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China seeks its place in the sun|
by Bunn Nagara
MUCH has been said about the rise of China and how it could rival US global dominance. Without exaggeration or sensationalism, it is important to see how current trends indicate future possibilities.
For a geopolitical shift of such planetary proportions, two things are clear: some signs are already evident, and the prospect results as much from what the United States unwittingly does as from what China chooses to do.
An example of Washington “inviting” Beijing to co-manage the global system by default is in international finance. After letting China underwrite its spendthrift ways, the United States created a problem for itself over China’s yuan revaluation.
Some US leaders even imagine that scapegoating China’s industrial competitiveness, which US firms investing abroad have gladly taken advantage of, is a solution to US overspending and savings shortage. The same short-sightedness applies in politics.
The Bush White House in particular has also rebuffed multilateral agencies like the United Nations when they do not fully support its agenda. This has included championing unilateralism, practising double standard and launching pre-emptive attacks against sovereign countries.
But China, in tune with most Third World, Non-Aligned Movement and Muslim countries, is uncomfortable with the pre-emptive strike doctrine. And at a time when a modernising China is seeking friends and opening to the world, the United States is bent on going its own way or no way.
During a recent US visit, a senior Chinese official lamented how Beijing’s friendly proposal for space cooperation with the United States had been rejected. This quickly produced a formal US agreement to such cooperation, but little has moved on the ground to realise it.
As befits global powers, it is in international relations that China and the United States vividly diverge. When China has learnt to play by UN rules, the United States has declared a UN that does not fully agree with its invasion of Iraq as “irrelevant.”
A commitment to proper, lawful multilateralism has to go beyond rhetoric, and China has been there. Beijing has lately demonstrated its active, hands-on diplomacy with countries in Africa, Latin America and Muslim West Asia. These are regions of the developing world that have faced US neglect, if not rejection or arrogance.
China’s multiple bridge-building stems partly from its appreciation of the one-country-one-vote system of the UN General Assembly, but it can also be traced to its identification with the Third World in Mao’s era. Beijing’s diplomatic exploration is not limited by geography, as its recent efforts in the South Pacific (economic aid) and the Solomons in particular (rescue work) show.
China’s critics might dismiss all this simply as self-interested manipulation, but the larger picture shows there is more to it. More than a decade before the current US-Iran spat, China had already been a steady partner of Iran.
Where energy supplies in particular are involved, China’s diplomacy serves its industrial needs – a typical sign of growing global prominence. Coming after last year’s US rejection of China’s attempt to buy Unocal, Beijing’s warming to oil-rich West Asia and Latin America has also resulted from US actions.
Closer relations with Latin American countries would benefit China or any other country. But the United States, through its own devices, has alienated countries like Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela on both historical and present-day issues like the ban on aid and military training.
China has given no-strings defence assistance to Venezuela and Jamaica, and has considered aid to Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. Its trade with the region jumped 54% in one year (2003-2004), and investment is set to multiply 25 times over the next eight years to US$100bil (RM359bil).
With such indications, Taiwan should have known better than to upset Beijing for its own local political interests. Washington might have understood the writing on the wall better than Taipei, so Taiwanese leaders should not be surprised by the US rebuff to President Chen Shui-Bian’s intended US visit.
There comes a time in the historic destiny of nations that to reject or deny the incoming tide like a King Canute is to be consigned to obsolescence. Taiwan, Japan, Australia and the United States have to decide urgently where exactly they wish to stand in relation to Beijing.
Some of China’s critics may lament how it has seemed to buy into Western values and lifestyles, as in its creeping materialism and individualism – as apparently reflected in its WTO membership. But China is beginning to wonder what can be so bad about a global system that it could come to dominate in just a few decades.
China is not like the former Soviet Union because it is under no Stalinist illusion that communism could be a parallel system to rival capitalism. And the Soviet Union could never be like today’s China because it lacked “soft power,” productive capacity and much else beyond mere military hardware, standing no chance as a fully-fledged modern superpower.
It is interesting these days to see Westerners carefully making sure that their pronunciation of Chinese names in pinyin is correct. As in political correctness generally, it is a sign that they need to take more care to reckon with China as a global player.
Any day now, China could be welcoming the United States to play a more positive role in the developing world “as a responsible stakeholder.”