Fri, Jan 08, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Hype about China defies reality

By Sushil Seth

It didn’t take too long for the much-hyped US-China global partnership to face a reality check.

The Copenhagen climate change conference last month showed that despite US efforts to forge a cooperative partnership with China on global issues, Beijing was determined to pursue its own national interests.

Indeed, the Chinese delegation, led by Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶), humiliated US President Barack Obama by ignoring him or not turning up for meetings.

Obama’s recent visit to China was supposed to create the basis for a global partnership. China simply made use of it to promote its global image and to gain favor with domestic audiences. The visit also appears to have christened China as the second superpower. Obama was careful not to dwell on human rights violations in China by simply espousing universal principles of “freedoms of expression and worship, access to information and political participation.”

But the Chinese simply ignored all this and censored the “sensitive” bits for their TV audiences.

Why is the US putting up with all this and seeking common ground with China?

Some US sinologists and policymakers have been laying down the rationale for a change of policy for some time.

This is best summed up by John Ikenberry in Foreign Affairs.

“The United States cannot thwart China’s rise, but it can help ensure that China’s power is exercised within the rules and institutions that the United States and its partners have crafted over the last century, rules and institutions that can protect the interests of all states in the more crowded world of the future,” he wrote.

“The United States’ global position may be weakening, but the international system the United States leads can remain the dominant order for the twenty-first century,” Ikenberry says.

The Copenhagen conference showed — if it wasn’t clear already — that China would use international forums to pursue and advance its own national interests. Therefore, the idea that China can somehow be persuaded to work within a Western-devised international system is not workable.

This doesn’t mean that the US shouldn’t engage with China. What it means, however, is that it should be aware that China’s objective is to displace the US as the global superpower and to create an international system more in tune with its own global aspirations as opportunities arise.

And it is sensing these opportunities. What led to this?

The first and foremost is that for nearly a decade the US has been engaged in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While it is slowly disengaging from Iraq, Afghanistan is becoming a costly affair, both in terms of casualties and commitment of troops and resources. At the same time, there are serious bushfires in Somalia and Yemen in an ongoing war against Islamists.

This has provided China an opening to expand its political horizons and influence out of proportion to its actual power.

In other words, the US needs very badly to extricate itself from the unsustainable military involvement in these areas.

Even as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been consuming US energies and resources, it has been hit by an economic crisis, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Even though China has also suffered badly from this global economic downturn, with its exports down by about 25 percent, it has sought to minimize the economic pain through a crash economic stimulation program.

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