China, charmer and bully

by Pamela Cox, Jonathan Holslag, Misa Ogawa, and Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — Hu Jintao, given a head-of-state welcome in Washington, tried to show a friendly face toward America. He brought gifts in the form of contracts to buy American products, although most of these contracts had been closed earlier and some at least involve the purchase of American technology that the Chinese will doubtless replicate.

While admitting that there were differences of opinion on human rights he made no substantive concessions. He made no definite commitment about allowing the Chinese currency to appreciate, but seemed to accept that domestic demand in China should be allowed to expand.

Li Keqiang, the Chinese vice premier, who may be destined for the top slot in Beijing, has been on a European tour bringing gifts and contracts. In Edinburgh he presented the zoo with two pandas in a new piece of panda diplomacy. He announced that China intended to buy European bonds and Chinese companies would buy shares in European petrochemical companies. He made it clear that China supports European integration and wants the euro currency to flourish. To Spain he held out the prospect of China buying such consumer items as wine and olive oil.

Powerful people bearing gifts are inevitably distrusted, but the Chinese charm offensive is based on simple self-interest. The European Union is China’s biggest trading partner while China is the second-largest trading partner for the EU. The Europeans are less worried than the Americans over the exchange rate and by other trade friction issues, although there have been some awkward spats such as that over Chinese textile exports to Europe.

Economic issues predominate in the relationship between China and the U.S., and China and Europe, but China also pursues political policies that pose potential threats. China is expanding its influence throughout the developing world, buying up land and resources. China backs autocratic regimes that suppress human rights and democratic parties.

China is producing increasing numbers of not only well-trained engineers, but also articulate economists. The new Chinese intellectual elite will demand an influential role in the world and poses a challenge to the intellectual complacency of developed countries.

The Chinese remain ready to punish any country that befriends the Dalai Lama and criticizes Chinese abuse of human rights. The Chinese attempt to blackmail governments into not sending official representatives to the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony in Oslo for a peaceful Chinese dissident was counterproductive and petty. The only countries showing “solidarity” with China were authoritarian regimes with poor human rights records.

The Chinese government wants the EU to end the embargo on arms exports imposed following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Some EU countries, notably France, argue that the embargo is out of date and ineffective. Military technology has become increasingly globalized and it is difficult to differentiate between systems suitable for civil and military use. The embargo, in their view, is a pointless irritant.

Others including Britain think that ending the embargo would be seen as condoning abuses and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reintroduce it.

Opponents of lifting the embargo are conscious of U.S. and Japanese concerns over China’s military and naval buildup, and the potential threat to Taiwan. Any relaxation of the embargo could lead to the export of military high technology to China at a time when the Chinese are thought to be developing a missile designed to threaten U.S. carriers.

The Chinese claim they pursue peaceful policies and that there is no current military threat to China in Asia. So why does China need aircraft carriers and more submarines? Much of China’s new weaponry looks more offensive than defensive.

The Chinese military leadership seems prone to saber-rattling. Why did the Chinese let it be known on the day that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gatese arrived in Beijing it had tested a new stealth fighter?

The Chinese Communist Party asserts its control of the Chinese military, but the military may be ready to push the party leaders around if their demands and interests are not given the priority that they think these deserve.

The Chinese regime seems unable or unwilling to curb nationalist outbursts especially but not exclusively directed against Japan. Perhaps they see these as a way of letting disaffected elements blow off steam and of diverting discontent over the increasingly unequal Chinese society and the ubiquitous prevalence of corrupt practices. Such nationalist fervor could get out of hand.

The Chinese government also hopes to divert attention from its failure to impose restraint on North Korea. Does this failure stem from a wish to keep North Korea as an irritant to South Korea, Japan and the U.S. and as a way of pinning down U.S. and Japanese resources? Or does the failure stem from a Chinese fear of the consequences for China of an implosion in North Korea? Or have the Chinese come to the conclusion that they cannot in fact control this rogue state? Whatever the answer, the Chinese government should recognize the threat posed by a nuclear ministate on its borders, which, because of the nature of its regime, could decide to exercise a suicidal nuclear option with horrific consequences for Asia including China.

How should the free world deal with a modern China that is ruled by a corrupt Communist Party intent on maintaining its centralized power?

Can China cope through economic growth alone with growing economic disparities and with an aging population distorted by a one-child policy and inequalities between town and country?

How can the arrogance stemming from the belief that China is not only the center of the world but is likely in due course to overtake U.S. GDP be curbed?

We need to be pragmatic but consistent in our relations with China. A dialogue without threats or appeasement is needed, but we should stick to our democratic principles and not succumb to Chinese blackmail over human rights or Tibet. We should be skeptical about Chinese intentions. Above all we must not fall victim to either a Chinese charm offensive or bullying.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.