December 14, 2001

Missing the Boat?
Can George Washington's Foreign Policy Succeed in an Interventionist World Order?

China reacted with caution to the war next door in Afghanistan and yipped in the background about civilian casualties and the role of the UN, as "Daisy Cutters" incinerated or traumatized all Afghans unfortunate to be within a mile of the explosion. City after city fell to the Northern Alliance with the help of US and British advisors, bombs and various "specialists." Now the war is virtually over, with the Taliban surrendering and/or being killed en mass and all major cities and supply routes controlled by various loosely connected warlords under the umbrella of "Northern Alliance."

Chinese presumably watched in awe and surprise as the Taliban was dispatched rather quickly. I remember hearing schoolgirls and businessmen alike exclaim over the defeat of the much-heralded Taliban. Perhaps the Chinese government felt a tinge of awe mixed with surprise as well as Afghanistan fell to the US-led Force of Righteousness.

Maybe a little fear and regret was mixed into those feelings as well. The quick fall of the Taliban and the power vacuum that has yet to be filled by a united and determined all-Afghan regime has "necessitated" the presence of Western (US/UK) troops and military hardware. The Western powers could scarcely afford another war a few years down the road in order to secure the pipeline route through Afghanistan and Pakistan into the sea. This time, security and stability in the region will be ensured.

China could have had a say in the new stability of Central Asia, (besides the vague and useless parrotings of Zhang Qiyue, of the Foreign Ministry). But that chance is now gone forever.

China, so determined to be a world power and so proud of its newly minted WTO membership badge, is still content to whisper about the UN's role and the opinions of the "international community." The superpower limelight is hogged by the US and, to a lesser extent Russia, with the EU, UK and Japan standing slightly off to the side, while China stands waiting in the wings. China feels comfortable battling over shiitake mushrooms with Japan, but will not match Japan's eagerness to get involved in Central Asia.

What China did gain out of the most recent war is not international standing, but a license to kill (which they didn't really need) in Xinjiang, home of Uighur Muslims. China can now count on most of the Western governments to keep their mouths shut about human rights and to duly ignore those who still speak out about the situation.

President Bush and Rumsfeld recently informed Russian President Putin that, yes, the ABM treaty will be scrapped in order to make room for a national missile defense system. It seems 9/11 has given governments the right to push policy through that might not have made it had there not been a war on.

Russia answered that the scrapping of the treaty would result in an arms race in which Russia would happily participate. Talk of multiple warheads and Cold War levels was tossed around by Russian Generals, as American Generals scoffed at the ability of cash-strapped Russia to engage in an arms race.


"We have taken note of the reports and express our concern over them," said Zhang Qiyue, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, at a regularly scheduled news briefing today. "It is of crucial importance to maintain the international disarmament and arms control efforts."

Very powerful words. Of course, there is not much China can actually do to dissuade the US from proceeding with the oh-so-successful NMD program, but for a nation that is expected to reign in East Asia soon, this response is much too weak.

China's foreign policy seems to be wracked with internal doubt and possibly conflict. Beijing cracks down on cable companies providing foreign programming because it "disrupts national security, economic order and the dignity of state law," but China is rejoicing over entry into the WTO, which will bring about waves of disruption, especially in the telecommunications sector, when that sector eventually opens up. At the same time that Beijing is cracking down, Guangdong is actively courting cable providers from abroad and Hong Kong.

Actually, I can get Star and ESPN in most hotels in Chongqing, so the crackdown isn't really a serious move to eradicate foreign television. But it's the message that counts. China is acting to protect itself from the foreign invasion that is imminent and needed.

By being overly cautious in foreign affairs, China hopes to keep itself out of entangling political commitments while advancing its economic agenda. Our first President might agree with some of China's policy. Unfortunately, Washington's advice was meant for the very country that declared "with us or against us."

On the domestic front, China's Strike Hard campaign, persecution of Uighurs, Falun Gong practitioners and imprisonment of hapless, outspoken village heads and corrupt politicians sends a different message to the Chinese: Don't use this new era as an excuse to start voicing grievances. Last time the government allowed "flowers to bloom," the overwhelming response of the people led to an overwhelming and less pleasant response from the Party.

China is wrestling with its role in the world right now and has not yet found the leader that will lead them in one direction or the other. China has been traditionally passive towards international affairs and in a world built by George Washington perhaps this political indifference towards another country's affairs would work just fine. But in our current era, indifference can lead quickly to dependence as others move forward and stake claims in your backyard. This has happened to China in the past – and it may happen again in the future, because as China scours the domestic landscape for threats to its survival, the international community begins to take shape around it.

Instead of "sailing toward world significance," the Communist Party may find it has missed the boat.

Text-only printable version of this article

Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive column (usually) appears Fridays.

Archived columns

Missing the Boat?

Sweep 'Em Off the Streets

Chinese Embrace Progress

Risk and Promise

Standing Aloof?

China's Afghan Agenda

New War May Reveal New Superpower, Part II

New War May Reveal New Superpower

A Chance for a New Friendship?

Watching the Disaster

Cheating as a Way of Life

China's Internet Generation

China's Expansionism

Free Markets or Supermarkets


Too Much Face

Olympic Pie

Culture of Pollution

Sailing Towards World Significance

China's Youth Revolution

China on the Road to Capitalism

An American in China

On the Street in China: A Report

Please Support

Send contributions to
520 South Murphy Avenue, Suite #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form

Your contributions are now tax-deductible

Back to Home Page | Contact Us