Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Chinese Learning Deficit

It is widely believed that China is engaged in extensive intelligence operations targeting the United States. And yet, remarkably, it refuses to learn from common knowledge about the United States’ experience as the world’s only super power. This learning deficit has serious consequences for China and the rest of the world.

It is well-known that the US policy of using extremist Islamic regimes as proxies against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan has boomeranged.

China refuses to learn from the United States’ experience in this regard.

In its rush to the global summit, China is destabilizing the international system by supporting regimes it would love to disappear when it reaches the top.

By using Pakistan to tie down India and North Korea to keep Japan and South Korea engaged, China is encouraging regimes that won’t turn law-abiding if and when China achieves global dominance (whatever that means in this age of long-range nuclear missiles). Iran, Burma and Sudan are other instances of myopic Chinese foreign policy.

These countries will prove to be a headache for China in four ways.

First, just as Pakistan is presenting the United States with one of its most important challenges, these countries will divert China’s attention from more important global issues, including the fight against climate change.

Second, these regimes will join China’s opponents once it starts exerting pressure upon them to behave.

Third, almost 65 percent of China’s territory is populated by ethnic minorities. In many cases, these groups have not been completely overwhelmed by Han settlers and tensions continues to simmer.

In this context, an unpredictable Burma that borders upon Tibet could potentially encourage the independence of the Tibetan ethnic minority.

And while Pakistan-based or Iran-sponsored Islamic extremists have not yet launched a major attack on Xinjiang, this does not guarantee a future free from internal violence and unrest.

Fourth, political repression and economic distress makes such states potential sources of humanitarian refugees. China may end up hosting millions of refugees if the situation in North Korea or Burma deteriorates.

More broadly, China’s support of rogue regimes affects the world in at least three ways.

First, it encourages the emergence of such regimes in other countries by reducing the expected impact of international sanctions, which in turn discourages domestic opposition to such regimes.

Muted domestic opposition further limits the options available to the international community, which in turn gives negative feedback to domestic opposition, ultimately, forcing the country into a low-level equilibrium trap.

Second, the neighbors of rogue regimes are compelled to follow a policy of appeasement to limit China’s influence across their borders, which in turn bolsters these regimes and further reduces the expected impact of international sanctions, making domestic dissent costlier.

Look at India’s quiet but unwavering support of Myanmar’s junta to counter Chinese influence.

Third, sooner or later countries at the receiving end of the Chinese policy of encirclement will respond, in kind, in China’s neighbourhood, completing the vicious circle.

The myopia of China’s foreign policy is compounded by an empathy deficit. Here, again, China has missed the lessons the United States has to offer.

Its foreign policy mandarins seem to be effectively operating on the belief that, while the Chinese love to be rich, the North Koreans love to wallow in poverty; the Chinese love to get Fields Medals and Nobel Prizes (in sciences), whereas the Pakistanis love to wallow in medievalism.

China risks engendering a popular backlash in these countries, akin to the backlash stimulated by US foreign policy during the Cold War, which assumed that the West Asians and Pakistanis do not like or need democracy.

It is not yet too late for China to mend its problems.

China can still take heed of the United States’ current problems and reverse its myopic policy of subsidizing perverse regimes in resource-rich, strategically important countries that disregard their own people.

By doing so, it will not only promote global stability by coming to the aid of millions suffering under these regimes but will also make its life as a potential global power easier.

But unfortunately, China seems to be condemned to repeat the mistakes of the United States.

This is because reversing its policy abroad would affect China’s domestic political scene, where the Communist Party is steadfast in the belief that political liberalization can wait.

By Vikas Kumar independent researcher based in Bangalore. East Asia Forum

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