China: The open question

It was this week in 1972 that US President Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing for an historic meeting with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong that was meant to lead to the «opening of China.» The diplomatic significance of the meeting between the two men 36 years ago this Thursday will forever be recorded in the most gripping pages of history but almost four decades on, the world is still perplexed by China. Director Steven Spielberg’s recent decision to pull out of his role as an artistic adviser to the Beijing Olympics has highlighted the wide gap in perception of international affairs between many people in the West and China. Spielberg withdrew on the grounds that China should be doing more to pressure the Sudanese government to end the conflict in its western region of Darfur. China buys much of Sudan’s oil and sells weapons to Khartoum. It is estimated that some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes in more than four years of conflict in Darfur. So, Spielberg’s heart seems to be in the right place. His logic, though, looks to be off course. Since Beijing was awarded the Olympics, campaigners have repeatedly drawn attention to a number of worrying issues in China. Human rights, pollution, the future of Tibet and the eviction of locals so stadiums can be built for the Games are all matters that have, rightly, been raised. Yet, there is a tendency to portray China as a kind of rogue state that is not willing to play by international rules. Although post-Communist China is slow in adopting many Western norms, it has started to view international affairs in the same realist terms as other countries. Before Nixon met Mao, the US had not so much given China the cold shoulder as a frozen stiff arm. But the discussion between the two leaders made it clear to the US president that there was room to negotiate with China. «We must cultivate China during the next few decades while it is still learning to develop its national strength and potential. Otherwise we will one day be confronted with the most formidable enemy that has ever existed in the history of the world,» wrote Nixon in his memoirs. In 2008, it is not China’s military power but its economic prowess that has the world trembling with concern. Mao told a party conference in 1956 that «in 12 years, Britain, America, West Germany and Japan will all want to do business with us.» After 52 years, everybody is doing business with China. Its ability to attain economic success without having to bow at the altars of democracy and sustainability has prompted fears that it could lead to others following suit and be a destabilizing factor in international relations. «After the end of the Cold War it was tempting to believe in the ‘end of history’ – the inevitable process of liberal democracy and capitalist economics. Now, with the economic success of China, we can no longer take the forward march of democracy for granted,» said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in a major foreign policy speech last week. However, ironically, it is China’s economic boom that means the onus is on Beijing to help maintain a fully functional international system. China may show disregard for the nature of regimes that it gets its raw materials from, or as Observer commentator Nick Cohen bluntly states: «China’s communists are communists in name only. They are not helping dictators because they are comrades who share their ideology. They have no ideology beyond national self-interest.» China needs open markets on which to sell its products and only a stable international order can guarantee that these markets will continue to be there and remain open to Chinese goods. Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wrote last week that «ultimately, China cannot continue to prosper in one dimension of the global order if it seeks to opt out of the other.» This is why the West should not follow Spielberg. The Olympics are a sporting event that has lost out in its race with commercialization but it remains a rare moment of global significance, as Athens knows only too well. For all its faults, China is not alone in failing to be part of the solution in Darfur. A number of other countries, including Russia, are involved in heavy trade with Sudan but have not been active in trying to bring about peace. «Beyond the ethical finger-pointing is a collective sin of omission – Western and Asian states alike have failed to equip and train the type of effective peacekeeping force that could protect civilians in Darfur,» wrote Patrick Smith, the editor of the Africa Confidential bulletin, this week. You do not need to go back to Nixon’s visit in 1972 to see that there is much to be gained from making China one of the fold, rather than a pariah, in the hope of achieving gradual change for the better within its borders and gaining from its growing influence outside of those borders. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Washington established a working relationship with Beijing and despite a few bumps along the road, such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by an American plane during a NATO raid in 1999, China remained a «strategic partner» for the US. George W. Bush attempted to establish a harder line with the Chinese but soon came to realize that he would have to tread much more carefully. During the Bush presidency, China has taken an increasingly active role in international affairs and its influence has grown in East Asia, where it is seen as the key to keeping North Korea in check, in the Middle East and in Africa, where apart from doing business with Sudan, it is also dealing with Robert Mugabe’s reprehensible regime in Zimbabwe. During Nixon’s visit to China, the country’s Premier Zhou Enlai told the Americans that «there is chaos under heaven.» The chaos of 2008 may be different to that of 1972 but China is in an increasingly powerful position to affect how disruptive this chaos is. This is one of the most compelling reasons for the West to try to find a platform on which it can cooperate with China. «Since he went there, the phrase ‘Nixon in China’ has assumed talismanic qualities… it’s worth remembering that the phrase ‘Chamberlain in Munich’ once also symbolized a diplomatic leap,» wrote American historian John Lewis Gaddis in the International Herald Tribune last year. «Nixon’s succeeded where Chamberlain’s failed, and in an era when new diplomatic leaps are being called for, it’s important to understand why.» At a banquet held for the arrival of the American president and his delegation in 1972, Nixon quoted a line from one of Mao’s poems: «Time passes. Ten thousand years are too long. Seize the day, seize the hour.» Perhaps the rest of the world should be looking to seize the Beijing Olympics as an opportunity to once again «open China.»