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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Intransigent face of the Chinese superpower

January 26, 2008

It is remarkable how China the selfish superpower is fading from public
view. In its place comes China the peacemaker and potential saviour of
the faltering world economy.

Western governments look to China as an engine of economic growth.
Western banks see it as a source of capital. European leaders, eager for
commercial advantage, pay homage to Beijing. In the US, the rise of
China - notorious only months ago for purportedly stealing American
jobs, destroying the environment and exporting poisonous toys - has
barely featured in the early primary contests for the presidential election.

US officials are grateful for Beijing's help in bringing North Korea to
the negotiating table and forgetful of the nuclear bomb that was
nevertheless made and tested by Pyongyang. Admiral Timothy Keating, head
of the US Pacific Command, said on a visit to Beijing this month that he
had developed an "honest and true friendship" with Chinese military
leaders, including Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of the central military
commission. "General Guo - he's going to be a pal," said Admiral Keating.

It cannot last. Even if Gen Guo enjoyed chatting about his grandchildren
as much as Admiral Keating says he did, China's reputation will sink
again as surely as its over-inflated equities market.

The first reason is not the fault of China but of the US political
cycle. By the time the Beijing Olympics in August have given way to the
Democratic and Republican national conventions, it is almost inevitable
that China-bashers and protectionists will be reasserting themselves,
particularly if the US is in recession.

The second reason to doubt the durability of China's good reputation is
more fundamental: even in these sensitive pre-Olympic months, China,
flush with the surpluses generated by its fast-growing economy, has
ratcheted up the pressure it always applies to domestic and foreign
rivals in pursuit of greater Chinese power.

Beijing, of course, has not shouted its ambitions from the rooftops. On
the contrary, China still follows Deng Xiaoping's famous "24-character"
foreign policy dictum, which calls on the Chinese to bide their time and
keep a low profile.

But China's behaviour over the past year - military, diplomatic and
political - testifies to an increasingly assertive and confident mood
among Chinese leaders in their dealings with Asia and the rest of the world.

China did not warn other users of space when it fired a ballistic
missile to destroy an old weather satellite in a space warfare test last
year, nor did it apologise for the resulting cloud of orbiting debris
that continues to endanger other satellites.

Back on earth, China has vigorously pursued its dubious claim to the
entire South China Sea, including oil fields in Vietnamese waters,
thereby alarming international oil companies such as BP and ExxonMobil
and provoking protests outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. China has
denied Hong Kong, a supposedly autonomous region, the right to full
democracy before 2017. It has backed up its threats to seize Taiwan by
staging amphibious invasion exercises and increasing to 1,300 the number
of missiles pointing at the island. And it has resisted a resolution of
its longstanding border dispute with India.

Even the US navy, for all its willingness to engage with Chinese leaders
and the People's Liberation Army, is not spared the effects of Chinese
muscle-flexing. Beijing denied access to Hong Kong harbour for two US
minesweepers that had requested protection from bad weather and
unexpectedly turned back the Kitty Hawk, a US aircraft carrier that had
planned a visit to Hong Kong for the US Thanksgiving holiday.

The Pentagon assumes the Chinese were angered by US sales of
anti-missile systems to Taiwan (hardly shocking given the Chinese
missiles targeting Taipei) or by President George W. Bush's meeting with
the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who has campaigned
peacefully for Tibetan autonomy.

So enraged are Chinese leaders by the smiling Dalai Lama - Tibet gives
the lie to the assertion that China has never been an expansionist power
- that their mask of affability sometimes slips to reveal the true face
of intransigent Chinese nationalism. China denounced the US welcome for
the Dalai Lama as "extremely wrong". Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier,
peremptorily demanded that Berlin "correct" its mistakes after Angela
Merkel of Germany also met the Dalai Lama and robustly defended her
vision of human rights.

It was unfortunate that Gordon Brown of the UK and Nicolas Sarkozy of
France scarcely mentioned human rights on their recent visits to China.
Western timidity shows how successfully Chinese leaders have used their
country's financial clout to stifle international criticism.

There is no reason to demonise China's Communist rulers as they grapple
with the genuine challenge of modernising the most populous country on
the planet. But it pays to be realistic about China's strategic
ambitions to dominate Asia and emerge as a global superpower. From outer
space to the South China Sea, China's actions speak for themselves.

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