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China's new nationalism may require careful negotiation

July 29, 2008

The country's confidence, bolstered by the Olympics, is the subject
of anxious debate for the EU and US, who fear that self-interest will
triumph over multilateralism
Simon Tisdall
Guardian (UK)
July 28, 2008

In official-speak, it's about "one world, one dream". But as the
waves of patriotic pride build, next month's Beijing Olympics are
beginning to look like a globally televised, heavily choreographed
celebration of advancing, muscular Chinese nationhood. One country, one team.

Using the event to showcase China's emergence as a potentially
dominant world power was always part of the Communist party's game
plan. In this sense, the medals table, which China expects to
dominate, is a metaphor for broader international competition for
resources and influence.

After centuries of humiliations at western hands, few could fairly
deny China a self-glorifying day in the sun. But how to stop Beijing
over-egging its nationalist pudding – how to prevent superpower
turning to super-arrogance as has happened elsewhere -- is the big
post-Olympic question.

Speaking at a recent conference in London, Charles Grant, director of
the Centre for European Reform, voiced concern that China could "go
the Bush-Cheney way", forsaking multilateralism in selfish, unheeding
pursuit of perceived national interest.

In a new pamphlet co-authored with Katinka Barysch, Can Europe and
China Shape a New World Order? Grant highlights China's fierce
adherence to principles of national sovereignty and non-interference.
Its vetoing of western efforts to rein in Zimbabwe's pariah regime is
one recent example of a holdover non-aligned mentality.

Economic and trade tensions with Europe and the US, the environmental
impact of its rapid development, authoritarian governance and human
rights abuses, and its rapid military build-up are all factors
feeding western perceptions, measured in recent polls, that a
resurgent China represents "the biggest threat to global stability".

But Grant and Barysch argue that what American author Robert Kagan
predicts will be a future "axis of autocracies" linking China to
likeminded unilateralists in Russia and elsewhere in Asia is not
inevitable. Beijing was already collaborating with the west on North
Korea and Iran, if less so on Sudan and Burma, they said.

An internal debate was under way between "liberal internationalists"
and "assertive nationalists" on whether Beijing should jettison its
distrust of traditionally western-dominated global bodies.

China could yet swing either way, Grant and Barysch said. And it was
up to the European Union to persuade Beijing of the benefits of
collaborative multilateralism, using as carrots its markets, its
technological advantages and its institutional and governance experience.

Xinning Song, a Chinese academic, was less optimistic about the
extent to which Europe could influence China's future behaviour. He
told the conference there were three main problems.

The EU and China don't know how to deal with each other. China
doesn't understand how the EU institutions work or where the power
lies. Secondly, they need to define a working partnership. Thirdly
there is lack of mutual public understanding. The uproar in western
countries over Tibet and the Olympic torch showed how small events
can have a very big impact.

Simon Fraser, director-general for Europe and globalisation at the
Foreign Office, said it was plain the EU could not shape a new world
order with China, nor should it try, since the US, Russia and India
must all have their say. But it was certainly true that "a change in
the way the world is organised is happening … economic power is
shifting east and political power will follow".

Enhanced economic integration was the way to minimise the chances of
future conflict, Fraser said. But equally, friction over trade,
energy and other resources could easily upset the relationship. Given
that climate change was now an "existential issue", China's role as a
test bed for low-carbon models of future development was potentially critical.

This was an area where the EU technological and regulatory expertise
could help. Other speakers said only the US could apply decisive
leverage to China because of its superpower status but also because,
unlike the EU, it has direct strategic and bilateral military,
regional and economic relationships with China spanning the Pacific
and east Asia.

The EU and US should work together to influence China's future
polices rather than compete for political influence and economic
benefits, Song and Fraser suggested. If they did, Beijing would be
more likely to accept its responsibilities as a world power operating
within international institutions.

Transatlantic collaboration on China, like other issues, cannot be
taken for granted – but appears highly desirable. As the Olympics
spectacle may soon vividly illustrate, China's bold new nationalism
could, if mishandled or misjudged, morph into an abrasive, new
century imperialism with unfathomable consequences.
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