Waiting for China

Largely due to U.S. missteps, China’s influence continues to grow. How should Washington respond?

China, China, China. It started with North Korea. It soon spread to Darfur. Now we need China for Burma. The Congo will probably be next. China has become the newest dues ex machina of international politics. In daytime it consorts with the forces of evil. At night, after pleadings from the world, China whispers in the ears of the malefactors: Behave yourself and you will benefit. Be more careful in publicly handling your people. Get those white guys off your back (and ours too).

Despite its poverty, China is increasingly the go-to power. It has relations with everyone (Taiwan excepted), trades with everyone, and is prepared to finance everyone from Tuvalu to Chad. Supposedly, only China can make things happen in a whole bunch of countries. And everyone from the Wall Street Journal to NGOs to Hollywood superstars are enthralled by China's power and influence and expect it to fix long unresolved problems.

But China is not super-human. It feeds off failed Western policies and grazes on regions of the world increasingly ignored by the United States. That's certainly not kryptonite, it's just low-hanging fruit. The Bush Administration, distracted by the Iraq War, did not want to face up to the dangers produced by its disastrous initial policies with North Korea-more plutonium production and a nuclear explosion. So the U.S. gave China a major role in resolving the dispute over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. And China, for its own reasons, ultimately helped produce a serious negotiation between the two parties. But only after the Americans changed their policy on dealing with the "rogue regime." Final results are not yet in.

In Darfur, years of incessant calls for tough action against the Sudanese government by the U.S. and its allies produced nothing. The two million plus displaced have not been able to return to their homes. The halfhearted peace agreement the outside world produced fell apart. So we suddenly gave China, which had been investing with the Sudan government for years, the responsibility for solving the Darfur crisis. And Beijing's Olympic games moved to the fore as the instrument of pressure to get China to do what the West had failed to do. China did respond in part to Western clamor. Beijing told general Basher to behave himself, allow a large UN force into Darfur and resume peace talks with a rebel movement that in between negotiations had badly fragmented. Whether all this will change the situation on the ground remains to be seen; the violence has not stopped.

Now the call for Chinese action has moved to Burma. For most of Burma's modern republican existence we all tolerated the worst of governments-Ne Win's "marriage of militarism to socialism" as Lee Kuan Yew observed. When the country rose up in wrath against their military rulers in 1988 and many were gunned down, we watched helplessly and some reacted with sanctions. Burma was way down the priority list in Washington, and for the last two decades a small policy struggle ensued between isolators and engagers on how to deal with the junta. The end result was to watch Burma die a little each day, while China's deepening trade, aid, and investment helped keep the regime alive.

Now with a genuine peaceful uprising against intolerable military rule, our only resort for stopping the military from brutally cracking down on the demonstrators is essentially rhetoric. And once more we are all pressuring China to do the trick for us, using any leverage we can think of. Oops-there's those Olympic Games again. China has no illusions about the military government and wants to preserve its economic and strategic stake in Burma if the military falls apart. Just as in Sudan, Beijing tried to try to persuade the military to stop the violence and accept a UN envoy. Perhaps China was tougher in its diplomatic contacts, but not to the point that Burmese junta changed its behavior.

China's role in these three issues is of course only a small part of Beijing's newfound importance. Its influence now straddles much of the world; it comes armed with trade, aid, investment and an avowed non-interference policy. The lower priority given to some of these problems and the U.S. preoccupation with other issues have further enhanced China's role.

The way China exercises its influence (or not) in many countries is strongly repugnant to much of the West. Chinese leaders are well aware of the world's increasing moral opprobrium and increasingly sensitive to it. They also know that the bad regimes they cavort with can change quickly and endanger their interests. But they are not prepared to do more than jawbone, a lot like U.S. behavior toward its authoritarian allies. China is not prepared to jeopardize its stake in badly behaved clients.

So how do we handle China and its opposing stances? Railing against Beijing usually helps us mask our own sins-not a good tack. Some think convincing China to be a "responsible stakeholder" will ultimately do the trick. But what do we do when the military crushes the people of Burma or peace in Darfur escapes us?

The problem is that China has never bought into our polices in many areas, and when they conflict there is not much we can do to change them whatever our moral superiority. That is increasingly so: We have so much going with China that our ability to exert pressure on a specific issue could be counterproductive to other interests with Beijing. We may not like what China is doing, but until we are prepared to force them to become  "responsible stakeholders" we would be wise to include them in the fashioning of policies, and not just when our policies are going down the tube. We still have not digested the fact that the world has changed significantly.