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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Foreign policy: Assertiveness alongside a message of peace

November 24, 2008

By David Pilling
Financial Times (UK)
November 21, 2008

The Olympics was billed by many as China's coming-out party. It was
to be an event that marked the country's rapid modernisation and one
that drew a line under nearly two centuries on the sidelines of global power.

To a great extent that has happened. The world sat up and watched as
China progressed through its dramatic year, which lurched from unrest
in Tibet and a devastating earthquake in Sichuan to the impressive
display of power and efficiency (not to mention medal-winning
prowess) captured in the Olympic ceremony itself. For those who had
not already noticed that the rise of China was changing the planet,
2008 brought that message home.

But the world in which China now finds itself has undergone dramatic
changes. Most significantly, the US, the continental superpower that
China regards as its most natural role model, is not what it seemed
just a few months ago. Many sophisticated US financial institutions,
until recently pressing for greater access and influence in China,
have become state-owned enterprises, an irony not lost on Chinese
commentators. The mighty US economy, whose appetite for Chinese
exports has been an important driver of China's ultra-fast growth,
has ground to a halt.

Just as America's economic prestige has dwindled, its political
appeal, at least for now, is on the ascendant. The election of Barack
Obama to the presidency could see a rekindling of goodwill towards
the world's only superpower, whose sagging reputation under George W.
Bush had helped Beijing in its endeavours to spread diplomatic
influence in Latin America and Africa. "Obama is a vigorous and
competent competitor in the diplomatic contest for who can win most
friends," says Shi Yinhong, professor of international politics at
Beijing's Renmin university.

Mr Obama's election and the prospect of severe US recession has also
provoked concern in Beijing about a possible revival of
protectionism. That would be a severe blow for China given its deep
integration into the global supply chain. Stephen Roach, chairman of
Morgan Stanley Asia, says he hopes Mr Obama will resist the
temptation of scoring easy political points at home. But, if things
get rough economically, he says a new Democratic administration could
easily resort to China bashing.

Even as those risks rise, China is being expected to play an
increasingly prominent role at the top table of world leadership.
Many eyes were on Beijing at November's G20 meeting in Washington.
China has been invited into the Financial Stability Forum, a body
that monitors and forms regulatory standards. Its role in the
International Monetary Fund and World Bank is likely to increase. But
Beijing has been diffident about taking too prominent a role, partly
because of fears that its currency policy could come under greater
spotlight. One foreign ministry official, referring to the G20
gathering in Washington, said China was happy for Nicolas Sarkozy,
president of France, and Brazil's Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva to
steal the limelight.

Yet China has reached the stage where it will have to participate
more in global decision-making whether it wants to or not. Chris
Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, said: "If I was Obama, I would
go to China before anywhere else. There isn't a big issue you can get
done without China." Referring to the possibility of the US playing
the protectionist card, he said: "If Obama does have a tough line on
trade with China, it is very difficult to see, for example, how we
could expect China to make much progress on climate change negotiations."

China has also played a bigger -- if yet less than decisive - role in
six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea, its difficult
neighbour, to give up its nuclear arms programme. China has
facilitated talks between itself, North Korea, the US, Japan, South
Korea and Russia. But it has been reluctant to put diplomatic or
economic pressure on Pyongyang that might force it to dismantle its
nuclear facilities.

Prof Shi says that on this and other issues China is not keen on
throwing its weight around. But he does detect a hardening of
Beijing's stance on issues closest to its heart. "First China is
reacting harder than everyone expected over the Taiwan arms sale," he
says, referring to the US decision to supply what Beijing regards as
a renegade province with $6bn in arms. "And then, in talks with the
representative of the Dalai Lama. This is not accidental. Maybe
subconsciously, the Chinese leaders have more confidence. China will
not ask for this or that. But it will frequently say 'No' over Tibet
or over Taiwan."

Yet if China is being more assertive in some respects, in others it
has worked hard to underline its message of peaceful rise. Only a few
years ago, Beijing's relationship with Tokyo had soured to such an
extent that Chinese leaders refused to meet the then prime minister,
Junichiro Koizumi, because of his penchant for visiting the
controversial Yasukuni war shrine. Yet Beijing has had a far more
constructive attitude with the three prime ministers who have
followed, in spite of the fact that Shinzo Abe and current incumbent
Taro Aso have a track record as nationalists.

"China has gone out of its way to offer an olive branch to Tokyo,"
says Jeff Kingston, professor of Asian Studies at Temple University.
Beijing, he says, has concluded that there is little mileage in
prolonging friction with its closest neighbour, although he argues
that the Chinese leadership is likely to keep the anti-Japanese
nationalist card in reserve if things get tough at home.

Beijing's relations have also improved with Taiwan following the
election as president in March of Ma Ying-jeou, who seeks more
pragmatic relations with Beijing. In November, Chen Yunlin, in charge
of cross-Straits relations, became the most senior mainland official
to visit Taiwan since 1949. Despite protests over his visit by
supporters of Taiwanese independence, he concluded agreements to
increase direct charter flights across the Taiwan Straits.

Major General Qian Lihua, director of the ministry's foreign affairs
office, said he hoped Mr Chen's efforts would "lay the foundation for
greater political breakthroughs in the future." But he warned that
Taiwan remained a potential source of instability. If, by pushing for
independence, Taiwan "dares force us into a corner, we would have to
resort to resolute means," he said.

Never in history has a rising power of China's size been smoothly
incorporated into a new world order. Only responsible leadership from
Washington, Beijing and elsewhere will ensure that this time is different.
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