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China's Yugoslav Nightmare

China's Yugoslav Nightmare

Mini Teaser: Kosovo may be far far away from China-but its fate is on Beijing's mind.

by Author(s): Christopher MarshNikolas K. Gvosdev

Meeting with journalists on April 7, Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried noted that the Bush Administration supports efforts "to negotiate arrangements for Kosovo's final status this year." While Fried went on to stress that the United States has no position on the outcome of final-status negotiations, the mood in Washington--especially in Congress--is to support full independence for the province; in January 2005, Representatives Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Tom Lantos (D-CA) introduced House Resolution 24, in which "independence from Serbia" was described as "the only viable option" for the province's future.

Of course, other states (and secession-minded territories) are eagerly awaiting the outcome of the Kosovo question. What sort of a precedent will de facto if not de jure independence for Kosovo establish for other parts of the world that seek independence? And how will states that are seeking to hold together fragile multiethnic societies react to such a precedent?1 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raised these questions in an interview in the Slovak newspaper Pravda in April, arguing against any "hasty" decision on Kosovo.

One area where many Western commentators remain in the dark is what stance Beijing plans to adopt on this issue, even though the People's Republic of China, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, would have to ratify any final settlement. The prevailing attitude among American observers is that China has little real interest in Kosovo; paraphrasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, they assert that China would not risk a clash with the West "for the people of a far away country of whom we know little."

There is a real danger in continuing to assume that China is primarily an "Asian" power and that U.S. relations with the Middle Kingdom can be isolated from our activities in other parts of the world. Whether it be our engagement in Iraq or along the southwestern border of China in Afghanistan--or in the Balkans--Chinese leaders in Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the central party leadership, pay close attention to U.S. foreign policy endeavors and calculate their strategy accordingly.

It is very true that Beijing may have little interest in Kosovo as a territory, but Western analysts are deeply mistaken if they believe that China does not closely follow developments in the Balkans. Indeed, the picture as seen from Beijing is particularly troubling. As a country trying to navigate a path of transition that does not result in a Soviet-style disintegration or a Kosovo-style state-building endeavor by the United States--and with minority populations of almost one hundred million, many of whom live in "autonomous" territories along China's borders, some near their cross-border kin--the "lessons of Yugoslavia" are seen as very relevant to China's own experience, and debated and discussed from specialist journals such as Dongou Zhongya Yanjiu (East European and Central Asian Studies) to the mainstream press. As June Dreyer pointed out six years ago in Issues & Studies, "the Chinese leadership discerned a dangerous precedent" in the NATO intervention in Kosovo "that could be used to oppose Beijing's designs on Taiwan and control of dissident ethnic minority areas."

Indeed, the criteria sometimes cited as justifications for NATO action in 1999 and for Kosovo to be granted independence--the province's de jure status as an autonomous region within the Yugoslav Federation combined with the ethnic distinctiveness of the province--could easily be applied to regions of the People's Republic such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia or even the Dai (the ethnic Thai) of Xishuangbana in Yunnan province. So even if the United States declares that the Kosovo situation is unique and will not establish a precedent that would apply anywhere else in the world, this does not allay the fears of the Chinese. As Yu Ligong, a commentator of the influential daily Guangming Ribao recently stated, "It is very possible that the independence of Kosovo will be a precedent for territories pursuing independence around the world." From the Chinese perspective, he may be right. One scenario running through the minds of China's leaders is a Balkan-style intervention in which the United States could use a policy of pre-emption to intervene in the Taiwan Strait and eventually award Taiwan the status of a sovereign nation-state of which it has long dreamed.2

The Chinese political establishment has long been keenly interested in developments in Eastern Europe. From the beginnings of reform, China looked to other communist and transition societies not only for models to emulate, but for scenarios to avoid. As part of its early reform efforts, Chinese leaders set up an Economic Reform Investigation Group, which at first gave consideration to the East European models offered by Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, countries that had each developed their own unique systems of socialism, and whose standards of living seemed to the leaders in Beijing to be higher than neighboring countries. Yugoslavia's "market socialism" seemed to offer an attractive strategy for restructuring and running a socialist market economy, and certain aspects of this system turned up in the Chinese economy within a few years, including enterprise autonomy and the retention of profits from production that exceeded the plan.

The Chinese leadership's first Balkan nightmare was the revolution in Romania in December 1989 and the fate of the Ceausescus, whose executions were used as an example by Deng Xiaoping to get the support of his comrades for his vision of managed reform. According to a Reuters report at the time, party leaders "were haunted by parallels between the revolt that overthrew Rumania's dictator . . . and Beijing's student-led protests" at Tiananmen earlier in the year. The very day following Ceausescu's execution, the Chinese Communist Party called mid- and high-level officials in to their offices to receive an internal memorandum on the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and to be "instructed" on how to "correctly understand" the event. In the memorandum, reported in the Guardian, Jiang Zemin himself admitted, "We cannot say that China will remain intact from the recent changes." The party's inner circle got an even more vivid educational experience. Shortly after the fall of the communist regime in Romania, Deng Xiaoping and several Politburo members and veteran cadres gathered to watch videotapes of the whole affair, which had been compiled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The standoff between the Ceausescu regime and crowds of people in Bucharest seemed to those assembled to be "a microcosm of the Tiananmen incident." But most of those watching the footage were not familiar with the subsequent part of the story--the arrest and execution of the Ceausescu couple. Once they witnessed Romania's ruling family being put to death by a firing squad, those gathered to view the film let out a few soft sighs, followed by a few minutes of silence, before someone blurted out, "We'll be like this if we don't strengthen our proletarian dictatorship and repress the reactionaries." To which Deng replied, "Yes, we'll be like this, if we don't carry out reforms and bring about benefits to the people."3

While the fate of the Ceausescus was a warning about what might befall the top leadership, the disintegration of Europe's three communist federal states--the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia--was even more worrisome. The Chinese leadership questioned whether the dissolution of the state along ethnic, tribal and national lines was the only end result of a communist regime that loosened state controls over society. The optimistic phrase of the 1950s, "Sulian de jintian jiu shi women de mingtian" (The Soviet Union's today will be our tomorrow), could be reinterpreted in the 1990s to mean that the collapse of the USSR would be followed by the disintegration of China.

This is why the Chinese were eager to navigate a reform path that could prevent the kind of disintegration that befell the USSR. In fact, during his "Southern Tour" only weeks after the final death knell of the Soviet colossus, Deng Xiaoping calculated that successful economic reform would allow the Chinese Communist Party leadership to avoid the fate of their comrades in Eastern Europe.

It was the fate of Yugoslavia that really shook the Chinese leadership. The collapse of the Soviet state could be blamed on the "fatal mistakes" of Mikhail Gorbachev (giving up the Communist Party's monopoly on power and the failure to pursue meaningful economic reform). Yugoslavia's "market socialism", however, seemed quite an appealing model, and compared to the Soviet system it had brought a modicum of prosperity to the Yugoslavs, a near-Western standard of living. Moreover, the Chinese (and many others) assumed that the Tito system had, if not "solved" the nationalities problem (minzu wenti), at least created conditions for relative intercommunal peace.

But the Chinese watched as, in a matter of a few years, Yugoslavia went from relative stability to being embroiled in one of the bloodiest ethnic conflicts in Europe since World War II. And two of the elements they identified as the causes of the Yugoslav conflagration were the push for democratic elections (which enabled nationalist and secessionist leaders to take power) and the existence of internal administrative arrangements (republican borders, autonomous regions) that were suddenly elevated by outside powers to having status under international law.

If the disintegration of Yugoslavia wasn't enough to strike fear in the hearts of Chinese leaders hoping to bypass a bloody collapse of communism, U.S. intervention in the Balkans was even more troubling. NATO intervention in Bosnia was difficult enough to stomach, particularly what was in Chinese eyes the diktat of the United States in imposing the Dayton Accords on the warring parties. But U.S. involvement in Kosovo--especially if it results in the eventual establishment of an independent state--will establish a precedent that the Chinese will have a tough time accepting.

The Chinese were concerned that the U.S. proclivity to intervene in the Balkans, coupled with declarations about a new global order where the principle of state sovereignty could be overridden--as well as the American penchant for bypassing the United Nations whenever seeking Security Council approval for military action might be inconvenient, as during the Kosovo campaign in 1999--meant that the United States would not hesitate to violate the sovereignty of other states if it had the power to do so. ("China is neither Iraq nor Yugoslavia" was the warning the editors of the China Daily issued to U.S. senators when the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act was proposed in 1999.) Beijing's response has been to strengthen its commitment to the overriding principle of state sovereignty in international affairs. This is why, as then-Foreign Minister Qian Qichen stressed during his remarks at the 46th session of the UN General Assembly in September 1992, any reform of the system of collective security "should contribute to maintaining the sovereignty of its Member States. . . . The maintenance of State sovereignty serves as the basis for the establishment of a new international order."

Professor Li Zhaojie, an international law professor at Tsinghua University, noted in a 2005 lecture to the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva:

China has consistently appraised sovereignty as the basis of the contemporary international relations and the cornerstone of the entire edifice of international law. Such sovereignty-bound thinking explains the self-conscious avoidance of the term 'world order' (shijie zhixu) in Chinese foreign policy pronouncements. Thus, whereas 'world order' is deemed as basically a set of world regulations, and therefore a potential threat to state sovereignty, the Chinese feel the term 'international order' (guoji zhixu) a more auspicious notion, embodying certain statist norms needed to ease transactions without a supranational monster.

So Beijing has been particularly concerned about the "moving of the goalposts" on Kosovo. UN Security Council Resolution 1160, adopted on March 31, 1998, never mentioned independence for Kosovo at all; it only called for an "enhanced status for Kosovo which would include a substantially greater degree of autonomy and meaningful self-administration" for the province. Similarly, UN Resolution 1244, which created the interim administration for Kosovo after the NATO campaign, made no mention of independence for the province but made a point of reaffirming "the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." This is in keeping with China's long-stated position that any UN peacekeeping or peace-stabilization operation should help maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country concerned.

This is why China's then-ambassador to the UN, Wang Yingfan, protested in late 2000 against what he saw as an attempt to connect the holding of elections in Kosovo with securing recognition of the province's status as an independent entity, leading him to proclaim that this would be a violation of international law and should be brought before the Security Council. During a visit to Belgrade in August 2005, China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing again reiterated Beijing's commitment to the territorial integrity of Serbia and insisted that any final resolution of the Kosovo question would have to take place under UN auspices and within the parameters established by the Security Council in its resolutions.

The Chinese have been prepared to be flexible in whatever final-status arrangements are reached for the province. Just as Beijing offers the model of "one China, two systems" as a way to grant Taiwan a high degree of internal autonomy without compromising the territorial integrity of a single China, it would be prepared to countenance a number of scenarios by which Kosovo received some form of de facto independence while preserving de jure the territorial integrity of Serbia. At the same time, the Chinese are not going to be more Serbian than the Serbs; if Belgrade voluntarily gives up its sovereign claims over Kosovo, China will not impede Kosovo's independence.

But Beijing will have a hard time accepting a settlement imposed on Belgrade that bases the claims for Kosovo independence on the will of the majority of the province's residents or on the province's virtual separation since 1999 from the rest of Serbia. These are arguments that touch directly upon the case of Taiwan. An official position paper of the Chinese government declared that "the phrase 'sovereignty belongs to the people' refers to all the people of a state, and not certain people or the people of a certain area."

Now, as the United States proffers a settlement that will effectively award Kosovo its much-coveted independence, Chinese leaders are again giving serious thought to the implications of such an action for other parts of the world, in particular for the future of Taiwan.

Some Chinese analysts wonder whether, just as the Kosovo Liberation Army sought to draw the United States into action in Kosovo in order to win a war of independence it couldn't win itself, Taipei could seek to draw the United States into its struggle with Beijing. Is such a scenario far-fetched? Not really. Consider the case of Taiwan's maneuvering for sovereignty in July 1999--right during the Kosovo crisis. President Lee Teng-hui issued a statement declaring that the Republic of China was a "sovereign, independent state", and that relations between the mainland and Taiwan were "special state-to-state" relations. When asked by Deutsche Welle on whom the ROC would rely for defense if hostilities broke out over the issue, President Lee explicitly stated that "the United States will be one of the important factors for maintaining stability in the Taiwan Strait." Taiwan was forced to table its agenda, especially when Washington indicated its extreme displeasure at Lee's maneuverings. But it is the timing of the event that is so illustrative. Only days after the cessation of NATO operations in Kosovo, it raises the possibility that Taiwan was actually taking a cue from Kosovo.

A statement issued by President Lee less than one week prior to his controversial sovereignty declaration indicates that he was at least very aware of the situation in the Balkans. This statement reflected President Lee's pleasure with Slobodan Milosevic's acceptance of the G-8 Peace Plan, along with an offer to provide humanitarian assistance to Kosovo refugees. Was President Lee's declaration a few days later only a coincidence? Or, having witnessed the United States successfully intervene in the Yugoslav crisis on two occasions, did he conclude that this was an available option for attaining Taiwanese sovereignty as well? In June 1999, Lee cryptically described the aid pledged by Taiwan to Kosovo as "the chance of a thousand years." Mainland Chinese news sources quoted the reported comments of Zhang Xiaoyan, the head of the Kuomintang (KMT), who described the aid package for Kosovo as "Taiwan's best move to facilitate its strategic security. Now we are helping others. In the future, when we face the Chinese communists' threat, the international community will help us." Unnamed political analysts concluded that Lee Teng-hui's "humanitarian aid" to Kosovo not only had "diplomatic" meaning, but also "strategic significance", with the Hong Kong-based Zhongguo Tongxun She news agency reporting that Lee's "genuine motives and objectives are to integrate Taiwan with Kosovo", in the hope that when "the occasion arises in Taiwan", the United States will follow the Kosovo precedent and conduct a similar war in the Taiwan Strait.

Perhaps more importantly, as the dream of independence for Kosovo becomes a reality, will current President Chen Shui-bian give any thought to how Taiwan's own aspirations might be achieved in a similar fashion? It seems very probable that he will, but there is another side to the "Kosovo precedent": If independence comes to Kosovo at such a great price, Taiwan's leaders and citizens may calculate that the price to be paid is just too high. And if the mainland can assure Taiwan that cross-strait relations can continue apace and that conflict is in the interest of neither side, then the impact of the Kosovo precedent might be avoided in this case.

The closest parallel for China is not Taiwan, however, but Xinjiang. China's westernmost region, home to the ethnically Turkic Uighurs, is the site of an Islamic revival and the search for a distinct national identity. This combination has already resulted in a movement for statehood that relies upon terrorist activities, including alleged bombings throughout the country. Since the U.S. State Department placed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement on its list of international terrorist organizations shortly after the 9/11 attacks, it is probably unlikely that we could be drawn in to support their cause. But it is wise to remember that the Kosovo Liberation Army itself was on that list as well and was only removed in 1998 with no explanation ever offered.

Ultimately, the Kosovo question touches upon a larger matter: Does Beijing trust America's stewardship of the international system? U.S. involvement in Bosnia and the carving up of Kosovo has only confirmed the thinking of some in the Chinese foreign policy establishment that the goal of the United States is to seek global hegemony. While government officials remained reticent, other commentators were free to express their concerns. Yang Tazhou, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, stated on Radio-TV Serbia in the summer of 2000 that "Yugoslavia has fought not only for itself but also for other countries and peoples. Yugoslavia has fought for the supreme values of every country--freedom, independence, territorial integrity, and dignity." As another Chinese commentator put it, Serbia's actions in Kosovo "were an internal affair", and its actions "were to defend state sovereignty and territorial integrity." The "U.S. turned the truth into a lie, and stigmatized Milosevic with labels like 'violation of human rights', 'genocide', and 'making humanitarian disaster.'" As Xiao Chuan, a news commenter for China's Yancheng newspaper, noted in an editorial (July 19, 2001), the United States "in fact wanted to occupy Kosovo and to control the Balkans." NATO's seemingly lackluster response after it took control of the province to provocations against the Serb minority in Kosovo also seemed to confirm that the U.S. focus was on extending its power, not defending human rights.4

Does this mean that Beijing plans to play an active role in frustrating independence for Kosovo? Not at all. It is very clear that the United States still has the political capital to get Kosovo's independence passed. And even token acquiescence by Belgrade will give Beijing the fig leaf it needs to abstain. Moreover, at this point China will not actively risk its relations with the United States over an issue that is not directly central to its Asian agenda. Before China can become a great power once again, it must first establish itself as the pre-eminent Asian power, which requires continued commitments to modernizing its military, economy, and scientific sectors, as well as acting as an economic hub for East Asia. The issue of Kosovo in no way will displace any of these priorities.

But Chinese acquiescence over Kosovo's independence should not be interpreted as Beijing's acceptance of the U.S. narrative of events--including seeing Kosovo as a humanitarian intervention. Beijing will be carefully monitoring how political forces in the United States cite the Kosovo precedent--and if members of the U.S. Congress introduce a resolution calling on the U.S. government to recognize Taiwanese sovereignty or to deal with Tibet on the basis of the Kosovo settlement, Washington needs to be prepared to deal with the inevitable fallout.

But there is another point to consider. China may not actively oppose U.S. plans for Kosovo--but Washington should not make the mistake of assuming that China is "only" an East Asian power and that only what happens in Asia is of interest to the Chinese leadership. Increasingly, China sees itself as a global actor with global concerns. The United States must be careful not to assume that it has a free hand in other parts of the world, and that there will be no repercussions from its Balkan policy. Again, it is important to stress that this does not necessarily translate into active opposition on the part of China, but it does not rule out the possibility that Beijing will try to raise the costs of U.S. actions now and in the future. China's reluctance to endorse more forceful action vis-à-vis Iran is one manifestation of this tendency.

The United States should follow a policy on Kosovo that serves our national interests. But we need to accept that our stance may be perceived by Beijing in a different light--and this has a real impact on Chinese calculations as to whether to support the United States on crucial international issues. We should have no illusions that what happens in Kosovo does not have consequences halfway around the world.

1. Tim Potier offered his perspective on these questions in the Spring 2006 issue of The National Interest.

2. Beijing is also very aware of the fact that two of the biggest promoters of independence for Kosovo on Capitol Hill--Congressmen Hyde and Lantos--are also strong supporters of Taiwan; Hyde was recently quoted in the Taiwanese press as describing the Republic of China on Taiwan as a "free and sovereign state." Taipei Times, April 6, 2006.

3. Cited in Benjamin Yang, Deng: A Political Biography (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998).

4. An editorial in the August 5, 1999, China Daily condemned the "systematic campaign by ethnic Albanian extremists to blot out all traces of Serbian existence in Kosovo" and highlighted "NATO-led KFOR's responsibility for their connivance in the atrocities" committed against the Serbian population.


Christopher Marsh is director of Asian Studies at
BaylorUniversity. Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest.

Essay Types: Essay