Letter from China: U.S.-China relationship isn’t the most vital one

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
WEDNESDAY, MAY 3, 2006
SHANGHAI What’s the most important international relationship? An easy case could be made for China’s ties with the United States, but that would be the wrong guess, at least now. The recent visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao of China lent proof to an increasingly glaring fact: This immensely important relationship is vastly underperforming its potential.
With critical issues begging for heavy lifting everywhere you look, from energy and the environment to nuclear proliferation, human rights or East Asian security, Washington and Beijing settled for a sterile photo-op.
Given the state of the world’s problems, this is truly unfortunate, but there seems little hope for near-term change. Under President George W. Bush, Washington has squandered so much of its power, influence and treasure that there is little energy or inclination left for true engagement with the emerging Chinese colossus. What happens under a future administration is anyone’s guess.
China’s leadership is equally uninspired, albeit for different reasons. Giving new meaning to the label conservative, Hu and his team are shaping up as the ultimate risk evaders.
Seemingly fed by a belief that the winds are blowing its way, that the world will come to it, and that it is only a matter of time before China attains a commanding position on the global stage, Beijing sees little point in soiling its hands trying to manage the world’s problems. What better, then, than to let the United States exhaust itself, and moreover to exhaust the good will of others, as it pushily goes about trying to defuse ticking time bombs here and there that few others can be bothered with?
Beijing prefers to burnish its image as the unthreatening, noninterfering, all-respecting, new and improved superpower: a see-no-evil nation whose bland and benign visage is meant to lull the world until such time as China has finished rebuilding and is ready to engage the world on its own terms.
So why, the reader may be forgiven for wondering, is the right answer China’s relationship with Africa? It’s because China has the largest population and the most resource-hungry economy, and because Africa has the richest portfolio of raw materials and the largest collection of poor and badly governed countries.
The combination of foreign need for raw materials and the continent’s weak societies has left a legacy of devastation in Africa that dates at least as far back as the rubber trade run by the Belgian Congo, under which millions of Africans were killed under a system of terror-driven forced labor.
The abysmal record of the West in Africa, from colonial times through the Cold War, poorly acknowledged even today, makes it hard for it to find a perch to issue a credible moral warning to China.
And yet as Beijing rushes to rebuild relations with Africa, which have stagnated since the Mao era, the world cannot afford to allow hard truths to go unsaid, especially given the kind of diplomatic language that China favors.
“China needs to grow, and in order to grow it needs energy sources, minerals and raw materials, particularly from Africa,” said Patricia Feeney, executive director of the private British group Rights and Accountability in Development.
China is becoming the dominant player in a number of countries that have been particularly marginalized in recent years by the West. You can see its influence and presence spreading in ways that are different from what existed in the ’70s, when it supported the anti-colonial struggle. It still has some credit for that among African countries. But if it doesn’t adapt to the aspirations of the African peoples themselves, which are not necessarily the same as those of African governments, it is going to run into trouble, as it already is in Sudan.
“In our dealings with African countries we respect the political model chosen by the African people,” Hu declared during his recent stop in Kenya, a young and fragile democracy riddled with corruption and governance problems.
Hu was there to sign offshore oil exploration agreements for Chinese companies, and the best he could muster was a bland statement like this: “We use the policy of noninterference in the affairs of other countries.”
Superficially, such a stance may seem to suit China’s narrow self-interests just fine. But on a continent where the pillaging of resources by governing elites is taking place on a monumental scale, while the most basic needs of citizens go unmet, see- no-evil amounts to evil.
Nor is it good enough to say, as some in the Chinese news media already are, that the pillaging isn’t being done – certainly not in any direct sense – by the Chinese, as it was done by European colonizers in the past.
Pillaging takes many imaginative forms, nowhere more so than in Africa, where the foreign hand in the African glove has been a time- honored mode at least since the time of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire. This pattern was on full display recently during a competition between Indian and Chinese companies over Nigerian oil. The Indian company pulled out, citing concerns that its African counterpart was a dubious shell company manipulated by corrupt politicians. Showing no such qualms, the Chinese company went ahead.
Today, Hu’s language doesn’t cut it, and in Africa, the world cannot afford to watch China repeat the mistakes of the past. If current patterns hold, Africa’s forests will be depleted and its oil resources tapped out, leaving behind a environmental and human disaster of unprecedented proportions.
The continent’s population is growing at a staggering rate, and before long could equal China’s own. The difference is that Africans, ill-served by their elites and by the outside world, will be predominantly illiterate and plagued with diseases, setting the stage for mass migration and general chaos.
China has much to teach Africa, having lifted more people out of poverty in a shorter period of time than had ever been accomplished anywhere. The rub is that the old Chinese diplomatic bugbear of internal affairs has everything to do with Africa’s problems, and pretending otherwise, while narrowing serving only self-interests, will only make things worse.

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