China’s Hands-off Foreign Policy a Collapse of Creativity

Howard W. French, senior writer for the New York Times, comments on China’s non-interference policy as demonstrated lately in its  veto of sanctions on Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and its opposition to a warrant sought by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court for the arrest of the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Plainly spoken, as a global actor, China remains an essentially reactive force, one keen to limit the power or the range of action of others in the name of principles such as democracy, human rights and self-determination.

In recent months, in response to international criticism over its ties with Sudan and Zimbabwe, with the Olympics looming, China had labored to put its best face forward, sending peacekeepers to its Sudanese ally in a largely symbolic gesture of acknowledgment of the crisis in the Darfur region of that country.

Beijing also quietly downgraded its ties with Robert Mugabe, an erstwhile friend and client. What is happening in Darfur has often been described as an ongoing genocide. Mugabe, for his part, places new demands on our vocabulary. Genocide does not fit, but what does one call a leader who takes an entire country down with him?

What the week’s events suggest is a China that has coolly calculated that these modest gestures are enough, and that it is time to get back to business as usual, which means a foreign policy that remains mute about fires that burn on distant shores. And it is hard to read the words of Liu Jianchao, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, without feeling a blush of cynicism. The actions of the International Criminal Court “must be beneficial to the stability of the Darfur region and the appropriate settlement of the issue, not the contrary,” he said.

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“Adopt a low profile and never take the lead,” was Deng Xiaoping’s advice to China’s diplomats early in this country’s reform era.

After two-plus decades of booming growth and interests that extend into every corner of the world, an axiom like this sounds awfully self-centered and cramped. And for the people of Sudan and Zimbabwe, coming up with something more fitting to the times has become a matter of life and death.