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As Rome Burns, China Won't Talk

December 3, 2008

Washington Post
December 2, 2008
 
So the global economy is in meltdown, Europe and China are both facing the prospect of a seriously ugly downturn. They'd scheduled a summit for this week. You'd think both sides would want to participate. Not China.
 
China canceled it. The reason? Because several European leaders -- including French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- have recently met with the Dalai Lama. Whoa! Now there's a solid reason if I ever saw one. You meet with Buddhist spiritual leader, we blow off key meeting on future of the world.
 
There is still something of the petulant 3-year-old here, brazenly pursuing something that is decidedly not in her interests. It illustrates the fact that China's foreign policy, its strategy and its world view are anything but mature.
 
First, it's not like China doesn't need friends right now. It's economy is in crisis. More than half of all of China's toy manufacturers are belly up. The Federation of Hong Kong Industries says that one quarter of its members' 70,000 plants in China have closed or will soon close. After annual double-digit growth for the past decade, China's economy is only expected to grow by about 9 percent this year, if that. Next year could be a lot worse. Over the weekend President Hu Jintao told a gathering of Communist Party members that the global crisis could undermine the country's economy and threaten the party's capacity to rule China.
 
Europe is China's largest market. But the Europeans are restless. European businesses want to know why they sell more stuff to Switzerland than to China. Cancel a summit and these questions will only grow louder.
 
Second, it's not like a meeting between Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama is going to amount to much for the Tibetan cause anyway. It's not going to result in the withdrawal of Chinese troops from the Tibetan plateau or independence for Tibet, right? And it certainly won't resuscitate the moribund talks that representatives of the Dalai Lama have been holding with China for several years now. Those talks are practically dead.
 
So why did Hu really blow off Sarko?
 
The stated Chinese reason in this case bears scrutiny because of its brazen honesty. According to wire service reports, Qin Gang, a spokesman at the China's foreign ministry, acknowledged to reporters that France was being held to a higher standard than, say, the United States, whose leaders routinely huddle with the Dalai Lama and barely suffer a slap on the wrist.
 
"France keeps saying that China is a strategic partner. Then it should do more than other countries, mean what it says and set a high standard for its behavior," Qin said.
"We hope France will make efforts to honor its commitments and not do things that harm the feelings of the Chinese people or undermine the foundation for the two countries' cooperation."
 
Chinese tea-leaf readers have focused on another reason: They've wheeled out the old bogeyman of Chinese political calculus, claiming that unidentified "hard-liners" were behind the cancellation. That's rich.
 
The reality is that China just screwed this one up.
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