China Lends A Hand

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By Richard Holbrooke
Thursday, June 28, 2007

BEIJING -- Three seemingly unrelated events may not constitute a trend. But they certainly deserve attention when they shed light on the relationship between the United States and China, which is fast becoming the most important bilateral connection in the world.

The first is the much-heralded breakthrough in Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill's negotiations with North Korea. After more than a year in which the six-party talks were suspended, North Korea returned to the table and agreed to disable its main nuclear reactor under the eyes of international inspectors.

This would not have happened without a change in Chinese policy toward North Korea. Two years ago, Beijing publicly criticized Washington's "lack of cooperation." But after North Korea detonated a nuclear device Oct. 9, Beijing started applying invisible but substantial pressure on North Korea, realizing belatedly that another nuclear neighbor was not in its interest. Once China's strategic interest was aligned with America's, it still took skillful bilateral diplomacy to make progress. There is a long road ahead, but this is a welcome diplomatic achievement for an administration that has had very few.

A second recent change in Chinese foreign policy is in Darfur. While still falling far short of what is needed to stop the killing, in some ways this is more remarkable, since Darfur is 7,000 miles away, in Africa, where China has been accused of protecting some of the worst regimes in the world in return for advantageous access to oil and mineral resources. China certainly has leverage -- it is Sudan's leading trading partner and the largest market for Sudanese oil. But Beijing had long resisted Western pressure to force Sudan to admit a United Nations peacekeeping force into Darfur, despite a 14-0 Security Council vote (China abstaining) authorizing such a force.

Finally, when a growing international furor threatened to rebrand the 2008 Beijing Games as "the genocide Olympics," China did something quite unusual -- it appointed a special envoy and began to apply pressure on Sudan, although, as always, in its unique style. "In our own way and through various means and various channels," said China's envoy, Liu Guijin, "we used very direct language to persuade them to understand they have to be more flexible." In Chinaspeak, "very direct language" is about as tough as it gets.

Last week there were some faint signs of movement: Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, told U.N. officials he would agree to U.N. peacekeepers. It is too early to tell if this will actually happen or if it will stop the slaughter in Darfur. But it is clear that the change in China's position also changed the equation for the Sudanese thugs.

A third event has so far escaped public attention. After years of unsuccessfully trying to engage the military dictatorship in Burma in a dialogue on its political repression, American representatives finally met with Burmese officials this week to discuss the status of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition leader who has been under harsh house arrest or other restrictions since the early 1990s. It's especially significant that these talks took place in Beijing and were arranged by the Chinese, although China will not be a publicly active participant. While these talks are unlikely to be productive, after years of nothing on Burma, perhaps they will be the beginning of a process in which China can play a role similar to that in North Korea.

North Korea, Darfur, perhaps Burma. Does this signal a change in Chinese foreign policy? Is there a possibility of greater Sino-American cooperation on other issues of mutual concern? The United States and China have vast differences in many areas and profoundly different views on some fundamental issues such as human rights, Tibet and trade. But there are many areas in which common interests can create opportunities. This was the concept in 1971 when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger opened the modern-era relationship over a shared concern about the Soviet Union, and in 1978 when Jimmy Carter established full diplomatic relations with China. Today we have a different set of issues, but they are no less pressing. If the two countries can work together on North Korea, why not on Iran? And what about energy and the environment? After all, the United States and China are the world's two biggest polluters; surely we have common interests there.

Which brings me, finally, to the G-8. Today these annual summit photo-ops have little value. The eight nations can no longer call themselves the world's leading democracies when Russia is a member and India is not, or the leading industrial powers when Canada and Italy are members and China is not. G-8 communiques on energy, climate change, AIDS, Africa and poverty will remain empty and meaningless without China and India.

The writer, who was assistant secretary of state for East Asia at the time of normalization of relations between China and the United States, writes a monthly column for The Post.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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