China and International Pressure: Keeping the Laundry Indoors

In the Hutong
Enjoying a postprandial food coma
1816 hrs.

A source of constant entertainment for those of us living in China is the growing stream of armchair diplomats who believe that the Beijing Olympics is somehow a lever to bend China to the will of the West.

While one has no problem with a little punditry now and then – even with wonks who challenge one’s own beliefs – one would hope that said pundits would think through their positions with care. This applies in particular to those who speak from the more visible pulpits of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, The Independent, CNN, and similar outlets.

A current example is Roger Cohen, speaking in the Gray Lady about the goings-on in Myanmar. He calls upon China to press for an end to the Junta’s rule in Myanmar. Citing the example of Mia Farrow’s criticism of China’s “complicity” in Darfur atrocities, and suggesting that said criticism yielded modest movement, he calls upon someone (it is not clear whom) to “shame China into shepherding Burmese reform, beginning with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Wordcraft, not Statecraft

This brings up several interesting issues.

First, as mentioned, he is vague about who should do the shaming. The State Department? George Bush? Ms. Farrow? The University of California class of 2012? A polemic is fine as far as it goes, but if one is to call for action, shouldn’t one be specific about who is to do the acting?

Second, he calls upon China to press for a rapid end to the Junta’s rule. Wonderful idea. Unfortunately, Mr. Cohen is also vague about the lever China would use. With the case of North Korea (which he cites as an example of China’s power in the region), the dual levers of food and fuel to an isolated economy were powerful. What, exactly, would China use as a lever with Myanmar? Trade and economic sanctions with pariah nations have a pathetic record of producing change – they tend only to increase repression.

At the other end of the spectrum, armed force on the part of the PLA would make China’s leaders queasy, and the rest of the world would hardly welcome the emergence of the PLA as an expeditionary force. (Chinese tanks in Rangoon, anyone?.) Statecraft – particularly when the ends include regime change – is a very tricky and – as the current U.S. administration has discovered – often bloody business. But again, why ruin a good polemic with details?

Third, Mr. Cohen notes he is neither in favor of a boycott of the Olympics, nor of a breakdown in Chinese-American relations. Once again, though, he fails to suggest what lever the U.S. or self-appointed citizen-diplomats like Ms Farrow might use to convince China to do whatever vague something he is urging. If you want to threaten to boycott the Olympics, you had bloody well better be prepared to do just that – and endure the damage to Sino-American relations – before you sit down at the table. And if not that, what?

Finally, Mr. Cohen is quite keen on dumping the junta, but he is again without the support of detail when it comes to what should replace it – and how.

Statecraft, not Wordcraft

The problem, of course, is that Mr. Cohen is one of those people who feel the only way to deal with China is with the most accessible blunt instruments of statecraft. In this he exposes his lack of understanding of how to work with the leaders of the world’s largest countries.

One need neither kowtow nor threaten to get China to work with the U.S. or the international community on issues of mutual interest. One need merely make a clear, cogent case to China’s leaders that their bests interests are served by finding a mutually acceptable way of inciting change, and do so in a way that addresses the domestic political realities of all involved.

Want China to bring about regime change in Burma? Explain to the nation’s leaders exactly how China will benefit by the change (domestically and internationally), how it will benefit by being seen as the catalyst, and how whatever will replace the junta will be better for China than the current situation. Sound easy? I can assure you, it is not.

Oh, and by the way – make sure before you do all of this that you have thought through the long-term implications of a China prepared to use its growing muscle in defense of its own interests.

Once astride the tiger, the Chinese saying goes, dismounting is difficult.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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