China: What’s the Big Mystery?

Posted January 2, 2006

Categories: Articles, China

The latest recruitment brochure from the Central Intelligence Agency, which beckons the uninitiated to “be a part of a mission that’s larger than all of us,” opens to reveal an image of the red-roofed entrance to Beijing’s Forbidden City. From an oversized portrait on the ancient wall, Chairman Mao and his Mona Lisa smile behold the vast granite expanse of Tiananmen Square. The Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union is gone. The cloak-and-dagger games of Berlin and Prague have been replaced by business and tourism. But China—land of ancient secrets, autocratic leaders, and memories of suppressed uprisings—still holds out the promise of a world-historical struggle that can help the CIA meet its recruitment goals.

It’s not difficult to understand the Bureau’s interest in China. The picture of Tiananmen Square and the walled-off Forbidden City sums it up: size and mystery and potential threat. It’s an irresistible combination for clandestine operations. The big mystery of China has also transfixed pretty much everyone else around the world, from CEOs and filmmakers to language students and ambitious politicians.

And, of course, China interests us at Foreign Policy In Focus. We’ve covered China many times over the last decade. FPIF contributors have explored China’s human rights record, U.S. perceptions of China as a military threat, turmoil in Beijing’s domestic politics, the contradictions of Chinese economic growth, the debate over its accession to the World Trade Organization, and many other aspects of China’s rise to global status.

But our new China Focus takes a more comprehensive and integrated approach, and it comes at a very intriguing moment in world politics.

As the most aggressive phase of U.S. unilateralism appears to be subsiding like a feverish illness, a new “multipolar moment” opens up before us. And China is the country most poised to take advantage of the political opportunity. When the UN needs peacekeepers, it is turning increasingly to China, which is now the 13th largest contributor to missions. When African countries need infrastructure investment—from oil pipelines to sports complexes—they invite in a Chinese delegation. When the United States needs its chestnuts pulled out of the fire in North Korea, it has solicited help from China. Indeed, through trade and diplomacy, Beijing is giving Washington a run for its money in every region of the world.

With China emerging as the new global go-to guy, FPIF decided to do an assessment of this growing influence and its impact on U.S. foreign policy. We want to give some sense of the size of China’s global endeavor and pierce some of the mystery surrounding its motivations. And we intend to tackle the question that has hung inside the Beltway ever since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger engineered their rapprochement of the 1970s. Is China friend or foe? Or, as each administration since the Big Opening has concluded, some improbable combination of the two?

China Focus

In FPIF’s China Focus, our contributors will look at China’s role in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. They’ll assess China’s positions on labor, environment, and trade. And they’ll provide vital information about China’s new multilateralism, its perspective on the “near abroad” including North Korea and Taiwan, and its approach to the control and dissemination of information.

To kick off the feature, James Nolt of the World Policy Institute and Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies go head to head in a virtual debate on whether the United States and China have converging interests or irreconcilable differences. Yu Bin of Wittenberg University gives us a peek into great power competition in Central Asia and whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization represents a threat or a partner for the United States. And Rachel Stohl of the Center for Defense Information gets to the bottom of the conflict between the United States and Europe over selling arms to Beijing.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be featuring articles by Jennifer Turner, Wang Fei-ling, Evelyn Goh, Michael Klare, Akwe Amosu, Enrique Dussel, Peter Beck, Samuel Kim, and many others.

Is China friend or foe or something in between? Visit our China Focus to find out what FPIF and 1.3 billion of your fellow global citizens are thinking.

Austerity Beckons

Forget about the post-Cold War era. And post-September 11 doesn’t cut it either. According to FPIF columnist Michael Klare, the world has entered a new era altogether. This “post-abundance era” will be marked by fewer and fewer natural resources such as energy, water, and key minerals. The rising tide will no longer lift all boats. Indeed, the tide is going out and may never come back. “This global austerity will produce great hardship for the poor and will force even lower-middle class families to choose between long car trips, restaurant meals, air-conditioning in summer, and high thermostats in winter,” Klare writes.

Economist Milton Friedman preached the unlimited abundance that a free market could unleash. But his prescriptions more often produced widespread austerity, particularly for the poor and especially in the Global South. As FPIF columnist Walden Bello explains in Hurricane Milton, the gospel of the unfettered market was tested in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and then packaged for export through “structural adjustment” programs to 90 countries around the world. “From Ghana to Argentina, state participation in the economy was drastically curtailed, government enterprises passed to private hands in the name of efficiency, protectionist barriers on Northern imports were eliminated wholesale, restrictions on foreign investment were lifted, and, through export-first policies, domestic economies were more tightly integrated into the capitalist world market,” Bello writes.

All of this “adjustment” produced great floods of economic refugees, displaced from their land or their jobs, who traveled across national borders to find new work. As FPIF contributor Sameer Dossani argues in Walls, Amnesty, and False Choices, the immigration debate in the United States would largely fade away if this legacy of structural adjustment and free trade were reversed.

Perhaps nowhere have the pernicious effects of the unregulated market been more in evidence than the arms trade. The top arms proliferators, er, sellers such as the United States and Russia have been joined by a number of new countries. This rapidly expanding arms market could use a dose of austerity. A new Arms Trade Treaty, which would establish stricter regulations and prioritize human rights over profits, is gaining support in the United Nations and elsewhere. The United States doesn’t support the effort. FPIF contributor Scott Stedjan is not surprised and, for the time being at least, not dismayed. “In the next year or two, important decisions on the substance of a treaty will be made,” he writes in Let the U.S. Opt Out for Now. “U.S. participation at this stage could prove disastrous, as the United States is currently proving that it is more concerned with counter-terrorism cooperation than with human rights.”

Dealing with Iraq

As Middle East editor Stephen Zunes argues this week in The Democrats’ War, the winners of the mid-term elections are poised to shoulder the responsibility of getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. “The November 7 election provided a mandate to change U.S. policy toward Iraq,” Zunes writes. “Early signs, however, indicate that the Democrats are unwilling to fulfill their anti-war mandate.” Neither Tom Lantos nor Joe Biden, the new Democratic leaders on foreign policy, has shown much spine on the issue. If it does manage to locate some backbone—with the help of the antiwar movement—Congress can use its power of the purse to cut funding for the war. New Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s announcement of his support for an additional $75 billion in military spending suggests that the Dems are worried about appearing “weak on defense.”

Everyone is waiting for the official debut of the Iraq Study Group’s report. FPIF contributor Raed Jarrar, in an op-ed for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, argues that if the report endorses more unilateral U.S. action, rather than giving space to Iraqis to find their own solutions, Washington will continue to make the same mistakes that precipitated the conflict.

Elsewhere at FPIF

We have a pair of articles from our FPIF contributors on Latin America. Alejandro Bendana evaluates what the victory of Daniel Ortega in the recent Nicaraguan presidential elections means for the Latin American left. And Ronald Bruce St John looks at the first 100 days of Alan Garcia’s presidency in Peru.

On World Aids Day on December 1, we published FPIF contributor Yifat Susskind’s analysis of what the U.S. government should do to reduce the influence of greed and dogma on global health care policy. “Everything we know about combating the AIDS pandemic points to the need for a synthesis of prevention and treatment strategies within a human rights framework,” she writes. “It’s not Bono’s or Oprah’s job to develop and enact those strategies. Safeguarding public health and upholding human rights are the responsibility of government.”

And, finally, our “sports” reporter Phyllis Bennis reports on the score in the ongoing match between “U.S. domination and UN independence.” She writes that “so far, it is off to a less than optimistic start. In the big game to this point, it’s 2½ points for U.S. domination versus just 1½ for UN independence.” For the detailed play by play, and much color commentary on the nature of today’s multilateralism, check out her United Nations v. United States.

FPIF, December 6, 2006

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