Far Eastern Economic Review
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Get Tough With China

Carry a big stick. Only then might speaking softly work

June 7, 2001

LET'S BE CLEAR: China is not a normal country, in so far as most Asian nations are because they hew, to varying degrees, to modern norms of regime behaviour. Few in Thailand, Japan or India would claim that they are politically repressed--even if they might gripe about their government. Though even fewer in China are likely to say there is repression, more tellingly none is likely to be foolish enough to complain about the political establishment, a surer sign of the lack of freedom in that country. And a regime that does not subscribe to behaviour that accords with normative values does not merit normal treatment.

Indications are that this is understood by the current American administration, which rightly paid no heed to Beijing's objections to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian's visit to the United States and the Dalai Lama's White House date with George W. Bush. If China were of a nature that would make it an ally of the noncommunist community, or even just a friend, then its objections would deserve at least some consideration. As things stand, it isn't and they don't.

Beijing is now huffing and puffing at Mr. Bush for "conniving at and supporting Tibetan independence forces" (even if the Dalai Lama has been advocating, instead, Tibetan autonomy) and has made a "solemn protest" at Mr. Chen's stopover in New York. But because its claims as regards Taiwan and Tibet are spurious, its indignation equally is worth naught. What is curious, though, is that this outrage at the U.S.'s collected snubs appears no fiercer than usual, considering that Beijing has lost so much face lately. The Bush administration has turned up the heat in a manner unlike any in recent memory. Within the space of just a few months, it has agreed to sell Taiwan nearly all the weapons it wants, has said it intends to go ahead with missile defence and of course has granted a visa to Mr. Chen and provided a global platform for the Dalai Lama.

Beijing apparently is confused at this new Washington's resolve not to budge and not to submit to its whims as did the previous administration. This confusion at the very least implies that playing hardball against China is beginning to pay dividends: It has stopped the regime cold and forced it into introspection. As Nicholas Berry of the Washington-based Centre for Defence Information writes in this week's 5th Column (see page 33), the Bush administration's hard-line tack has demonstrated to China and others of its ilk that it is their choice how they wish to be treated by the U.S.--they can either cooperate or stew.

China is a nation that is still a terror to its own people--next week marks another anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, yet Falun Gong practitioners know only too well that the past 12 years have done nothing to mellow Beijing. Wider afield, Asia's most compelling issue is how to neuter the strategic threat of a China with hegemonic ambitions (notwithstanding its protests to the contrary). Indeed, understand this much and it's clear that China is no normal Asian country, and therefore is undeserving of common diplomatic courtesies.