How China dropped the ball

2002-05-31Asia Times

BEIJING - The official response was a happy one. Chinese papers congratulated Russia for its new agreement with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) signed in Rome on Tuesday, which buried the old Cold War. This is the new tune in Chinese foreign relations, now untroubled by improvements in ties between other states and seeing them as conducive to the improvement of the general international climate. Beijing wants peace in the world in order to carry on with its policies of reform and therefore anything that appeases both its giant neighbor Russia and the United States is useful.

However, Chinese media were also quick to underscore that this new agreement between Russia and NATO did not tilt the balance of power. Xinhua news agency and China Daily reported that trade ministers from China, Russia and the four Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed on Tuesday to start talks on boosting economic cooperation, including a possible free-trade zone. "The negotiations will first focus on the facilitation of trade and investment and then go on to discuss setting up a free-trade zone," Chinese Foreign Trade Minister Shi Guangsheng was quoted as saying.

The grouping of China and the four Central Asian states, known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, was first founded to fight Islamic militancy in the region. The new agreement creates a new purpose for the group, long a pet project of China - to build new bridges with Russia.

But this new agreement pales in comparison to that between Russia and NATO. The economic Shanghai Five will meet about once a year; the new mega-NATO will meet once a month. Furthermore, it is not clear what will happen to the security agreements of the Shanghai Five now that NATO has in effect taken over responsibilities for Central Asia and now that Russia is part of it.

Something important is afoot, which was somehow missed by the Chinese leadership.

After September 11, Beijing was quick to jump on the US bandwagon. In a matter of days it took a U-turn in its stance toward Washington, which had previously singled out China as the potential Enemy No 1. China shared a massive amount of intelligence with the US, pressured Pakistan to help the United States launch its attack on Afghanistan and even restrained Pakistan when war loomed with India last December. The results were significant. President George W Bush has since been in China twice, once in Shanghai for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and once in Beijing, and despite persistent differences on human rights, China was able to put on a good show. Taiwan was sidelined during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit without much ado, and the US tacitly agreed that insurgency in Xinjiang could be treated as linked with Afghan-based terrorism. In December, after the terrorist attacks on the New Delhi parliament, Beijing helped persuade Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to detain members of the organizations that India held responsible for the attack.

In a few months China had accumulated enormous credit with the United States. Russia's record, in comparison, was not that good. Moscow was keen on drawing new borders for Afghanistan and it became irked at US troops in Central Asia, proposing new defense pacts with some of those republics. US officials felt Russian intelligence sharing was less than forthcoming. On all these issues, China and the US saw eye to eye.

Things changed, however. Russia withdrew its plans for new Afghan borders and military aid to the Central Asian republics, and launched a charm offensive centered on the personal appeal of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the next six months, while Putin was working hard on building a personal relationship with people in the US administration, China disappeared from the scene as it became absorbed in its discussion on leadership succession. The succession, incidentally, appears so complicated that so far it is not clear who will be part of the new leadership - apart from Hu Jintao.

Compared with the secretive conclaves and the oriental mannerisms of China's leaders, Putin's sense of humor, youthful energy and sense of family ties broke a lot of ice in Washington. The personal touch was also important. Top US officials in Beijing had long faces while listening to the joint news conference last November of President Jiang Zemin and Bush. Conversely this month, at a joint news conference with Putin, Bush underscored the personal warmth he felt for Putin and how he appreciated the relationship Putin had with his wife and daughters. The age difference and the giant culture gap made it impossible for Bush to feel the same way toward Jiang. And this remains a factor when reckoning the new isolation of China in the shadow of the mega-NATO.

Putin's Russia has chosen the path of becoming America's junior partner, and the US is recognizing this by artificially elevating Russia beyond other NATO members, beyond its present economic and military stations, and by granting it important energy contracts. China's reaction, it is clear to many in Beijing, should be to apply for NATO membership too, but this will not happen as the succession has not been concluded.

Chinese leaders have their hands more than full with domestic issues, but at the same time foreign issues can't wait. Therefore, the present predicament with the mega-NATO demands not only a new strategy to deal with the US and Russia, but also a new internal settlement freeing top leaders from cumbersome domestic duties, ie, endless secretive meetings to agree on this or that candidate for promotion or demotion. China needs more agile political structures to face crises and make the rapid decisions that are more necessary in the present fast-evolving international environment. (2002-05-31 Asia Times)


+MoreOther Commentary