America still has much to decide. Among major issues, the US presidential campaign did not — and without comprehensive national review could not — clear up the daunting question of China. The policy differences between the two parties and their candidates, exaggerated for effect, were miniscule in comparison to the questions China raises. The ultimate stakes for America are huge.
At some point a decision should be made on an overriding question that might roughly be put this way: If this planet is in fact big enough for not just one but two superpowers, can’t the US accept that a new Cold War is not inevitable? If so, what should be the optimal Sino-US relationship? What is in the national interest of each side and how large an area is the overlap of the two national interests?
But such calculations are hard to make when Beijing deviates from its “peaceful rising” policy and adopts what might be termed an it’s-our-way-or-the-highway’ attitude that tends to chill the living life out of people. Here’s what I mean:
Look back a bit in time: China awoke from its long sleep (or perhaps tossing-and-turning insomnia) during the reign of (1978-1992) Deng Xiaoping. Very few historians or economists quarrel with the claim that — totalitarian communist as it may still be — this government and its successors raised more millions out of poverty in a relatively short period of time than any other in modern recorded history. No sensible definition of overall human rights can exclude a measure of economic security and opportunity. This deserves respect and recognition: We are talking 1.4 billion mouths to feed, not a mere 315 million!
But let us look forward a bit: instead of applauding China, more and more neighbors are tending to rearm precisely because of China and are looking at Washington to take out a homeowner’s insurance policy for protection.
Many nations in Asia have had territorial disputes with Beijing, but in all cases Beijing says it is in the right and all their neighbors are wrong. But how can this be? How can everyone in Asia be wrong except China?
Consider the absolutely senseless quarrel with Tokyo over a pool of islands known as Diaoyu Dao, if you’re China or Taiwan, or as Senkaku, if you’re not. Previous Chinese leaders wisely looked the other way and played down the disagreement, on the sensible ground that nothing should stand in the way of China’s economic development.
Japan was becoming both a huge market for China’s low-cost goods and an exporter of many of the quality products it required to develop.
That’s still the basic deal, but sometimes you get the sense of a kind of unwarranted hubris among China’s elite, now meeting to decide its country’s new leadership.
Take the recent newspaper op-ed in which a prominent and respected Chinese diplomat berated the Japanese for their claims on the islands in the scolding manner of a schoolmaster.
Worse yet, Liu Xiaoming, China’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, actually likened Tokyo’s presumption to challenge Beijing’s Diaoyu claim to a brand of Nazi attitude. Harkening back to the aggression that lead to World War II in the Asia, he painted Japan as Asia’s potential Nazi Germany and cited a recent BBC broadcast Nazis: A Warning from History as a warning to us all to “be on guard to prevent the rise of military fascism”.
Liu was referring to Japan, of course, but Americans might be forgiven for wondering whether China’s own human rights history and current record is so impeccable as to qualify Beijing as moral judge of Japan. Any survey of human rights organizations will show them far less critical of Tokyo than they are of Beijing.
It is bizarre. The Chinese ambassador who indicts Japan for allegedly failing to face up to its wartime history of atrocities makes no mention of either China’s Cultural Revolution or the Tiananmen Square horror. Also flatly unmentioned by Liu was the recent United Nations criticism of China’s treatment of Tibetans.
Frustrated by Beijing’s stonewalling, Navi Pillay, the UN’s top human rights official, pointed to the rising cases of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting China’s rule as an indictor of mainland heavy-handedness. Nothing the UN has said about Japan recently remotely compares to this blast.
Fair-minded Americans can only shake their head and wonder what has gotten into the Chinese. Maybe their leadership-change process requires top officials to be as finger wagging about Japan as ours requires our own hypocritical politicians to lecture China. Or maybe Beijing is losing sight of what has made its governance credible: economic development.
For the good of China, that needs to continue, and lecturing others on human rights issues (of all things) should stop. And the territorial quarrels need to be hand led by skilled diplomats, not by threats and gunboats.
And, for the good of the United States, a grand reexamination of our relationship with China needs to begin soon. It’s the most crucial issue of this past presidential campaign not seriously dealt with.
The writer, the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author of Conversations with Ban Ki-moon, the latest in the Giants of Asia book series.