It would appear that China's former president and party general secretary Jiang Zemin (江澤民), is not quite ready yet to retire into political oblivion. He wanted a role like Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) as the ultimate arbiter of politics and policies even after retirement. And for this he sought to continue as head of the military commission. But the political arithmetic was against him and he had no choice but to relinquish his position.
He is, however, still trumpeting his achievements as the architect of China's foreign policy in his book For a Better World: Jiang's Oversees Visits. The publication of his book to coincide with his 80th birthday suggests that he still has enough authority to command the resources of his country's foreign ministry to research and put together what appears to be an exercise in self-promotion.
Even if his increased public visibility lately is not much of a threat to President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and his political establishment (to put the most charitable interpretation), he would be a thorn for his successor by simply popping up, especially close to the next party congress next year.
In his book, Jiang is said to have radically changed China's status in the comity of nations. This is, therefore, as good a time as any to examine China's foreign policy when its achievements are being lauded at home and abroad.
The 1970s saw a major change in China's foreign policy. During the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet political schism grew into a chasm, even leading to armed border clashes over the disputed Damansky island -- Chanpao to the Chinese. Beijing finally came to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was not only an ideological foe, but also a threat to its national security. And this led it to develop countervailing strategies.
At the same time the US, under then president Richard Nixon, was keen to further weaken the communist bloc (it was already under internal stress) and to hopefully ease the situation in Vietnam. Having China as a "strategic partner" was considered an important gain in the ongoing Cold War with Moscow.
The price of recognizing China (and severing ties with the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] regime in Taiwan) wasn't considered too high in this game of high political stakes. The 1972 Shanghai communique set the broad framework for normalization of relations, with formal diplomatic relations established in 1979.
With the death of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) in 1976 and the subsequent smashing of the Gang of Four, Deng was able to ascend to power. The hapless Hua Guofeng (華國鋒), Mao's anointed heir, vanished into thin air.
The 1980s started the process of China's economic liberalization, with Deng sanctifying greed as China's new philosophy.
Beijing's economic opening coincided with the West's renewed interest in China and its seemingly endless opportunities. For the most part, the political climate in the 1980s was also benign with Beijing now a virtual strategic partner in the Cold War against Moscow.
Taiwan remained a problematic area because Beijing failed to rule out US support for it if it were attacked by China. This US commitment was enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Things moved pretty well in China's relations with the US, Western Europe and even Japan, apart from the perennial problem of Japan's war guilt and its attempts to sanitize it.
The late-1980s saw tremendous political eruptions in China. In May and June 1989, a popular movement for democratic change, spearheaded by students, erupted, challenging the existing system and highlighting its rampant corruption.
Deng decided to take charge of the situation, even though he supposedly had retired from running the country. The army was called in, which led to the Tiananmen massacre.
These developments disrupted the Western world's romance with China for some years. But by accelerating economic liberalization, China's economic attraction remained intact. And it even managed to get into the WTO in 2001, overcoming considerable political opposition in the US.
The administration of then president Bill Clinton, which had started as a strong opponent of China's human rights record, toned down its harsh criticism to do business with Beijing.
Taiwan seemed to be becoming even more marginal until the mid-1990s when temperatures were raised by the 1996 presidential election, when China tried to exercise its military muscle to scuttle the poll. Even Clinton couldn't remain indifferent and sent two US naval carriers to deter the Chinese threat.
China's economic juggernaut was proving irresistible all around, with the political leadership in Europe keen to put the Tiananmen Square massacre behind them to sell arms to China. But under US pressure and China overplaying its hand by passing the "Anti-Secession" Law directed at Taiwan, the projected arms sales were held back.
The beginning of the new millennium coincided with a dive in US-China relations after George W. Bush became US president.
A crisis developed over the US spy plane incident. But it was managed diplomatically by both sides. At times, though, it looked like getting out of control. China was also not impressed with Bush's unequivocal commitment to defend Taiwan saying that he would do "whatever it takes" to do the job.
China's break came after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, with the Bush administration now focused on its fight against terrorism. It needed Beijing's political support, since it was a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Having toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the US went after Iraq where it remains mired. The Israeli-Lebanon-Palestinian conflict is going to further involve the US in the Middle East, at least in the diplomatic arena.
With the US over-extended in the Middle East and unable to put its energies elsewhere, China is managing to create an image of a benign power keen on economic development. At the same time it is spreading its "benign" tentacles to corner energy and raw material supplies when the US is looking elsewhere.
And it has created a strategic partnership with Russia. With Russia's immense oil and gas wealth, and Europe's dependence on it, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not shy of flexing his country's new political muscle.
China, therefore, looks like it's on a roll. But the big question still remains. Will its Leninist party dictatorship, superimposed on a vast, diverse and rapidly changing society, be able to guide and sustain it through the 21st century?
It would seem unlikely because a closed political system, in the midst of rapid economic and social change, will inevitably create pressure points with the potential to explode.
Sushil Seth is a writer based in Australia.
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