Who’s afraid of the big bad Bush?
Nobody, it seems.
And that’s a problem for China, as was demonstrated during German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recently-concluded visit to China. The rhetoric and symbolism of her visit indicated that Merkel has replaced Gerhard Schroeder’s accommodating posture toward China with her own pro-US tilt.
During her recent visit to Beijing, Chancellor Merkel—who had championed the EU arms embargo against China while in the opposition--made clear Germany’s pro-US stance by harping on Iran and human rights.
Her entourage reinforced the impression by employing what I’m sure Chinese find the incredibly irritating and condescending Robert Zoellick-approved buzzword of the moment for reproaching China: responsibility.
"The economic role of China has grown and so has its responsibility on the international stage," an official told the news agency AFP, on condition of anonymity. "Based on its economic position, China must take on more responsibilities."
I have a feeling Wen Jiabao was thinking, Yeah, lady, I’ve got responsibilities. 1.3 billion people, a runaway economy, a political infrastructure teetering toward collapse, US military forces ringing the country, a huge need for imported oil, and what looks like a concerted campaign by the West and Japan to cut me off from hydrocarbon supplies in the Middle East, Russia, and South Asia. I’m not just sitting here worrying that the chef is going to burn the schnitzel.
Essentially, what Merkel was saying that fears of US unilateralism have receded, while concerns about Chinese economic and military expansion—and the unfavorable if not world-ending consequences of Iran and China achieving a win over the US on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program-- have grown.
One of the expected consequences of America’s failure in Iraq has been a decline in American prestige and clout.
But China hasn’t been particularly successful in filling the vacuum, at least in the Old World.
That’s because fear of rampant US unilateralism has faded, and been replaced by a more nuanced concern in Europe about the implications of China’s untrammeled economic growth, the weakness of its moderating democratic institutions, and the unpredictability of Beijing’s willingness to resort to military force in its foreign relations.
Back in 2002, when America appeared ascendant in Iraq, had assembled a complete ideological and legal infrastructure supporting unilateral, pre-emptive war worldwide, and George Bush had the political wind and invincible US armed might at his back and was talking about marching on Damascus and Teheran and militarizing the Malacca Straits and who knows what else, France and Germany banded together to provide a counterweight to the United States.
In international relations-speak, there was an attempt led by France and abetted by Germany to midwife a multipolar system i.e. challenge the US unipolar vision with a constellation of European states centered on the European Union, which would provide diplomatic and economic support to states that didn’t want their foreign policy and regional security arrangements dictated by the United States.
Challenging the US power monopoly would, by implication, allow the creation of a third pole in Asia.
China could have become a pillar of such a multi-polar system, a near-equal partner with Europe, its shortcomings in the areas of human rights, democracy, and Taiwan overlooked in favor of its relatively benign foreign policy driven by domestic economic development.
French President Chirac and German Chancellor Schroeder, while seeking to counter the US on Iraq, conducted ostentatiously pro-Chinese foreign policies.
The European multi-polar effort fell victim to the basic weakness of the EU system, exemplified by French rejection of the EU constitution, and assiduous divide and conquer efforts by Washington, typified by Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious Old Europe crack.
Nevertheless, it was only with the greatest of effort that the Bush administration and John Bolton were able to forestall the symbolically significant lifting of the EU arms embargo to China in 2004.
The EU arms embargo, whatever one thinks about the moral and political advisability of arming Beijing, is a diplomatic anachronism, dating back to the Tian An Men massacre of 1989.
In a world awash with arms—and the United States responsible for tens of thousands of civilian Iraqi deaths as a result of the botched occupation, and not only arming India but sanctioning (as in approving) its nuclear weapons program—it seems inconsistent for the European Union to harsh Beijing for the deaths of 3000 people 17 years ago—a massacre that has ushered in a period of unprecedented Chinese political stability and economic growth.
But the EU arms embargo looks stronger than ever.
Part of it has to do with the election of Angela Merkel as the German chancellor—and she probably owes her ascendancy to the fact that American weakness made it impossible for Gerhard Schroeder to replay the anti-Bush card effectively during the recent election.
Part of it has to do with the fact that France—in a development conspicuously underreported by the US press—bereft of a close German partnership and with its EU dream in tatters, has returned to a more productive bilateral relationship with Washington and has been backing American diplomatic moves, particularly in the Middle East.
But I think much of it has to do with the fact that the world is not dealing with American power. It is dealing with American impotence. And that makes a rise in Chinese economic, military, and diplomatic power more disturbing than it would otherwise be.
In the current circumstances, there’s no compelling reason for the Europeans to support the development of Chinese military strength.
Instead, there’s a desire in Europe to move beyond bilateral dealings between weaker individual states and China, and raise its collective profile, without the implication of anti-US confrontation inherent in the term “multipolar”.
The current term of art is an old word: “multilateralism”.
A piece of German thinktankery describes the current zeitgeist:
The European Union should concentrate on remultilateralizing its China policy and in the process seek the greatest possible agreement with the United States.
Gudrun Wacker, ed. China's Rise: The Return of Geopolitics?, SWP Research Paper, Berlin 2006
Rebuffing China on arms and human rights isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s the safe thing to do, and it’s good for relations with the United States.
Interestingly, the EU arms embargo can also play a useful role for Europe in its dealings with Washington, beyond serving as a demonstration of transatlantic solidarity.
It’s one of the few meaningful bargaining chips available to European diplomacy—and it works both ways.
As in: if the US attacks Iran—thereby announcing it has not renounced its dream of a unipolar, America-dominated world—the EU slides closer to China, lifts the arms embargo, and creates a greater deterrent to US adventurism in Asia.
But until then China can dangle in the wind.
So China—the world’s most populous and vibrant economic power, which hasn’t engaged in military aggression since its disastrous border dispute with Vietnam 25 years ago—must still content itself with second-class world citizenship; listen to the self-serving lectures about responsible global citizenship from the same group of nations whose sins of commission and omission created the geopolitical and human disaster in Iraq; and accept that the White Nations’ Club + Japan denies China has the right to arm itself and chart its military and foreign policy destiny without outside interference as befits a world power and Asian empire.
That’s gotta chafe!
But I’ve got to say anything that promotes the demilitarization of foreign policy and forces nations to promote their interests primarily through diplomacy and economics is a good thing.
So, in the realm of unexpected consequences, we can say Thank you to George Bush, for discrediting and destroying the terrifying vision of unipolar, unilateral, war-based American supremacy.
And if that means that China is unfairly excluded from the international arms bazaar as a result, well, that’s collateral damage I think China and the world can live with.