Beijing flubs art of ambiguity in Nobel affair

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The value of ambiguity in international diplomacy has long been recognized and widely practiced by such proponents as Henry Kissinger and by Chinese leaders.

In 1979, for example, the United States said it “recognizes the government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China” — no ambiguity there — but that it only “acknowledges the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China.”

Without such ambiguity, the U.S. and China might not have been able to agree on establishing diplomatic relations.

Similarly, when China and Taiwan met in secret in Hong Kong in 1992, the two sides could not reach agreement on the “one China” concept. The mainland insisted that “one China” was the People’s Republic of China, while Taiwan held that the “one China” was the Republic of China with its capital in Taipei.

Still, as a result of strategic ambiguity, they could announce agreement. Both agreed that there was only one China, and that became the basis of the subsequent dialogue between them, a dialogue that broke down after Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui insisted on clarity, declaring in 1999 that they were two separate states — a position continued by his successor Chen Shui-bian.

Now, under President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan, ambiguity is back and the cross-strait dialogue is doing exceedingly well, as indicated by the recent signing of the highly significant Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement.

China has been willing to accept the “1992 consensus,” knowing that it was little more than an agreement to disagree. If either side were to look too closely at this so-called consensus, it would quickly fall apart. The trick in diplomacy is not to look closely.

Just as a trial lawyer never asks a question of a witness until he knows what the answer will be, Beijing would be wise not to push this, or any, issue until it knows it will get the answer that it wants.

To insist that the other side accept your position before all the groundwork has been laid is a formula for failure.

That’s why recent statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry are puzzling. The ministry is full of very smart people who are good at assessing the global situation and China’s chances at getting what it wants.

Thus, when the U.N. Security Council discussed the March sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan, Chinese diplomats skillfully shaped the presidential statement so that it allowed South Korea to accuse Pyongyang of torpedoing its ship while allowing North Korea to deny the charge — a compromise acceptable to other Security Council members.

But now China is trying to coerce other countries into not attending the Dec. 10 ceremony in Oslo to formally confer the Nobel Peace Prize on imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. This is puzzling.

Beijing should know that no one likes to be told what to do. It should also know that only a handful of countries will actually go along with its position. China knows that its effort can only fail, yet it is pressing ahead with it and using up a lot of diplomatic good will.

So far, the only countries that have agreed with China to boycott the Nobel ceremonies are Russia, Kazakhstan, Cuba, Morocco and Iraq — hardly a stellar cast.

On the other hand, 36 countries have already accepted the Nobel committee’s invitation while 16 have not replied.

China is forcing the countries to choose between it and the Norwegian Nobel Committee which, China has said, represents European values and is trying to subvert China. Applying such pressure across the board is not something that it should do unless it is confident of victory.

China’s current behavior makes people wonder about the security and economic choices it may force other countries to make in the future.

Will China suggest to Japan and South Korea, for example, that they choose between America’s security umbrella or the economic prosperity that lies in trade with China. Already, China is the most important trading partner of Japan and South Korea and of other American allies as well such as Australia.

When it becomes strong enough, will China tell those countries that they cannot have both economic prosperity and their preferred form of political security, and that they must choose between China and the U.S.?

There’s no question that Beijing’s economic and political influence will continue to rise in coming years. The question is how it will behave after it becomes stronger.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com).