Accessibility links

Breaking News

Yugoslavia: Analysis From Washington -- Thunder Out Of China

Washington, 19 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- By means of its continuing criticism of NATO and the United States, Beijing seeks to use the Kosovo crisis to advance its own geopolitical goals and solidify its control over the Chinese population.

The accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade did in fact give Beijing an opening and opportunity. But any survey of Chinese commentary on NATO and the West even before that event shows that the Chinese authorities would have pursued these goals even if that unfortunate incident had never occurred.

That in turn suggests that the embassy bombing did not mark a turning point in relations between China and the outside world but yet another milepost on Beijing's long march toward becoming a superpower in the twenty-first century.

Since the beginning of the Kosovo crisis, Beijng has consistently pursued three interrelated goals in its foreign and domestic policy.

First, it has used this crisis to announce its rise as a major world power, a country that must be consulted on major issues regardless of where they may be on the globe.

Now that NATO has agreed to allow the U.N. Security Council to have the last word on post-conflict arrangements in Yugoslavia, many Western analysts have focused on the fact that Moscow has a veto in that body and hence on the need for NATO to coordinate its actions with the Russian government.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, these analysts have pointed to the leverage this arrangement gives Moscow over the West on issues such as IMF loans and political arrangements in Eastern Europe.

But virtually none of these analysts appears to have considered the fact that Beijing also has a veto in the Security Council and can use this power to block U.N. action to advance its own. Moreover, China's independent ability to do so may give the Russian Federation greater room for maneuver.

If China chooses to block NATO's action with a Security Council veto, for example, Moscow could well be happy with an arrangement that would allow the Russian government to portray itself as cooperating with the West and thus worthy of reward.

Or alternatively, China could take advantage of a Russian veto to portray itself as a friend of the West and thus seek greater support for its foreign policy goals. But in either of these cases as well as in most others, Beijing would have clearly shown that it is an independent great power and thus a country that no one can afford to ignore.

Second, the Chinese government has invoked NATO's actions against Slobodan Milosevic to justify both its own increased military expansion and its efforts to maintain tight control over its own population.

In commentaries this week, the Chinese media have suggested that Beijing must continue to build its military forces in order to prevent the United States from achieving its "hegemonic" goals. And several articles in the Chinese press have even suggested that the bombing of the Belgrade embassy was part of a broad American effort to destabilize China.

By invoking such a foreign threat, China's leaders are clearly hoping to silence any objections to their military build-up as well as to silence domestic opponents on a variety of questions. After all, if the Chinese authorities can succeed in presenting any difference of opinion domestically as somehow part of an American "plot," they will have a virtually free hand to deal with it in extremely harsh terms.

And third, Beijing has sought to make use of the events in Kosovo to distract attention both internationally and domestically from its record on human and ethnic rights.

Many Western reporters have suggested that the Chinese authorities are gambling that allowing demonstrations at the U.S. embassy and other foreign missions in Beijing last week will reduce the likelihood that anyone will march in the Chinese capital on June 4, the tenth anniversary of the crushing of the democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square there.

And more recently, the Chinese authorities, who have long sought to crush the rights of ethnic communities in Tibet, Xinjiang and even in Beijing itself, are now presenting themselves to the world as defenders of the rights of "all the ethnic groups" of the former Yugoslavia.

To the extent that anyone accepts these claims at face value, China will have won an important political victory. But even if they do not, the "thunder out of China," first described by U.S. journalist Theodore H. White a half century ago is likely to become even louder and ever more insistent. And that development rather than Beijing's outrage at the bombing of its Belgrade embassy seems certain to define international politics in the years to come.