This new international dimension puts aside issues like hegemony and a multipolar world. The main issues now are:

1) Political or crime-related groups have escalated their acts of terror toward all-out war; 2) There are many geopolitical black holes on the world map, that is to say states that are not accountable and predictable in their behavior and offer safe haven to those groups.

Up until last week, the common wisdom was that these black holes could be ignored and marginalized; now it is clear that they must be dealt with. The most dangerous of these black holes is Afghanistan, which is right in the middle of Eurasia and in fact blocks all possible trade between the east and west Eurasia.

In this new world, it makes no sense to think in old ways, as some Chinese people do. China's leadership has realized very quickly what is happening. Many common Chinese people were horrified by the terror attacks (a Xinhua opinion poll said that 98 percent of all Chinese condemned the attacks). But some Chinese cadres and intellectuals have yet come to grips with the new reality, failing to understand that any of the militant groups opposing the present Chinese leadership could learn from the anti-American attacks and apply the tactic against, say, Zhongnanhai (the Beijing residential and administrative enclave for the party elite).

Some other party cadres actually appear keen on using the past nationalist rhetoric against the leadership, which they believed betrayed communist ideals with Jiang's July 1 speech. These people seem unaware of the Chinese reality, in which private enterprises dominate the economy. They seem unaware that China has de facto joined the WTO, and that billions of dollars of investment will pour in and that the country has pledged to abide by international trading agreements. In the face of these events, it is clear that these people do not want to side with bin Laden - they want to wage war on their own leadership.

This indicates that the balance of power in China is still delicate, but it also suggests that the Chinese leadership has a stake, an internal motivation, in joining the fight against terrorism.

China's leadership won't be a priority for the American administration for a number of years, that is to say until the US has satisfactorily dealt with the terrorist problem. By then, China's economy could have grown by 50 or 100 percent, but at that point the issue of China will return to US minds with a vengeance. Therefore, China has roughly until the 2008 Olympic Games to present some significant improvement in its political and economic framework that could help deflect future criticism. In the meantime, China has to build a strong relationship with the US, to bind the two countries.

There are two areas where the US and China need each other: the first is in general political strategy, the second is about territorial control. The issue of general politics is interesting to consider. Out of its weakness and the impossibility of exercising force outside its borders, China has developed a strategy of trying to coax states into siding with it. The strategy has been largely successful in Central Asia, where Kazakhstan no longer offers safe haven to Xinjiang separatists, and with Turkey, which is no longer the prime base for Uighur operations. The strategy involves long-term planning, but it has been the basis for Chinese diplomacy in Central Asia and it could be of great assistance for America and its likely operations in Afghanistan. On the other hand, if they are not carefully handled and organized, the US operations could smash this Chinese diplomacy and expand the waves of terrorism into the heart of China.

The issue of territorial control is linked to the political issue. The US needs not only to smash bin Laden but also to re-establish some form of state control in Afghanistan. It needs to make Afghanistan an accountable state and get it moving on the road of development. For this goal the US needs strong neighboring partners who can provide the territorial basis for the transformation of Afghanistan and also the economic muscle to push economic development in Central Asia. For many reasons, Pakistan is the only neighboring country that could provide support, but it, like the bordering ex-Soviet republics, does not have the economic muscle to boost Afghani trade. But in both Pakistan and these republics, China has established significant influence. Therefore, for all practical purposes, the future control of Afghanistan and the rebuilding of the state requires some kind of cooperation with China. Without this, it will be impossible to establish long-term control over the region.

The US intervention in Afghanistan is bound also to shake the balance in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Indonesia could be very sensitive to operations that could take an anti-Islamic tinge. In this new picture, the American partnership with Japan becomes less relevant than a necessary new partnership with China, India, Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Here there could be a specific role for Thailand as a bastion of stability in ASEAN and a bridge between China, India and the US. While cracking down on Afghanistan it is also necessary to stifle other sources of terrorism and find political solutions for simmering issues like Kashmir and Myammar.

On this front, the Chinese stress that besides cracking down it is important to provide political solutions to the issues that foster terrorism, without waging a new holy war against Islam. Islam is part of the world culture and an essential contributor to Western civilization - ancient Greek philosophical culture was received in the West first through Arabic translations. Besides, terrorism is now incidentally Islamic, but it can be sponsored by criminal organizations or any group with a political motive.

So far, very little thought has been given to the causes that pushed dozens of educated, cultured people to give up their lives to kill thousands of innocents. This must also be addressed in order to avoid future acts of terrorism. (2001-09-19 Asia Times)


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