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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2008

A growing laundry list against Beijing

LOS ANGELES — Some double-standards are two-faced in the extreme, but not all.

More and more members of the international commentariat (the cute word we use for the collective of appointed or self-appointed political pontificators around the world) are angry at China. Their claim is that Beijing is ducking its duties as a "responsible stakeholder." This is the now-famous standard set for it in a seminal foreign-policy speech by a top U.S. official a few years ago that China has seemed to accept.

In one sense, "responsible stakeholder" means that China, as a rising power, needs to take on obligations that strengthen the world order, even if they do not directly jack up China's interests overnight. At a simpler level, the term means that China needs to always play nice with others in the sandbox of politics.

But now the commentariat has come up with a list of "irresponsible stakeholder" charges. One is that the Chinese egregiously failed to offer prior notice to the world of its missile test last year, which destroyed one of its own weather satellites, but sprayed outer space with a measure of unwanted debris in the process.

My judgment is that their behavior may have been oddball — but because the satellite shot soon became the worst-kept secret in the world, the whole flap was not exactly the end of the world. Let's keep perspective.

Here's another common gripe: China's pesky persistence in staking territorial claims against neighbors over disputed territories. But as long as China's pushiness is reasonable and nonmilitary, it is simply doing the same as every other country: pursuing its national interest.

Frankly, with 1.3 billion mouths to feed and kitchens to warm, wouldn't you stake as many claims as possible in disputed territories that may be rich in gas and oil?

Then there is the claim that China has resisted settling its long-standing border dispute with India (but there are two sides to every story). Then there's the beef that it won't consider granting full democracy to Hong Kong before 2017, which it acquired peacefully from the British in 1997 (yet, for 157 years, when London was the landlord, Hong Kong had even less voter participation than under China). And then there's the little matter of China being sort of mean to both Taiwan, especially to its current anti-Beijing president, and to Tibet, in the person of the Dalai Lama.

These personal tensions won't last forever. The presidential term of Beijing-baiting Chen Shui-bian ends in a few months, and presumably brave Taiwan will get a leader far more adroit in dealing with the mainland dragon.

As for the Dalai Lama, the hope is that one morning Chinese President Hu Jintao will wake up and say something like: Holy Moses, our crude and insensitive handling of the much-loved lord mystic of Lhasa has been playing into the hands of the world's China-haters. Hey, why don't we invite His Lama-ship to the Olympics this summer — why not give him a seat in the VIP box? That would make for a rather excellent photo-op — especially for the world's anti-China news media.

Most, if not all, of the above issues, it seems to me, are relatively low order. But there is one that is huge: China urgently needs to review its policy toward the Sudan, from which it derives boatloads of energy resources daily.

Here's what will not work:

Question: (to China's Foreign Ministry spokesman at a Jan. 24 press conference in Beijing): "Some criticize China's position on the Darfur issue and hold it against the image of the Beijing Olympics Game. Will the Chinese government pressure the government of Sudan to avoid more criticism?"

Response from Jiang Yu: "The Chinese government finds these accusations firmly unacceptable. I am not sure if these critics know about the actions of the Chinese government and the actual situation in the region. There is a clear (negative) political purpose linking the Darfur issue with the Beijing Olympic Games. These speculations are destructive."

On one hand, Jiang is right. These accusations often come from countries that also do business with bad regimes. There is in fact a double standard from these two-faced critics. But double standards and world politics go together like a horse and carriage.

The political problem for Beijing is this: Many of the Western handwringers over the Sudan carnage are otherwise front-and-center China supporters (especially here in Hollywood) who applaud the mainland's economic success story and admire its proclaimed policy of "peaceful rising."

Their criticism may strike Beijing as obnoxious and impertinent, but on the whole it is not insincere. Whether the slaughter in Sudan is a classic-holocaust case — as human-rights activists claim — or nothing more than a vicious civil war — the hard-nosed view — the fact is that a lot of people cannot stand to watch the human devastation proceed apace.

In politics, there is perception, and then there is reality. But when perception becomes very widespread, then it becomes reality. China wants the world to perceive its "peaceful rising" policy as gold-standard proof of its responsible stakeholder position in the world. But as China sucks more and more energy resources out of Sudan, while seeming to endorse only half-baked measures against the aggressive central government, more and more people will interpret "peaceful rising" as really meaning nothing other than simple "self-seeking." If such a perception continues to mushroom, it will take more than even an Olympian effort to burnish China's image.

Double standard or not, this is the standard by which China is probably going to be measured.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a member of the Burkle Center on International Policy and the Pacific Council on International Policy. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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