Paper dragon

March 22, 1996|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON -- There are those who think we underestimate the strength of China at our peril. Recent articles in America's most influential foreign-policy magazines warn us that we are witnessing ''an epochal change in the distribution of world power;'' that ''the rebirth of Chinese power after 500 years of decline is going to be the dominant event of the next decade,'' and that ''if on the economic front China can do in the present generation what South Korea did in the last it will have a national income greater than America's and military muscle to match.''

From this perspective, the saber-rattling over Taiwan's elections and the constant intimidation of Hong Kong's pro-democracy forces are just warning shots before the real push starts.

The trouble with these extrapolation scenarios is, as Gov. Chris Patten of Hong Kong points out, that they assume China is on a course to become some sort of ''mega-Singapore.''

Real life is more complicated. Singapore, and for that matter South Korea, are relatively small, homogeneous political entities. Mobilizing more than a billion people is a different kettle of fish. Brazil, another huge country, was rising star of the 1970s with annual growth rates, year after year, of 10 percent like China's now. But then Brazil plunged into a decade and a half of stagflation.

Watch India, Indonesia

Making China a prosperous and mighty country is going to take quite some time. Before that happens, many other things in the world are going to happen. At the rate they are going, India (population: 900 million) and Indonesia (190 million) may in the next 20 years surpass China both economically and militarily.

Quite possible is that China may botch its takeover of Hong Kong next year and frighten the Hong Kong capital that presently powers much of southern China away to other parts of Asia. From an investor's point of view, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Pakistan, Malaysia and India all have stabler institutions, with more professional and less political systems of law, finance and banking.

The more one looks at China in the context of other countries the less awesome it appears. But there is another point. Most of the time China is not the irresponsible heavyweight of common caricature. On most issues over the last 15 years China has behaved with shrewd regard for international stability and the best environment for economic development.

After Deng Xiaoping came to power, China abandoned support of ''revolutionary'' movements in neighboring countries. It entered boundary negotiations with its most important neighbor and rival, India. In the face of North Korean hostility it established diplomatic ties and a commercial relationship with South Korea. China played an active role in the U.N.-arbitrated peace in Cambodia. It ended its old hostility to Vietnam and helped reduce tensions surrounding the discovery of North Korea's nuclear-bomb program.

Active in U.N.

In the U.N. Security Council, China plays a supportive role. Not once has it vetoed a major peace-enforcement or peace-keeping initiatives from the Persian Gulf War on. It supported the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention.

On the Spratly Islands, disputed with Vietnam and the Philippines, China has decided to use international law, in particular the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, as a basis for resolving the issue.

China is no loose cannon on the international deck. On the other hand, it never has been an easy country to push around on what it considers its ''internal'' matters. It does have very different ideas from the West on human rights and is profoundly unhappy about anything that suggests a change in the status of Taiwan.

2 presidents' mistakes

It was a serious mistake for President Bush to sell Taiwan state-of-the-art warplanes in clear contradiction of a solemn U.S. promise to Beijing. It was not clever of President Clinton to overturn a long-standing policy of tying periodic human-rights reviews to China's Most Favored Nation trade status. These two somersaults falsely suggested to China that Washington's attitude to Taiwan was about to change, and that human-rights behavior was up for negotiation.

Harmony with China demands that the West should neither exaggerate China's power and kowtow when important principles are at stake, nor willfully undermine Beijing's self-esteem. Straight thinking will always be the best tool in maintaining this subtle relationship with China.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 3/22/96

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