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China's Economic Boom Has Advanced Its Foreign Policy, But Opression Continues At Home - 2004-02-19

China’s Foreign Policy. In recent months, the Chinese President has made frequent trips abroad, visiting neighboring countries in Asia as well as more distant regions such as Egypt, Australia and European Union. The result is a growing number of agreements for political and economic cooperation between the Asian giant and the rest of the world. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke looks at China’s geopolitical strategy.

In December last year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder traveled to China. Then this January, Chinese President Hu Jintao made a trip to France, where President Chirac received him with high honors.

Some 15 years ago, both Germany and France condemned the Chinese government for brutally crushing peaceful protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and joined an international arms embargo on China. Both countries are now supporting an early lifting of the embargo despite protests of their human rights groups and some politicians.

Arthur Waldron, professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, says France and Germany want to benefit from China’s strong economy: “The European economy is not doing well and these leaders have military productivity capability that they’d like to have some customers for.”

Professor Waldron says China is interested in buying Europe’s sophisticated military equipment, notably an air-borne early warning system and high quality jet-engine technology. China is also seeking support against moves for the independence of Taiwan, a self-governed island that China considers its renegade province. Taiwan is planning to hold a referendum on independence during its presidential elections in March and is increasing its defense budget.

The Chinese government is afraid that holding a referendum in Taiwan would give similar ideas to its restive minorities in the northern provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang and cause instability. So, to build support and sympathy, China, says Professor Waldron, is reaching out to the world.

“And the way she does that is by creating what she calls a multi-polar world; in other words, a situation of division in which she can move opportunistically and thus promoting her own interest," says Professor Waldron. "I don’t think that China has any particular interest in Europe per se. Europe for her is simply a make-weight in a rivalry with the United States and with Japan and various Asian powers.”

Professor Waldron says China is annoyed with US arms sales to Taiwan. Getting Europe to lift its arms embargo would give it the leverage it wants.

Some analysts see China’s foray into Europe as a natural move in its rising global integration which began in the late 1970’s. Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington, says China started down that road in the late 1970’s, after the death of its communist leader Mao Zedong and the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping.

“He made a trip along the southern coast of China and made a famous speech in which he said: ‘It’s glorious to get rich,’" quotes Mr. Prestowitz. "And when Deng Xiaoping said: ‘It’s glorious to get rich,’ that essentially changed China from being a communist-socialist country to becoming a capitalist country.”

Unfortunately, China’s economic reforms were not accompanied by political reforms. The oppression of its citizens has continued, especially of minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs in the north who seek some autonomy.

But once on the road to capitalism, China had to join the global economy and become more open to the rest of the world. Mr. Prestowitz says this meant that Chinese foreign policy had to become less hostile, less alienated and more engaged. But it could not happen overnight. Former US ambassador to China James Lilley says until the end of the 1980’s, China’s foreign policy continued to focus on military intimidation of its Asian neighbors. But economic development eventually caused a shift in its foreign policy.

“Late 80-s, early 90-s, they began to expand, says Ambassador Lilley. "They became much more pro-active. They dropped the military aspect and they picked up the commercial-economic aspect and particularly in places like Southeast Asia.”

China’s growing economic power at first caused fear in neighboring countries. But Clyde Prestowitz says the Asian giant was not insensitive to this. “Many of China’s neighbors, countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, also developing countries, developed a fear that they wouldn’t be able to compete with China and that they would lose out," says Mr. Prestowitz. "So in some respects China’s growth looked like a challenge or a threat to them. The Chinese were clever. They recognized that. They recognized that their neighbors feared them and they moved quickly to reassure the surrounding countries," Mr. Prestowitz notes.

"So the Chinese sent delegations, buying delegations, signing contracts, negotiating free trade agreements with the other countries of Southeast Asia. They’ve signed big contracts to buy products from Indonesia. So they have been very, very assiduous.”

China’s joining the World Trade Organization in 2002 has become a major generator of economic growth in Asia. In the past year, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and even Taiwan have all prospered from exports to China.

Clyde Prestowitz says China’s phenomenal economic growth at the rate of eight to nine percent a year is mainly a result of its openness to foreign investment: “Japan’s strategy was to rely entirely on its own domestic investment, to rely on its own domestic market, its own domestic development of technology and export-led growth," notes Clyde Prestowitz.

"China’s strategy was quite different. It welcomed foreign investment. It tried to induce foreign investment. It also adopted a policy of emphasizing exports, but it was always much easier for foreign companies to export to the Chinese market than it was to other Asian markets. So China very quickly, very early in its development phase, joined the globalization movement.”

American companies were among the first to start investing in China and the United States has remained its most important trading partner. But China has forged other links.

Clyde Prestowitz says: “China became kind of a fad in the late 1970’s, early 1980’s. And it has, of course, become a phenomenon. If you look at China today and compare it to 1981, when I first went to China, it’s the difference between night and day. In 1981, there were no skyscrapers, there were no traffic jams, very few traffic lights. You didn’t need traffic lights. Everybody rode bicycles. And today Beijing looks like Los Angeles.”

China’s economic globalization raised its interest in global political affairs. In 1996, China formed a Security Cooperation Organization with five central European states, including Russia. In 2002 it signed a declaration on the conduct of parties involved in a complex dispute over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. It has been co-operative in containing North Korea’s nuclear threat. Some observers are worried about China’s growing political influence. Others see it as a positive balancing act.

James Lilley says China represents no threat because its main goal is to keep its vast territory intact: “China’s priorities are to try to straighten out its internal domestic problems and keep the area around the country passive and tranquil and stable. That’s their game plan.”

Ambassador Lilley says China should learn that liberating its people will be as beneficial to its integrity as liberating its markets has been to its economy.