Letter from China: A growing power lets a growing crisis fester

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French The New York Times
WEDNESDAY, MAY 17, 2006
SHANGHAI With people dying by the thousands, it is more than painful to watch as the world moves with all deliberate speed in resolving Sudan’s Darfur crisis.
The United States has been in the forefront of efforts to stop the ethnic cleansing – termed genocide by Washington – but that has mostly been as a matter of default. In a vacuum, every little bit of substance stands out.
There was a bit more of this substance last week. President George W. Bush gave a speech that resonated with an appropriate sense of gravity.
“Moving forward, we cannot keep people healthy and fed without other countries standing up and doing their part as well,” Bush said, announcing a large increase in American relief efforts. “The European Union, and nations like Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Japan have taken the leadership on other humanitarian issues, and the people of Darfur urgently need more of their help now.”
Question to Bush and to the people of the world’s fastest-growing major economy: Where was China?
In this rich and proud civilization, there is an aphorism for every occasion. And with China buying roughly 60 percent of Sudan’s oil production, accounting for about 7 percent of the country’s imports, a great one comes to mind: The big tree catches the breeze.
Would only that the people of this country, and especially their leaders, embrace it. This country is becoming a big tree on the world scene in a hurry, growing roots to feed its rapid growth that stretch far and wide. Where the world’s crises are concerned, however, China’s diplomacy and just as lamentably its public discourse are stuck in sapling mode.
This is not, mind you, the result of an immature mind. Rather, China’s bobbing and weaving its way around the world’s crises seems both deeply cynical and carefully thought out.
First, credit China for not using its Security Council veto this week to prevent a ratcheting of international pressure on the Sudanese government to cooperate with the United Nations as it prepares to take over peacekeeping in Darfur from a badly under-funded and ill-equipped African Union force.
The bigger picture, though, is not encouraging. Chinese policy toward Darfur is one of opportunism hiding behind rickety, wooden principles, principles with a self-satisfying resonance that have been repeated so often as to get people here believing them. China respects all other cultures. China believes in the peaceful resolution of crises. And most sacrosanct of all, given China’s preoccupation with its own domestic stability, China is against all interference in the internal affairs of other nations.
The history of the past century shows that a thirst for oil consistently leads big powers into unsavory places. And the early years of this new century show no sign of being any different – only that the big and thirsty new power is China, a country that is now racing to compete with a West that has accumulated decades of experience getting its hands dirty in the dark and unsavory corners of the world.
Just as the United States today is reaping the consequences of cynical or manipulative behavior in the past, in places like Iran and in parts of Latin America, China will be judged in the future based on the actions of today.
Just as decades of American rhetoric in favor of democracy and human rights are rightfully measured against actual behavior, helping determine the stock of the United States around the world, so will China’s smug adherence to hollow principles come to affect its standing in the world.
Today, China proclaims its all-but- undifferentiated friendship for all peoples, and regimes of all kinds, especially those with some hot commodity to sell, are rushing to reciprocate. But the interests of regimes and of the people they govern can be strikingly different, nowhere more so than in the so-called developing world, where China’s roots are growing fastest.
The questions of what China stands for and where its growing power and influence are to be found in the midst of crises like the one unfolding today in Sudan will eventually be asked by those people, if not by the regimes themselves.
These questions will linger and they will haunt China’s rise unless the people of this country and their leaders can invent for themselves a new kind of global citizenship.
This strikes me as the most profound implication of the U.S. deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s now famous turn of phrase urging China to become a “stakeholder” in the international system.
Many Chinese have skeptically interpreted the American’s language to mean that Beijing should simply align itself with Washington’s positions on the major issues of the day, and all will be well. The Chinese wariness is understandable. But the blend of intellectual passivity and narrow, self- serving pragmatism that ends the discussion there helps neither China nor the world well.
China is free to invent its own culture of global responsibility. And so long as it starts from a recognition that there are real-world consequences to this country’s rise – both good and bad – and that a one- size-fits-all diplomatic approach doesn’t suit a world of deep moral complexity and man-made catastrophe, we will all be better off.
The present mode of pretending that China’s actions, such as almost single-handedly rehabilitating Sudan’s oil industry, selling it arms, and discouraging forceful United Nations measures – all amidst a bloodbath – won’t cut it.
Search as you might online, though, and you will be hard pressed to find any Chinese discussion of the moral, ethical or political implications of China’s involvement in Sudan.
The closest one comes to more than routine news on Sudan are essays saying that the policy of the West is driven by oil interests, and speculating that the United States seeks to take over the country by force.
Similarly, a week of digging around looking for Chinese analysts who could articulate a position even subtly different from the government’s on Sudan turned up nothing.
“I think that any suggestion that China takes its position because of economic considerations is wrong,” said Wang Hongyi, an Africa specialist in Beijing. “In its relationships, and not just with Sudan, but with all countries, China follows the Five Principles” of Peaceful Coexistence. “Even before the Darfur crisis, China took the same attitude toward Sudan, and encouraged active talks.”
Wang didn’t know it, but he stated the problem very well. The same policy is not required before and during a genocide. The urgent question, as China fills Sudanese coffers, is what China should be doing differently today.

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