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Monday, Sept. 30, 2002

China keeps its cool, and its national focus


LOS ANGELES -- When U.S. President George W. Bush won the last election, Beijing warmly congratulated the winner. This was remarkable, given his harsh campaign rhetoric, which was anti-China and pro-Taiwan. Yet, China avoided losing its cool and, as we have seen since, pretty much remained focused on pressing domestic priorities. No doubt its leaders figured that the Texan would in time grow up and govern diplomatically -- as did his father.

How sad then that, in reality, Washington did just the reverse to Germany during its recent national elections. This is the postwar Germany that has successfully escaped the horrors of its World War II past with exemplary international conduct and worked side by side with the United States on almost all major international problems.

Yet in this same Germany, the incumbent chancellor won favor with voters this month by raising questions about the Bush administration's military option against Iraq, and the incumbent justice minister likened the American president's attitude toward Iraq to Hitler-esque arrogance.

Thin skins in D.C.: U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, heretofore nearly balletic at dancing around diplomatic dust-ups, flat-footedly described the re-election campaign of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as having "the effect of poisoning the relationship."

Perhaps -- but the chancellor was reelected. Germany is still there.

Hmmm . . .

So is Taiwan, of course; and Taiwan patriots would complain, understandably, about any comparison of America's entertaining a military option against Iraq to Beijing's desire to do the same regarding Taiwan. But from the standpoint of how nation-states comport themselves in the international arena, there is a fair basis of comparison. Washington wants to preserve its military option against Iraq, but denies that same right to Beijing in its tussle with Taiwan; even so, Beijing so far has said nothing implacably critical, so far at least, about Washington making a claim against Iraq.

Why? It's not because Beijing, with its many faults, has better diplomatic manners than Washington or a higher morality; it's because it has a clearer national focus. Consider the new report on the Sino-U.S. relationship from the Nixon Center, the nonprofit, Washington-based think tank. This all-encompassing analysis, by experts David Lampton and Richard Daniel Ewing, frames the two powers as the trans-Pacific's oddest couple. Indeed, while Washington loudly proclaims its right to exercise pre-emptive military action against any country it wants, Beijing steers clear of bumping soldiers with the world's sole military superpower. "Beijing has generally sought to minimize friction with the United States . . . because it faces enormous domestic challenges: a generational leadership transition, mounting unemployment and instability," conclude these China-policy sages.

In other words (to use a memorable campaign slogan from a previous U.S. president the Chinese have come to admire): It's the economy, stupid.

To this end, China is dependent, for the time being, on the U.S. consumer's nonstop addiction for almost any import and on Washington's help (or benign noninterference) to navigate the tricky shoals of the globalized economy it has newly entered. So, with extraordinary discipline, the Chinese tuned out candidate Bush's campaign taunts about their country being a "strategic competitor" -- not to mention his administration's public statements about the U.S. need to upgrade Taiwan's military.

Why? It's their economy, stupid.

Bush, of course, has absolutely nothing to worry about on the economic front. Everything is perfectly fine. After all, the U.S. stock market is doing just great (truth: lowest level in years); and public confidence in business is at an all-time high, particularly because corporate integrity has never been held in higher esteem (see: Enron, etc.). There are so many more jobs than job-seekers that employment agencies are going out of business and unemployment lines are shrinking fast (yeah, right). Moreover, there's no poverty in the United States to speak of (fact: Many Americans live below the poverty line). Everyone gets good medical care (fact: Tens of millions of Americans have no insurance). And there's hardly a chance of social unrest anywhere in America (fact: About 40 percent of all students in Los Angeles public schools, to cite just one astonishing example, never complete high school).

It's reassuring that the Bush administration, eager to exercise pre-emptive military action against Iraq, has its priorities so well focused. Too bad China doesn't see it Bush's way.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.


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