China Takes on the World

Already a commercial giant, China is aiming to be the world's next great power. Will that lead to a confrontation with the U.S.?

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Matias Costa

Chinese construction workers work on a structure that will be used during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

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As it follows Hu's lead and steps out in the world, what will be China's priorities? What does it want and what does it fear? The first item on the agenda is straightforward: it is to be left alone. China brooks no interference in its internal affairs, and its definition of what is internal is not in doubt. The status of Tibet, for example, is an internal matter; the Dalai Lama is not a spiritual leader but a "splittist" whose real aim is to break up China. As for Taiwan, China is prepared to tolerate all sorts of temporary uncertainties as to how its status might one day be resolved--but not the central point that there is only one China. Cross that line, and you will hear about it.

This defense of its right to be free of interference has a corollary. China has traditionally detested the intervention by the great powers in other nations' affairs. An aide to French President Jacques Chirac traces a new Chinese assertiveness to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, saying, "They felt they can't allow that sort of meddling in what they see as a nation's internal affairs." But the same horror of anything that might smell of foreign intervention was evident long before Iraq. I visited Beijing during the Kosovo war in 1999, and it wasn't just the notorious bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade that year that outraged top officials; it was the very idea of NATO's rearranging what was left of Yugoslavia. Wasn't the cause a good one? That didn't matter.

China's commitment to nonintervention means that it doesn't inquire closely into the internal arrangements of others. When all those African leaders met in Beijing, Hu promised to double aid to the continent by 2009, train 15,000 professionals and provide scholarships to 4,000 students, and help Africa's health-care and farming sectors. But as a 2005 report by the Council on Foreign Relations notes, "China's aid and investments are attractive to Africans precisely because they come with no conditionality related to governance, fiscal probity or other concerns of Western donors." In 2004, when an International Monetary Fund loan to Angola was held up because of suspected corruption, China ponied up $2 billion in credit. Beijing has sent weapons and money to Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, whose government is accused of massive human-rights violations.

Most notoriously, China has consistently used its place as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to dilute resolutions aimed at pressuring the Sudanese government to stop the ethnic slaughter in Darfur. A Chinese state-owned company owns 40% of the oil concession in the south of Sudan, and there are reportedly 4,000 Chinese troops there protecting Beijing's oil interests. (By contrast, despite the noise that China made when one of its soldiers was killed by an Israeli air strike on a U.N. post in Lebanon last summer, there are only 1,400 Chinese troops serving in all U.N. peacekeeping missions worldwide.) "Is China playing a positive role in developing democracy [in Africa]?" asks Peter Draper of the South African Institute of International Affairs. "Largely not." Human Rights Watch goes further: China's policies in Africa, it claimed during the Beijing summit, have "propped up some of the continents' worst human-rights abusers."

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