China’s leaders could do without external distractions. They have a difficult enough job to do anyway without being too bothered by turbulence in the outside world.
The attack recently by party hard-liners on further efforts to reform the banking system reminded us of what is bound to be the leadership’s primary preoccupation. It is of course true, as the die-hards insisted, that the more you loosen the party’s grip on the economy, the more difficult it becomes to tighten it on the state.
So far, economic reform has not led to any systemic challenge to one-party rule. But you do not have to be a Marxist-Leninist, even one with Chinese characteristics, to believe that economic change does have political consequences, sooner or later.
There is then a tipping point at which political change accompanies economic, but when exactly it comes and whether or not you can control it must be decidedly pre-occupying questions.
To make governing in China even more hazardous, there is another tipping point, namely the point at which a failure to drive through further economic reforms risks the ability to go on creating the jobs that bring social and political stability. This is the moment when, to reach for the old metaphor, the wheels stop turning and the elephant falls off the bicycle.
So there is a lot for President Hu Jintao and his colleagues to think about as they start to focus on the agenda for next year’s Party Congress.
Who then could want things to turn rough on the international stage? A painful and disruptive unraveling of American’s double deficit must be the most unwelcome possible blip on China’s radar screen.
But when you are a political and economic power in your region and round the world, especially one with a difficult hand to play at home, any disruption in the world beyond your borders is an unwelcome distraction.
It is therefore a puzzle that China appears to have made a strategic decision to overlook the trouble increasingly spawned by failed and failing states, and to embrace some of the world’s most threatening regimes partly out of a short-term obsession with energy and commodity needs.
Let’s be clear straightaway about the argument. The main dangers in our world are not posed by conquering states but by failing ones, as we have seen from North Korea to Afghanistan to Sudan. They breed trouble – from terrorism to drugs to weapons proliferation. That threatens the interests of China as well as of America and Europe.
China sometimes seems to be in denial on this issue. To be so closely aligned with a government like Sudan’s is not only bad for China’s image; it is also unnecessary and short-sighted as a way of guaranteeing oil supplies. China would be best served by a Sudan that was stable and at peace with itself.
How does China benefit from a corrupt and tyrannical regime in Burma that continues to impoverish its own people, and to export drugs to its neighbors including China? Will China’s interests be looked after if Uzbekistan and its neighbors are convulsed by violence with repression turning moderate Islamists into extremists?
Chinese foreign policy today appears to strike an uneasy balance between coddling some of the least attractive and least stable
regimes because of their energy and other resources, while on the other hand claiming to stand by every comma and full-stop in the UN Charter.
China would be better off recognizing the very real threats posed to global stability by rogue states and accepting that we need to find a way within the UN for dealing with them, not loopholes in the UN Charter through which we can escape dealing with them.
Energy security focus
China would also be totally justified in pressing the G8 after the St Petersburg meeting to engage in a real and serious discussion about energy security, a subject that goes well beyond the immediate agenda of President Putin and Gazprom.
The short-sighted and foolish block placed on China National Offshore Oil Corp’s bid for UNOCAL more than justifies a Chinese initiative in this area.
With America’s at best fitful engagement with the UN, we run the risk of seeing this world body increasingly sidelined, and the prospect of international problems leading to a stand-off between America on the one side, with so-called coalitions of the willing, and China, on the other, at the head of coalitions of the unwilling.
It’s time for China to recognize that the bigger you are, the more you need an authoritative and effective UN – a point that America has to relearn.
And with so much to try to get right at home, it would make sense for China to play a bigger and more responsible role in making the world safer, more stable and more prosperous.