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China's Missile Message

By Elizabeth Economy
Thursday, January 25, 2007

China's successful anti-satellite missile test has sparked a political firestorm, as analysts have tried to ascertain who in China knew what when and to what end. Were China's diplomats in the dark about the missile strike? Was it all a gambit to force a reluctant United States to the negotiating table for a ban on space-based weapons? While interesting to China watchers and nonproliferation experts, this discussion risks obscuring the real message of the test: Chinese rhetoric notwithstanding, China's rise will be as disruptive and difficult as that of any other global power.

Officials in both Beijing and Washington have worked hard to sketch out an alternative reality. China's leaders have traversed the globe, preaching the gospel of the country's peaceful rise, often to great effect: China will do things differently than the United States and earlier European powers did, not polluting the environment, not colonizing countries to gain access to their natural resources and not infringing on the sovereignty of other countries. For their part, senior U.S. officials, with a growing list of challenging issues on their China agenda, are reluctant to focus for too long on the reality of China's rise. Doing so would only make cooperation more difficult and provide support to an often obstreperous anti-China lobby in Congress. It is easier to paint China's rise as a work in progress -- one that the United States has the ability to influence.

Yet the truth is that China, with its rapidly growing economy and large population, already exerts an unsettling and often negative impact on the world. China is the largest or second-largest contributor to many of the most vexing global environmental problems, including climate change, the illegal timber trade, ozone depletion and marine pollution in the Pacific. It is squeezing manufacturing industries from South Africa to Thailand to Mexico, placing stress on economies ill-equipped to compete. And its weak public health infrastructure but strict media regulations rank it at the top of potential incubators for the next global health pandemic.

While such effects might be excused as unintentional consequences of China's rapid growth, others cannot be so easily dismissed. China's insistence that it doesn't mix business with politics in its foreign relations, while sounding benign, has the perverse effect of contributing to violence and repression throughout much of the world. Its political and financial support for regimes in Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Burma, among others, cannot in any way be construed as contributing to global peace and stability. Moreover, China's export of unsavory environmental and labor practices in countries where it is aggressively extracting natural resources has contributed to anti-Chinese demonstrations from Peru to Zambia.

The missile strike also underscores perhaps the greatest challenge of China's rise as a global power: The lack of transparency, official accountability and rule of law that defines China on the domestic front plays poorly on the international stage. Chinese leaders' inability to be forthcoming on matters of international importance -- whether SARS, the Harbin pollution disaster or this missile strike -- erodes whatever goodwill and trust they earn from their tireless sojourns abroad and suggests that they are not ready for prime time.

If this is the reality of China's rise, then the United States has work to do, the most important being to change the way it does business. If we want China to be a responsible world power on issues such as energy security, climate change, human rights and even space-based weapons, we need to step up and lead. We can and should condemn China for not respecting the international rules governing these issues or negatively affecting other countries' well-being, but we must be prepared to play by the same rules. While other powers may have granted American exceptionalism in the past, China is not inclined to do so. Indeed, China is more likely to seek its own "exceptional" status.

Even if we get that far, there will still be a tough road ahead. The transparency, accountability and rule of law that responsible world leadership entails are nascent and under constant threat in China. This is where Washington has it right. We need a strong commitment -- from the federal government as well as the private sector -- to helping, if not pushing, China in the right direction, and we need to do so with a long-term perspective.

If there is a silver lining to this missile strike, it may be that we can finally stop talking about China's peaceful rise or the Washington consensus vs. the Beijing consensus. The only consensus that matters is one rooted in a clear understanding of China's rise and the urgency it brings to the need for real U.S. leadership.

The writer is director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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