The International Herald Tribune

Paris, Wednesday, May 26, 1999

The Balkan War Has Exposed the Weakness of China


By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune


LONDON - Wars have a tendency to reveal major shifts in the balance of power. At present, for the United States, Europe and even Russia, the Kosovo result depends on whether NATO prevails. But already this war has revealed Chinese weaknesses.

China has been talked up as a rising power likely to benefit from the slightest sign of U.S. weakness. When its Belgrade embassy was mistakenly hit by NATO, the initial reaction in the West was that China would now wield its new influence and demonstrate its arrival as a global power. The reality has been different. Beijing's hysterical reaction to the bombing revealed fundamental flaws in China as a great power.

China comes across as a power that speaks loudly but does not mean what it says.

Beijing declared that it would block any UN Security Council action on Kosovo until it received compensation. It also declared that henceforth it would be a primary player in the Balkan peace process. It promised to block any talks about a UN role in Kosovo until the NATO bombing stopped.

Within a week, China had closed down its campaign of anger and left the peace process to the four other permanent members of the Security Council, who were already well into peace talks without Beijing's participation. China quickly faded back to being merely an Asian power.

China's reaction to the embassy bombing also revealed the limits of Chinese influence in Asia. There were sporadic demonstrations of solidarity, but these were almost entirely confined to ethnic Chinese majority areas, and even there the reactions were muted.

The reasons for Beijing's inability to lead Asian reaction to the Balkan war are partly related to the fact that so many Western allies in Asia have a stake in NATO's success in Kosovo. But China's failure also stemmed from the fear that its xenophobic reaction to the bombing engendered in Asia and beyond. The fearsome potential of unconstrained Chinese nationalism reminds East Asians that they live next door to an unstable giant with a major historical score to settle.

The degree of xenophobia in China has caused deep concern in the international business community. It had been expecting the world's most populous nation to become a more cooperative actor in an increasingly interdependent global economy. Instead it saw an unstable China with a divided leadership and a volatile population - a risky place in which to invest, and far from a safe long-term bet.

The attacks in China on such icons of Westernization as McDonald's and Pizza Hut showed that superficial globalization was no protection against the irrationalities of nationalism. Holding Western ambassadors hostage reminded everyone of China's Cultural Revolution and the past it had supposedly left behind.

This damage to China's international reputation is bad enough. To make matters worse, the Balkan war has also undermined Beijing's ability to settle its nationalist agenda, especially regarding Taiwan. China had felt confident that its superiority in missiles would cow Taiwan into amenable negotiations. But a failure of far more sophisticated Western missiles to frighten Serbs into submission would suggest that Taiwan will be able to resist Chinese pressures.

Looking further down the strategic road, there is likely to be little cheer for China. The attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Beijing virtually rule out congressional approval for a deal that would enable it to enter the World Trade Organization. The release of the Cox report on Chinese espionage in the United States will place economic and security cooperation with China in an even more hostile light.

While it is in no one's interest to see China humiliated, the reality is that it will now be seen as a weaker and less reliable power than before. The weaknesses and unreliability of China have long been present, but all the hype about a rising colossus obscured the real picture.

Perhaps the silver lining of these tumultuous events will be that China can now be taken for the middle power that it is and will be for some time to come.

The writer is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.