Reading the Chinese tea leaves and coming up worried

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By Sol Sanders

Sol W. Sanders

February 2, 2006

When “Iraq” and “Iran” permit — which isn’t often — the chatter increasingly runs to “China”. [The quotes because, as some of us learned during the Vietnam War decade, much reporting had little to do with actual events in Vietnam.]

The reasons are multitudinous.

As always there is a largely coincidental crossing of events. Shortly we are to receive the official notification the U.S. China trade deficit passed $200 billion last year. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, the Administration’s apostle of trade solves all problems, has been commuting back and forth to Beijing. He has apparently pled to no avail with Beijing to move away from contempt for intellectual property rights and manipulation of export subsidies and currency..

On war and peace, Beijing recently entertained the sphinx of North Korea, apparently again giving him a Pearl River Delta demonstration on the benefits of “market socialism” [even if dissident peasants were being brutally brought back into line a few miles away]. That was supposed to seduce him into negotiating away his weapons of mass destruction. Beijing has even said it would join in halting what has been his counterfeiting, the greatest operation against U.S. currency since the 1920s Soviets in Germany. [The thought must have crossed some Central Committee minds with growing Chinese corruption and technology some Chinese might also go down that track.]

What price was paid Beijing [and Moscow] to persuade China to follow the U.S., Britain [and even] France to the UN Security Council with a feint against the growing Iranian nuke menace isn’t yet known. But Beijing’s concurrence could be taken as evidence of China’s understanding of Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s primer on how they must recognize part of “rising” is they are now stakeholders in a world order.

But all of this is prelude to President Bush’s travel plans.

Shortly, he is scheduled to make an India state visit. There had been hope in some quarters — aided and abetted by full press lobbying launched with a former ambassador and the Indian ethnic Silicon Valley leading lights — Bush would build on former President Clinton’s proposal for a strategic alliance.

But there has been a hiccup: Ambassador David Mulford, who during Washington Treasury days had a reputation for plain speaking, warned the Indians against pushing through a major Iranian gas deal [with the Pakistanis] at the moment when sanctions might just be in the offing. Mulford was simply reminding his Indian audience of Congressional critics of a quickly packaged offer last summer to pass India nuclear secrets for an energy program. Some remembered the long and ugly friction over selling [or not] selling India nuclear fuel during the Cold War.

Bush’s India trip would come, interestingly, on the eve of a Washington visit by President Hu Jintao. There might just be a connection. Some — in the U.S., dating from the Clinton infatuation, and in India — have seen closer U.S.-Indian relations in a China context. Despite an effort by both [even under the previous much more hawkish Vajpayee government] to lay the ghost of the short but brutal [for India] 1962 India Chinese War, most of the issues remain: the Chinese are consolidating their Tibet occupation [which India has now officially recognized] and Chinese maps acknowledge Indian 1975 incorporation of Sikkim but no new border. There’s much talk of growing trade, from a low level.

After India, Bush would hope to get a handle on China in the talks with Hu. He probably will not. Like previous Chinese VIP visits, Beijing is maneuvering for pomp and ceremony, not issue settling. No one in Beijing has yet dealt with Secertary Rumsfeld’s question: at whom is aimed a threefold increase over published figures of military expenditures.

Hu has obliquely answered Bush [and others including the Japanese] who have the same question with China is pursuing “The Three Harmonies”. Some Hong Kong observers have interpreted these Confucian nostrums as “seeking peace in the world, reconciliation with Taiwan, and harmony in Chinese society.”

But my old friend, a journalist — lexicographer, Victor Chen, points out like so many complex Chinese ideographs, there are other interpretations. “The three harmonies should be read in the passive voice. China does not actively ‘seek peace in the world’. China wants the world to regard her as a peaceful world power. Nor is China at present ‘actively seeking’ a non-peaceful resolution to the Taiwan problem but ‘waiting’ for a peaceful resolution. Most importantly to the Beijing authorities, ‘social harmony’ means controlled conformity against social and ideological liberalization.”

The Freudians used to call it “projection” — the unconscious process of pushing one's fears, feelings, desires, or fantasies on to others in order to avoid recognizing them as one's own so to justify one's behavion. Not attributing to Beijing’s Communists what our own leadership would do in their situation is where Bush’s conversations with Hu needs to begin. Who knows where they should end.

Sol W. Sanders, ([email protected]), is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

February 2, 2006

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