Hands-off foreign policy a collapse of creativity

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard W. French
July 17, 2008
SHANGHAI: Think of it this way. The Olympic Games are in the bag. World leaders are lining up to attend the opening ceremonies, and even Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who made a brief stand over repression in Tibet, has fallen in with the crowd.
It’s as safe now as it ever will be to fly one’s true colors, and in the last week, that’s precisely what China has done, joining Russia in a veto of sanctions on Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and expressing opposition to a warrant sought by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court for the arrest of the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
Let’s be clear for a moment about what this column is not. This is not an argument in favor of a boycott of the Olympic Games, in which China has invested stupendous sums, both in cash and cachet.
It is also not an out-of-hand dismissal of China’s long-held conservative views about the power of the United Nations Security Council, where Beijing enjoys a veto, to respond to the “internal” crises of other countries.
What follows instead is a double expression of regret that China has summoned so little creative energy filling the huge void that one encounters in the space that most major powers reserve for their foreign policy.
Plainly spoken, as a global actor, China remains an essentially reactive force, one keen to limit the power or the range of action of others in the name of principles such as democracy, human rights and self-determination.
In recent months, in response to international criticism over its ties with Sudan and Zimbabwe, with the Olympics looming, China had labored to put its best face forward, sending peacekeepers to its Sudanese ally in a largely symbolic gesture of acknowledgment of the crisis in the Darfur region of that country.
Beijing also quietly downgraded its ties with Robert Mugabe, an erstwhile friend and client. What is happening in Darfur has often been described as an ongoing genocide. Mugabe, for his part, places new demands on our vocabulary. Genocide does not fit, but what does one call a leader who takes an entire country down with him?
What the week’s events suggest is a China that has coolly calculated that these modest gestures are enough, and that it is time to get back to business as usual, which means a foreign policy that remains mute about fires that burn on distant shores. And it is hard to read the words of Liu Jianchao, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, without feeling a blush of cynicism. The actions of the International Criminal Court “must be beneficial to the stability of the Darfur region and the appropriate settlement of the issue, not the contrary,” he said.
With the Olympics three weeks away, one wishes to hear from China what, in fact, it believes in. Is stability the be-all and end-all, or does Beijing actually have some useful ideas about what an “appropriate settlement” would be to crises in countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe?
Questions like these go beyond the countries named. Everywhere they go, visitors to the Olympics will encounter the slogan, worthy of Madison Avenue, devised for the games: One World, One Dream.
What kind of dream, pray tell? Is it a see-no-evil world where we place faith in the idea that minding one’s own business will make for a better life; a place where the sovereign power of governments accounts for everything, and the power and rights of people for naught?
One suspects here that giving a moral dimension to China’s foreign policy would do more for the country’s image and prestige than the creation of 100 more of the pharaonic monuments of the type that have sprouted in Beijing with next month’s big Olympic show in mind.
It’s easy enough, of course, for China to dismiss this kind of thinking as typical American criticism. America’s own inconsistency on human rights issues often hinders its leverage and credibility on such questions. That’s why the sounds coming from Africa itself – for example – these days are so important, and are worth listening to carefully.
One of these new voices is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the president of Liberia, who called herself part of the “new Africa” during a visit to South Africa this month, where she said she had come to “express my solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe as they search for solutions to the crisis in their country.” The critical word here, of course, is “people.”
“In 1985, Liberia held a sham election that was endorsed by Africa and the world,” Johnson-Sirleaf continued, explaining why such advocacy mattered. “Thirty years of civil war and devastation followed, with thousands dead and millions displaced. It need not have happened.”
I was in Liberia at the time, and witnessed the sham, and heard then-Secretary of State George Shultz endorse the results with a visit to the country. Years later, I would return to cover a war that killed as much as a tenth of the population, as the country all but disintegrated because of the stolen vote.
Fresh on the heels of its own stolen election, the parallels to Zimbabwe today are compelling, and while China can take cover behind vague and dilatory formulations about the importance of sovereignty or the need for unimpeded negotiations between the players there, its hollow voice does nothing to advance the causes of peace and social harmony that Beijing so often proclaims.
“Adopt a low profile and never take the lead,” was Deng Xiaoping’s advice to China’s diplomats early in this country’s reform era.
After two-plus decades of booming growth and interests that extend into every corner of the world, an axiom like this sounds awfully self-centered and cramped. And for the people of Sudan and Zimbabwe, coming up with something more fitting to the times has become a matter of life and death.
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