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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Panda diplomacy or pander diplomacy?

No-one really knows what to do about China. That's not exactly a new phenomenon. People have been fretting about 'what to do about China' ever since the high era of "panda diplomacy".

But things are more serious now, with China locked on course to being the world's largest economy sometime between the mid 2020s and the mid 2040s. China's increasing influence in Africa, as it scrambles for raw materials, seems to concern everyone from hardcore neocons to left-leaning NGOs.

And the political future of the People's Republic is less than clear. The work of James Kynge shows just how just how competitive the PRC is (though he acknowledges the challenges it faces), while Minxin Pei thinks the current system is doomed, stuck in a "trapped transition", and bogged down in a sea of corruption.

Handling the rise of a new great power isn't easy. Robert Kagan points out that while the west has been debating engagement vs. containment, all the Chinese regime hears is "containment, containment, containment". That's bad news given the attitude of some members of the PRC military - as exemplified in Bernstein and Munro's famous 1997 Foreign Affairs article. It quoted a General. Mi Zhenyu, of the Beijing Academy of Military Sciences as saying that China must "quietly nurse our sense of vengeance . . . We must conceal our abilities and bide our time."). Hmmmm - hopefully he has been retired by now.

The EU members seem to be split down the middle about how to deal with China. A good example of the mixed messages the EU countries are sending out is happening today: Peter Mandelson says that China needs to float its currency and open its domestic market. He has launched an EU strategy paper which notes that the EU has overtaken the United States as the world's largest buyer of Chinese products, and the EU-China trade imbalance has started to yawn open - reaching $133 billion. Mandelson says (quite fairly) that "EU companies often find themselves competing on unfair terms in China", and that "China has reached a stage in its development when the rest of the world is entitled to ask for more from China."

But at the same time Chirac has arrived in Beijing yesterday with a whole bunch of French business people. To seal the deal(s) he reiterated his support for the end of the EU arms embargo against China, which was imposed in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. The UK and other member states managed to block the same proposal back in mid-2004. But it is scheduled to come back on the agenda later this year.

That sort of thing drives the US crazy. As the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, the Europeans have already been selling the Chinese technology for use in the military: jet engines, radar, submarine engines. And the EU is transferring ultra-sensitive satellite technology to China through its inclusion in the Galileo system (and the Commission admitted earlier this month that it wants to allow the direct military use of the system to claw back its spiraling costs).

Some people in Brussels would love the EU to team up with China to balance against the US. But continuing pressure from groups like Amnesty International makes it difficult for national politicians or the EU to suck up too much to China.

So what seems most likely is that the EU will continue a sort of messy half-in-half-out strategy with regard to China - alternately playing both 'good cop' and 'bad cop'. That's the problem with the hazy old argument that "being part of a big bloc is the only way to have any clout in the modern world". There just is no common foreign policy, and the attempt to pretend that there is tends to lead to an incoherent, lowest common denominator approach. As one Guardian journalist remarked - putting together 25 jellyfish doesn't make a sabre-toothed tiger.

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