The Hindu
Monday, June 22, 1998 
SECTION: Opinion



Clinton in China: A virtual summit 

Date: 22-06-1998 :: Pg: 13 :: Col: d 

By Gerald Segal 

When the U.S. President, Mr. Bill Clinton, begins his visit to China on June 25, there will be much hyperbole about a summit between the world's two most important powers. Forget it! In fact, there is a world of difference between the world's sole superpower - the United States - and the world's most virtual power - China. 

Of course the tendency to exaggerate China's power and importance has a long pedigree - what one might call the ``Marco Polo complex''. From Marco Polo, through early British imperialists and including modern American and Southeast Asian observers, there has been a consistent tendency to assume that a country with a grand civilisational past and huge population necessarily has a glorious future. 

The Chinese reality for the past few centuries has been a repeated failure to meet the challenges of modernisation. The latest failure - China's experiment with communism - is only now being haltingly replaced with a hybrid form of capitalism. A generation after Deng Xiaoping launched China's latest revolution, the leadership in Beijing remains painfully aware of the limits of Chinese power. What is most impressive, and in some senses puzzling, is the extent to which China has been successful in persuading the outside world that it should be treated as the only potential peer competitor of the United States and a challenge to the West as a whole. 

In fact, China is a minor power. In economic terms, China's market absorbs barely one per cent of the exports of major Western trading nations and its GDP ranks it with the likes of Spain. Foreign direct investment by Western states is tiny - little more than that in an average- sized Latin American country (around 80 per cent of FDI in China comes from ethnic Chinese). China is also virtually invisible as an investor in other countries and even less important as a provider of aid. To be ruthlessly honest, China could disappear off the map of the global economy and few, at least in the wealthy West, would notice. 

In military terms, China is arguably even less impressive. This is a second-rate power able to intimidate only third-rate military powers such as the Philippines or Vietnam. First-rate military powers such as the United States need merely sail their aircraft carrier battle groups into Cruise missile range and deter China from attacking Taiwan. 

With American command of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, the gap between China and the first rank powers will grow wider not narrower, in the future. 

In political terms, China is the least impressive. This is a country with no real friends in the international community or among its neighbours and does not even have any serious allies. China exerts no ideological pull on anyone, especially as it thrashes about to find a new form of ``Market-Leninism''. 

China does not even retain serious loyalty among ethnic Chinese, as extended business dealings with the mainland merely reinforce the reality that Chinese people are likely to be richer and freer outside of China. 

So, it should be no surprise that President Clinton's China trip will begin with tourism in Xian and have little substantial policy successes. To be sure, Chinese spin-doctors are busily trying to persuade the world that China has behaved so well in the past year that it deserves to be rewarded with concessions from the Americans. But, it is worth casting a critical eye on the reality of China's supposedly beneficent behaviour. 

Take China's claim that because it has refused to devalue its currency it has behaved as the ``regional stabiliser'' and deserves to be rewarded with a seat in the World Trade Organisation. In fact, to call China a ``regional stabiliser'' is to abuse the English language: China played a key part in triggering Asia's economic crisis with its devaluation three years ago. 

Its financial contribution to collapsing Asian economies has been derisory beside that of Japan, a country unfairly pilloried for its failure to resolve crises that are rooted in the domestic failings of individual Asian countries. 

China now claims with impressive chutzpah that it would love to avoid further devaluations but Japan's economic woes may force it to change its mind. This is nonsense for a country which competes in few markets with Japan, still has Asia's second lowest labour costs, and is benefiting from cheaper yen loans as the Japanese currency tumbles. 

China will eventually devalue its currency because its own economy is too rigid and too close to crisis, but not because of Japanese failings. 

China also seeks rewards for its supposedly magnanimous release of political prisoners such as Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan and its promise to sign the UN Covenant on Political and Civil Rights. 

This is akin to someone who seeks support for ceasing to batter one child while continuing to abuse his wife and other children. Concessions to common decency are welcome but far from sufficient to warrant great reward. 

China's ability to spin events to its own satisfaction is most evident in how it encourages outsiders to believe it should be courted because of India's nuclear tests. What are Indians supposed to make of a China able to twist the West around its finger after having provided nuclear assistance to Pakistan and gone unpunished for transferring missiles as well? Once again, China claims to be the injured party willing to help the U.S. deal with the risks of proliferation, but in reality, China is part of the problem in South Asia and should be pressured into being more accommodating to India's security concerns. 

In short, this is not a China that deserves to have Western arms sales or technology transfer. Nor is it a China that should find easy entry into the WTO or win promises to reduce Western support for Taiwan or Tibet. The virtue of a virtual Sino-American summit is that the Americans are unlikely to give China any concessions. 

With any luck, President Clinton will stand on Tiananmen Square, as he stood at a press conference beside President Jiang Zemin in Washington last year, and tell China's communists that they remain on the wrong side of history. Speaking plainly to China and giving heart to those who believe that Chinese autocracy is doomed, would be the best possible outcome from a summit otherwise content- free. 

(The writer is Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London)