Robert I. Rotberg

China's grand bargain

By Robert I. Rotberg
March 26, 2009
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AS THE G20 group of nations prepares to meet next week to discuss the world economy, a grand bargain with geostrategic significance is implicitly being crafted between Washington and Beijing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted as much when she said in February that the United States would not hammer China about its human rights violations.

China and the United States need each other. China wants the United States to keep its trillions of dollars in Treasury securities safe and valuable. It would like Washington to stop beating the hollow drum of foreign-exchange policy and yuan deflation. China also wants the United States to help reinflate the global economy so that it can grow back from 6 percent per annum GDP to 8 percent or more. Otherwise unrest may escalate.

China also does not want the United States to press human rights issues for fear of further encouraging dissent. That posture obviously goes for Tibet, for the Uighur claims on Xinjiang, for labor violations in the Guangdong area, and, possibly, for attacks on China's abysmal food security record.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress are rightly appalled at any backtracking. Criticism of China's record at home and abroad is well-merited.But, as Secretary Clinton and President Obama know, Washington needs China's help on global climate change and on such key security issues as North Korea, Burma, Iran, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

Restraining the nuclear ambitions and capacity for mischief of the odious regime in Pyongyang is unlikely without China's support for a negotiated dismantling of fissile enrichment and missile launching facilities. Only China has the necessary leverage and influence with Kim Jong-il and his regime.

On Burma, Clinton has admitted that US and European sanctions have accomplished little, and that the ruling military junta pays little attention to what the UN, the Association of Southeastern Nations, or the West wants by way of ameliorations and respect for internal human and political rights. It only responds to Beijing, its funder, main supplier of arms, commercial and strategic partner, and a key economic mainstay.

On Iran, the Obama administration will also need China (and Russia) in finding diplomatic or economic means to deter Iran's rush toward nuclear capability. Absent such support, the task of constraining or preventing Iran from becoming a bomb maker is difficult, if not impossible. (China is Iran's largest trading partner.)

In Africa, China is a major investor. China imports more than 10 percent of its oil from Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and Sudan, and obtains minerals such as copper from Zambia and Congo, platinum and chrome from Zimbabwe and South Africa, and much more. It also purchases large forests of African timber. None of that mercantile activity is objectionable to Africa or the United States, nor should Washington worry about Chinese infrastructural construction of ports, railways, and roads in Africa.

But China also supplies arms to Africa. It backs President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, gives him aircraft and armored cars, and takes land and minerals in exchange. Oppression in Sudan is heavily facilitated by China, which trains the pilots who bomb Darfuri refugee camps and provides the weapons with which the janjaweed and others kill innocent civilians. More so, China pumps Sudan's oil, guards the oil wells and pipeline, runs the refinery, and funds President Omar al-Bashir, recently indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes. If the Obama administration is going to reduce the killing fields in Darfur and remove Mugabe from power in Zimbabwe, it will need China's help.

As the global economy continues to fray, there is a crucial need for collective action on fiscal matters, monetary policy, antagonism against protectionism, and on help for the developing world. The United States and Europe cannot create or fulfill such an agenda without China's cooperation. Only with China can they craft policies to create increased domestic consumption everywhere (especially in China and other surplus-rich Asian economies) and thus avert the collapse of global prosperity.

Any such grand bargain is messy, but necessary and compelling.

Robert I. Rotberg is director of the Program on Instrastate Conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School and President of the World Peace Foundation. He recently published "China into Africa: Trade, Aid, and Influence."

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