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China 50 years of communism Thursday, 30 September, 1999, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
China's foreign fears
Decorated shop front, Beijing
Celebrations at home but unsettling changes abroad
By Graham Hutchings

China: 50 years of communism / Revolution Glossary
When China's Communist leaders celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on 1 October, they will have less to smile about than the military parades, mass ranks of dancers and spectacular fireworks suggest.

For while their rule is fairly secure at home, there is little to celebrate on the foreign policy front.

Chinese newspaper
This year's foreign news has not been good for China
Even improved relations with Washington, a result of the meeting at the Apec summit in Auckland on 11 September between Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton, cannot disguise the fact that 1999 has been a bad year for Beijing abroad.

China is far from comfortable with the contemporary world order of which it is becoming part but which it did little to fashion.

There is a perception in Beijing that it is the United States' world, and that it is structured to suit the interests of the US and its allies around the world.

Taiwanese tanks
Taiwanese tanks on exercises
In particular it allows newcomers little leeway. Thus Washington is bent on containing China, a rising power organised along different lines from that of the United States.

Among recent evidence of this is the new security pact between the US and its major ally in East Asia, Japan.

It calls for a bigger role for Japanese troops in a regional emergency, and justifies military action in an unspecified area "surrounding" Japan.

Despite denials from Tokyo, Beijing has little doubt that Japan's "surrounding areas" include Taiwan, the island province it wants to woo into unification or conquer should it declare independence.

Security issues

The enthusiasm of Japan, South Korea and the United States for the creation of a theatre missile defence (TMD) system in East Asia - ostensibly to counter the missile threat from North Korea - is similarly suspect in China's eyes.

The fact that Taiwan is keen to join the scheme proves the point.

Taiwan - and how to bring it into the fold - is an abiding issue on China's domestic and foreign policy agendas.

So, in a different way, is maintaining a tight grip on Tibet and Xinjiang, the vast, predominantly Muslim province in China's far northwest.

Tibetan activists protest Chinese control
Tibetan activists protest against Chinese control
That is why Nato's war with Yugoslavia over Kosovo so alarmed Beijing.

It was a 'humanitarian' war to protect the interests of a national minority within a multinational state.

And its consequence was the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and effective independence for Kosovo.

The fact that Nato planes accidentally destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the bombing campaign rubbed this grim message of the war in.

China's 'Kosovos'

Potentially, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang - the latter home to Turkic-speaking groups - are all Chinese 'Kosovos'.

The People's Republic: Feeling vulnerable at 50
Nobody is suggesting that China is behaving towards its minorities in the way Yugoslavia's President Milosevic did to the Kosovo Albanians.

But it has done similar things in the past, continues to stamp on all overt manifestations of local nationalism, and refuses to rule out the use of force against Taiwan.

The experience of Kosovo suggests that foreign powers - in particular the United States - might intervene should China carry out its threat.

At the very least it shows that governments can no longer use the doctrine of national sovereignty to act with impunity towards minorities.

Self-determination fears

Developments in East Timor have added to Beijing's sense of gloom.

It was bad enough that Indonesia, like China, a huge multinational empire, allowed some of its subjects to decide whether they wanted to be independent.

Now that a multinational force has been invited in to enforce the result of the ballot, a whole series of unwelcome questions can be asked about the future of minority groups elsewhere in the region, China included.

When one considers that fewer than 10% of China's 1.25bn people are non-Chinese it might appear that Beijing is fretting about these developments unnecessarily.

When one remembers that many of China's ethnic minorities occupy strategic frontier regions that are rich in energy as well as other resources, Beijing is right to be concerned about developments in the wider world - and to feel more vulnerable than it would like on its 50th birthday.

Graham Hutchings' book: Modern China: A companion to a rising power is due to be published by Penguin next year.
The BBC's Jill McGivering: "For most of the last 50 years Taiwanese voices have been silent"
See also:

24 May 99 | Clinton in China
15 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
20 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
15 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
19 Aug 99 | Asia-Pacific
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