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China begins to define the rules
By M K Bhadrakumar
International Studies, wrote in mid-December in People's Daily with biting
sarcasm that the project suggested Washington is "not yet ready to cease and
give up its efforts to graft its own brand of democracy onto the world".
"Will this 'concert of democracies' again stir up US ambition and greed? Will
it increase or reduce the US's liability in foreign assets? What changes will
the US make to its foreign policy? Perhaps the answer is, as the famous
American singer Bob Dylan
sang, 'blowing in the wind'."
Ruan poured scorn on the US pretensions of charioting the "concert of
democracies" at a time when it is in such a mess in the Middle East. He said US
foreign policy is "showing obvious signs of fatigue ... [President George W]
Bush's Iraq policies have failed ... The smoke and gunpowder of the Iraqi
streets seem to have derailed the Bush administration. Iraq has slid to the
brink of civil war, and something small could trigger even greater chaos in the
Middle East. The US's influence in the Middle East is weakening and the Bush
administration has to consider a withdrawal strategy."
But China is nonetheless willing to cooperate with the US in the Middle East.
China doesn't want upheavals in a region of such vital importance. All the
same, the People's Daily questioned the efficacy of Bush's new Iraq strategy.
And the official China Daily wrote, "The US forces are now faced with a painful
dilemma where neither advance nor retreat bodes well for them. The 'new
strategy' can be seen as an attempt to break free, though its prospects appear
The China Daily commented that Bush's latest warnings to Syria and Iran didn't
add up. "The United States has already made these warnings a number of times
without success. Will the two countries miraculously wash their hands of what's
happening in Iraq this time around?"
But in the prevailing highly inflammable and dangerous regional situation,
China would still counsel Iran to avoid "flinty language". China sees the US is
"losing patience", and the "leeway to Iran is shrinking". The consequences
could be dangerous if the US lashes out. In China's opinion, therefore, Iran
should "lay down the flinty tongue for a while to avoid the coming stress".
The stakes are very high. The US-Iran standoff can determine the course of
Iran's foreign policy. "Even more, it may determine Iran's future and fate."
The People's Daily hoped last August that "Iran has a quite flexible foreign
policy, and will surely pursue its national interests by seeking dialogue and
Meanwhile, China anticipates that "conflicts of interest between Western
powers, the United States in particular, will become more intense, rendering
the entire Middle East issue all the more complex and altering the delicate
strategic balance in the region". Thus, while keeping up manifestly friendly
ties with Jerusalem, China coolly estimates that Israel holds a weak hand.
The People's Daily wrote, "Israel not only underestimated the strength of
Hezbollah, but also underestimated the power of Syria and Iran ... her strength
does not match her ambitions for holding on. Small as she is, Israel falls into
a grim strategic environment and faces increasing risks. The only correct way
for her is to immediately and unconditionally return to the track of political
China's Middle East strategy is brilliant. It is a multi-splendored thing.
There is great adventure in it insofar as it almost overlooks the so-called
non-state actors that one hears so much about in the Middle East - let us say
with a dash of Marxian idiom, the "forces of history". China's strategy is
cautious, yet pragmatic. It is, arguably, near optimal.
Thus, despite the United States' defeat in the Middle East, China will not take
on a condescending attitude toward Washington. On the contrary, this is the
time for China to cooperate. If the Bush administration were to work out a
withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by manipulating the introduction of a
pro-Western Arab military force under United Nations mandate, China would have
no problem. China might even counsel Iran to take the bitter pill. China is
working hard to expand its influence at the same time with the various Middle
East protagonists - Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
Moscow is also keen to play a role in the Middle East. But look at the contrast
with China's approach. The problem with Russia is what Negroponte in his
testimony last week called Moscow's "assertiveness". The great orientalist and
former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov said in a Russian media interview
recently, "I think good relations with the United States are very important for
Russia. Very important. The US should therefore be increasingly aware that it
simply cannot settle many problems exclusively with NATO's [the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization's] assistance, and without Russia.
"Take the Middle East and the Middle East settlement as an example," Primakov
asserted. "We [Russia] have contacts with Syria, and no one else, including the
US, has. We have ties with Iran and with Hezbollah, which the US doesn't. In
this setting Russia can and hopefully will do a great deal."
Russia condemned Saddam Hussein's execution and the detention of Iranian
diplomats by US troops in Irbil. China kept quiet. Unlike Russia, China is a
stakeholder. Oil must flow unimpeded, and the price of oil must not skyrocket.
Admittedly, there is a cauldron of anxiety in Washington and Beijing about each
other's ambitions and intentions. But trade is booming.
Beijing's capital reserves are a major source of US borrowing. China is an
increasingly important purchaser of US debt and a de facto financier of the US
economy. The reverberations would be profound if China's economic performance
were to lag or tend to even a moderate slowdown.
Of course, like Russia, China is opposed to US hegemony. But Russia is too weak
to be a "partner". At any rate, the relationship with the US is too important
for China to seek any alliance against it. A former Soviet diplomat who served
in China in the 1980s, Yevgeny Bazhanov, wrote recently that even if China and
Russia were to form an anti-American alliance, its fate couldn't be any
different from the pact that collapsed in the 1950s with disastrous
consequences. He wrote, "Russia and China are too different, and they have too
many different interests."
Sergei Ivanov was right. In comparison with our hugely altered landscape,
marked by violent deaths and political treacheries and religious confrontation,
the Cold War era was like paradise - a Garden of Eden, even if a serpent or two
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).