A perfect storm is brewing that could threaten China’s relations with the world. Although some China bashers in the West and nationalists in China may be rejoicing, the potential deterioration of China’s international relations serves nobody’s interest and threatens to undermine global peace and security.
As the Olympics approach, what Beijing seems to want most — that the Games herald China’s return as a leader among nations — appears close to slipping from its grasp.
If things go wrong, China could move to embrace isolation.
The uprising in Tibet and the government’s response to it have highlighted ethnic tensions within China that the Chinese government is having difficulty managing. Politically unable to accept or sufficiently address the aspirations of the Tibetan protesters, Chinese authorities have focused almost exclusively on the narrow law-and-order issues connected with the violence in March.
For many in the West who sympathize with Tibetans’ aspirations for more meaningful autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, China’s crackdown, vilification of the Dalai Lama and hardline approach have fueled disenchantment. Many Chinese, however, came to view pro-Tibetan protests in Paris, London, San Francisco, New Delhi and elsewhere as an effort to sabotage the Olympics and keep China down after almost two centuries of perceived national humiliation.
China has recently suffered other public-relations disasters as well. The Chinese ship containing arms for the reviled regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is finally heading home after protests and global condemnation prevented it from delivering its cargo.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a full arms embargo on Zimbabwe, a position that clearly targeted Beijing.
Moreover, the international community continues to pillory China for its arms sales to Sudan, which is believed to have used the weapons in Darfur.
Moreover, after a seemingly unending litany of stories about tainted Chinese products, a row has now erupted between China and the US regarding contaminated Chinese heparin, a blood thinner. Although Chinese authorities have disputed US claims that Chinese-made heparin led to at least 81 deaths in the US, the scientific evidence has damaged China’s credibility and has strengthened perceptions around the world that Chinese products are unregulated and unsafe.
Finally, growing economic insecurity is creating a backlash against trade and globalization, which could significantly alter attitudes toward China. As Americans and other Westerners increasingly perceive China as a country unable to address its political problems and addicted to growth at all costs, the Chinese government appears to be reverting to a national narrative of victimization that has poisonous roots in China’s perception of historical events such as the Boxer Rebellion from 1899 to 1901.
If the Olympics turn out to be a public relations disaster — because of potential protests by Tibetan, Uighur or Falun Gong activists or supporters, a lockdown in China of foreign journalists, or even doping scandals — there is a real chance that Beijing will blame the West, particularly the US.
Because China’s rise is an irreversible fact, all those who believe that it must become a more “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs cannot wish for its return to nationalist isolation. Just as China needs access to world markets, the world needs China to become a full partner in addressing major global challenges.