Wednesday, February 25, 2004

lean and hungry
Via Sascha Matuszack’s column at antiwar.com, news of a new maturity in Chinese foreign policy through a six page ponder-fest in Foreign Affairs magazine. As you’d expect, “maturity” in this context means “evolving a more pro-American line”, though the authors do warn that China might well use its growing clout to further the ends of Chinese policy. Expect nothing better from cunning orientals. Meanwhile, over at Asia Times, a publication never knowingly under-alarmed, Stephen Bland considers the possibility of a Chinese military assault on Taiwan with perhaps a little too much relish.

One interesting concept from the Foreign Affairs piece: China is moving from shouhaize xintai (victim mentality) to daguo xintai (great power mentality). I’ve worked on Chinese related stuff for most of my career and can confirm at an anecdotal level that there seems to be a lot less sensitivity about. It’s been years since I heard anyone remind westerners that China was responsible for the “four great inventions”, which litany was once a standard part of any foreign tour by PRC notables.

Opinion over Iraq also seemed to be a good deal less intense than over Kosovo, which is not surprising in that no Chinese diplomatic assets got bombed. But allowing for bedrock opposition to be found for ventures like Iraq in any country which has endured occupation, there’s a good deal less of the kind of hair-trigger hostility to America’s actions than I would have expected a few years ago.

The general attitude seems to be more of an eyebrow raised at the general folly of gweilos. Call it a confidence – even smugness – arising from newly acquired wealth and its wider penumbra of geopolitical heft. It’s not so much a move from victim to great power mentalities. In relation to the US, it’s a move from “anti-colonial” to “rival” mentalities. That would explain why the China Daily won’t allow the use of the term “invaders” as applied to US or British forces in Iraq, preferring just to refer to “military forces in Iraq” (but hell will still freeze over before they will use the term “liberators”).

In terms of its power and the ability to influence global events that comes through wealth, the US has been the mark for China since the beginning of the reform process. At first, this was accompanied by a generalized suspicion that the US and the West would try to sabotage the process. This has been diminishing for a while, but I think that the Iraq war has proved a turning point. For one thing, it seems to have produced a general feeling that the US is wasting its substance on over-elaborate military adventures while China can focus on catching up. For another, it gives the PRC the chance to study how American military power actually serves US political objectives. And for a third, it gives them the chance to view those objectives in plain sight and assess the quality of the thinking behind them. And when Bush was forced to tilt fairly decisively towards China in the spat about the Taiwan missile referendum last year, China got all the answers it needed.

This is not necessarily good news if you’re a supporter of Taiwanese independence, or indeed a Taiwanese who doesn’t want to see his capital subjected to a rain of Chinese missiles. Not that this is likely, even with the genie of pre-emption loose. I’d say overall that the chances of Chinese military intervention against Taiwan have gone from minimal-to-nonexistent to just minimal.