Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Nixon and Mao and the End Of Power as We Know It
This moment was inevitable. Ever since China began to shuck off communism and turn itself into a global economic power, its leaders have followed the strategy of a “peaceful rise” — be modest, act prudently, don’t frighten the neighbors and certainly don’t galvanize any coalition against us.
But in recent years, with the US economic model having suffered an embarrassing self-inflicted shock, and the “Beijing Consensus” humming along, voices have emerged in China saying “the future belongs to us” and maybe we should let the world, or at least the ‘hood, know that a little more affirmatively.
For now, those voices come largely from retired generals and edgy bloggers — and the leadership has remained cautious.
But a diplomatic spat this past summer has China’s neighbors, not to mention Washington, wondering for how long China will keep up the gentle giant act.
With an estimated 70 million bloggers, China’s leaders are coming under constant pressure from a populist- and nationalist-leaning blogosphere to be more assertive.
The blogosphere, in the absence of democratic elections, is becoming the de facto voice of the people.
The diplomatic fracas was a session of the regional forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Hanoi in July.
In attendance were foreign ministers of the 10 Asean members, as well as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
According one of the diplomats who sat in on the meeting, the Asean ministers took turns subtly but firmly cautioning China to back off from its decision to claim “indisputable sovereignty” over the whole resource-rich South China Sea, which stretches from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan over to Vietnam and carries about half the world’s merchant cargo.
Its seabed is also believed to hold major reserves of oil and gas, and lately China’s navy has become more aggressive in seizing fishing boats alleged to have infringed on its sovereignty there.
China also has been embroiled in maritime disputes with South Korea and Japan.
As one minister after another got up to assert claims or argue that any territorial disputes must be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, the Chinese foreign minister grew increasingly agitated, according to a participant.
And after Clinton spoke and insisted that the South China Sea was an area where America had “a national interest” in “freedom of navigation,” the Chinese minister asked for a brief adjournment and then weighed in.
Speaking without a text, Yang went on for 25 minutes, insisting this was a bilateral issue, not one between China and Asean.
He looked across the room at Clinton through much of his stemwinder, which included the observation that “China is a big country” and most of the other Asean members “are small countries.”
The consensus, the diplomat said, was that Yang was trying to intimidate the group and separate the territorial claimants from the nonclaimants so that each country would have to negotiate with China separately.
As negative feedback from the Yang lecture rippled back to Beijing, China’s leaders seemed to play down the affair for fear that after a decade of declining US influence in the region they were about to drive all their neighbors back into America’s embrace.
How much China’s leaders will be able to cool it, though, will depend, in part, on a third party: the Chinese blogosphere, where a whole generation of Chinese schooled by the government on the notion that the US and the West want to keep China down, now have their own megaphones to denounce any Chinese official who compromises too much as “pro-American” or “a traitor.”
Interestingly, the US Embassy in Beijing has begun to reach out to that same blogosphere to get America’s message out without filtering by China’s state-run media.
Watch this space. The days when Nixon and Mao could manage this relationship in secret are long gone.
There are a lot of unstable chemicals at work out here today, and so many more players with the power to inflame or calm US-China relations.
Or to paraphrase Princess Diana, there are three of us in this marriage.
By Thomas Friedman New York Times columnist