|SUMMITS are not what they used to be. But in the case of
President Bill Clinton's visit to China, we should all be grateful.
During the cold war, summits were both grand and valuable occasions.
A Soviet-American summit forced arms control negotiators to strike a deal.
In our unimaginatively named "post-cold war" era, summits tend to be grand
but vacuous affairs.
As in classical Chinese painting, what is most important in the modern
Sino-American summit is the blank space - what is not achieved.
The main lure for most pilgrims to China is the prospect of economic
gain. But Beijing is also hoping for "rewards" - especially for its good
behaviour in not devaluing its currency and making the Asian economic crisis
even worse. It particularly wants to see progress towards Chinese entry
into the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
However, while some trade deals that have already been agreed can be
repackaged as a summit achievement, there has been no new breakthrough
on any important trade issue. The Americans continue to insist on further
liberalisation of the Chinese economy before WTO entry becomes possible.
Clinton's tough line on trade is a welcome rejoinder to the cheeky argument
of Chinese officials and their western parrots that China is Pacific Asia's
"regional stabiliser" in the economic crisis. Indeed, Beijing's spin-doctoring
has reached new heights with the argument that its magnanimous efforts
are being undermined by the failure of Japan to reform its economy. In
truth, China's devaluation three years ago laid the basis for the Asian
economic crisis that began last July. And China benefits from the falling
value of the yen because loans from Japan are becoming smaller and easier
When China eventually devalues again and triggers yet more gloom in
the region, the blame will lie with its own failure to reform its economy
and, in particular, its determination to bail out rusting state-owned industries.
Despite the rhetoric about China's geo-economic importance, the Americans
can afford to take a tough line. China matters far less than the modern
Marco Polos claim. Its gross domestic product (GDP) is roughly on a par
with Italy's. China barely makes it into the top 10 export market for most
western countries. Direct American foreign investment in China has fallen
in recent years, and even at its peak was less than the United States invested
in Holland. Western companies regularly rank China as among the riskiest
places to invest. China could drop off the economic map of the world without
having a serious impact on the global economy.
With a bankrupt banking system and state-owned industries producing
3% of GDP that rusts in warehouses, China's nominal growth rates of 7%
are suspect and unimpressive. They are particularly suspect when the absence
of far-reaching political reform makes the Chinese economy opaque and subject
to the kinds of shock that shattered other southeast Asian economies. Thus
the political dimension of the Sino-American summit has included a robust
reaffirmation by Clinton that China "is on the wrong side of history".
Western apologists for China had urged Clinton to reward it for concessions
to common decency such as releasing some prominent dissidents. But he has
continued to be rude about China's abysmal human rights record, concluding
that only a post-communist China would deserve the world's respect.
After economics and politics, the third dimension of modern summit diplomacy
concerns security risks. Here, too, the Americans have resisted Chinese
calls for concessions.
There has been no agreement to lift an arms embargo, transfer higher
technology or reduce American support for Taiwan. Chinese supporters claim
the country deserves all these concessions because nuclear proliferation
in the region demonstrates an increasing need for a "strategic partnership"
with the United States.
Yet China's transfer of nuclear technology and missiles to Pakistan
encouraged India to test its own nuclear weapons last month. With Clinton
enduring criticism at home for apparently turning a blind eye to China's
missile programme, there is little prospect of a softening of American
policy on security issues.
Thus a grand but vacuous Sino-American summit - with some plain speaking
from Clinton - can be judged a great success. But this will be merely one
part of a longer-term process of engaging China and helping it to become
a more co-operative player in international affairs.
China is nothing more than a second-rate power with the ability to push
around third or fourth-rate powers, such as the Philippines. And it is
puny when up against a first-rate power such as the United States.
China likes to think of itself as a "near-peer competitor" of the United
States, on its way to full superpower status. In reality, it has an interest
in and is capable of being managed by - a policy of "constrainment" - a
mixture of engagement and constraint. Long may such Sino-American "constrainment"
Gerald Segal is director of studies at the International Institute
for Strategic Studies and director of the Economic and Social Research
Council's Pacific Asia programme