By Erich Follath
In recent years, China's leaders have frequently joined forces with up-and-coming India, such as when the two countries jointly managed to torpedo UN climate negotiations and the Doha trade talks. More importantly, China's leaders have gained the support of African, Latin American and Central Asian countries with their major projects, gifts and goodwill.
The Chinese have paid particular attention to nations with large oil and natural gas reserves, such as Venezuela, Kazakhstan and Nigeria, but they also cultivate relations with third-tier countries -- countries that the West tends to ignore but that have voting rights in international bodies like anyone else. Beijing has forgiven billions in loans to African nations and pampered them with infrastructure projects. It has generally tied its assistance merely to two conditions that are relatively painless for the countries in question, namely that they have no official relations with Taiwan and that they support the People's Republic in international organizations.
What Beijing is not demanding of these countries is even more telling. Unlike Washington, London or Berlin, the Chinese do not tie their development aid to any conditions relating to good governance. While the West punishes authoritarian behavior by withholding funds (and, in some cases, indirectly threatens "regime change"), Beijing has no scruples about pampering the world's dictators by building them palaces and highways to their weekend villas -- and assuring them territorial integrity, no matter what human rights violations they are found guilty of.
Opportunity, not Problem
China has friendly relations with some of the world's most problematic countries, including failed states and countries on the brink of failure such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar and Yemen. "For the West, failed states are a problem. For China, they're an opportunity," writes American expert Stefan Halper in the magazine Foreign Policy, referring to these countries as "Beijing's coalition of the willing."
The diplomatic weapon is having its intended effect. Already, the pro-Chinese voting bloc led by African nations has managed to obstruct progress in the WTO. Meanwhile in the United Nations, the People's Republic's influence is clear: Within the last decade, support for Chinese positions on human rights issues has risen from 50 percent to well over 70 percent.
Washington, in turn, is no longer even included in certain key groups. The United States was not invited to take part in the East Asia Summit, and it was denied the observer status it had sought in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a sort of anti-NATO under China's de facto leadership that includes Russia and most of the Central Asian countries. Iran, on the other hand, was.
A Model Worth Emulating
Of course, none of this means that the West has already lost the battle for influence in Africa, Latin America and Asia. While Beijing cozies up to dictators, an approach the West cannot and should not take, America and Europe can compete, and even excel, in another area: by offering the ideal model of a democracy worth emulating.
There has been much speculation in recent months that developing countries could be increasingly eyeing China's blend of a market economy and Leninism, economic diversity and strict one-party control as an attractive alternative to democracy. The United States engages too little in self-reflection while the Europeans are too involved with themselves, and both make themselves less attractive as a result, says former Singaporean diplomat and political science professor Kishore Mahbubani. He believes that China's momentum is ultimately unstoppable. Many people in the West who have always viewed trade unions as disruptive and given little heed to human rights violations agree with him.
But even though the People's Republic may have become more attractive for some authoritarian rulers, only a few see it as a model. Beijing has already installed more than 500 Confucius Institutes around the world, in hopes of promoting what it views as China's cultural superiority. One of the results of a 10-fold increase in scholarships at Chinese universities is that almost twice as many Indonesians are now studying in China as in the United States.
But whether it's Harvard, high-tech cell phones or Hollywood, people in many parts of the world still see the West as the home of everything desirable. Besides, many who flirt with Chinese-style dirigisme see it only as a transitional phase that makes sense from an economic point of view, and that ultimately -- as in South Korea, for example -- leads to a democracy with functioning institutions.
More Forceful Approach Required
What no one in Asia, Latin America or Africa wants is another messianic US president in the vein of George W. Bush, who believed that he could forcefully impose the American model on other countries. Many people in developing countries can easily distinguish between pompous arrogance and healthy self-confidence. And especially in China, people tend to regard an excessive willingness to compromise as a weakness, and the stubborn adherence to one's own positions as a strength.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, the woman at the helm of the world's former top exporting nation, ought to take a much more forceful approach to dealing with the leaders of the current export champion than she did during her recent visit to Beijing. She ought to point out that Germany has to draw the line somewhere: for instance, that it will not support China's bid for preferential status in the WTO as long as Beijing violates its rules. She should also make clear that Germany will not condone the ongoing industrial espionage activities of Chinese agents in German high-tech centers, the continued illegal copying of patents and the fleecing of German small and mid-sized companies in China.
When China asks for the lifting of visa restrictions, Germany should ask the Chinese what it can expect in return. And Berlin needs not be concerned that China could react to such criticism by no longer doing business with Germany. The People's Republic acts out of self-interest and needs the West about as much as the West needs China. Besides, the Chinese are used to playing hardball.
How Taiwan Gets What It Wants
Ironically, Taiwan serves as a prime example of how to deal with Beijing. In a SPIEGEL interview 15 years ago, then Prime Minister Lien Chan complained to me that the People's Republic was cutting the ground from under Taipei's feet. He said that, although only 30 nations recognized Taiwan at the time, that would change. But it didn't. In fact, the total is now only 23 nations.
Nevertheless, Taiwan's new leadership is taking a pragmatic approach and, realizing that it cannot win against China, has decided to embrace the mainland Chinese. After tough negotiations, the Taiwanese are now making deals with their big brother. In a trade agreement signed in late June, Taiwan achieved a reduction in Chinese tariffs on $13.8 billion (10.6 billion) worth of goods it sells to China each year, while Beijing came away from the trade deal with a reduction of tariffs on only $2.9 billion of the goods it exports to Taiwan.
"We did not make any compromises when it comes to our independence, and we achieved a favorable agreement," says Wu-lien Wei, Taiwan's representative in Berlin. Perhaps one needs to be Chinese in order to avoid being ripped off by Beijing.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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