October 02, 2008

China joins spacewalker ranks

2 Oct 2008

Commemorative postcard autographed by China's Shenzhou V and VI taikonauts
China hopes to "space-walk" between Russia and the US, encouraging both checking safety systems and navigating in a manner conducive to stability, Steve Noerper writes.

By Steve Noerper

With its first human step into space on 27 September 2008, China joined the United States and Russia in the ranks of space nations. This technological milestone captivated a country of 1.5 billion and, on the tail of the Olympic Games, showcased China's recent trajectory. Marvelous as the feat was, there were early moments in this latest manned liftoff when the nation held its collective breath.

The same might be said of China as it weighs the conflict between the US and Russia since 8-8 (8 August 2008), when Russian troops moved into Georgia. A 26-28 September gathering of foreign policy and security policy thinkers in Shanghai proffered a range of Chinese reactions and prescriptions for steps forward.

China was concerned enough by the downward spiral in Russia-US relations to wholly organize and fund this meeting, departing from its usual practice of co-sponsoring such events. With senior Chinese scholars, diplomats and representatives from the foreign policy office of the Central Committee in attendance, there was no doubt about the importance assigned to this gathering.

A few observations about the attitudes of the hosts and participants:

China is somewhat hesitant about how it should deal with the Russia-Georgia conflict and declining Russia-US relations. Yet China feels drawn into the vortex given trilateral relations and dependencies, as well as a perceived need for calm at a time of severe turbulence in the US and global financial system.
Since China holds nearly US$1 trillion in US debt, it's hardly surprising the economic crisis dominates the headlines in China and throughout Asia, coloring thinking there about the US. As a 19 September New York Times business section banner read, Asians are "rethinking" America. One Chinese participant at the Shanghai event suggested that much more than economics is involved. The US has "lost its hard and soft power, as well as moral authority among nations," he argued.
Chinese policy observers are divided on the long-term significance of the Russia-Georgia conflict. One preeminent academic opined that the post-Cold War d├ętente was actually short-lived, and that a "new Cold War" began with the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s. It is continuing today as evidenced by current Russia-US hostilities, and will continue, this academic maintained. But not all Chinese observers agreed that a new Cold War is already underway or that it's inevitable.
Nonetheless, there's a distinct shift in Chinese opinion towards Russia. Chinese participants spoke about treating Russia as a "strategic partner" Russia, while the US was portrayed as a "cooperative partner" with whom "senior dialogue" was needed.
The Chinese are unhappy with the sense of a broader great power disequilibrium, which they see as bad for "harmony" in global politics and economics. Opinions on the nature of the current international system differed, but most Chinese backed Russian President Medvedev's suggestions that a "rule of law" is needed, and that the balance in the global arena is an "illusion." Others pointed to "natural" similarities in Chinese and Russian strategic perspectives - fundamentally a shared concern about NATO enlargement to the West and the role of US forces in the Pacific. They also mentioned China and Russia's common experiences: their recent economic rise and centralized political leaderships.
Most policy observers - including those from more official channels - felt the US had acted provocatively both before and after the onset of the Russia-Georgia conflict and that "next steps" lie with Washington. Nonetheless, most Chinese observers also feel that Russia is in the weakest position of the three major powers in terms of its military capability, political standing, economic and social conditions.
Those realities and significant Chinese displeasure with the current state of affairs led Chinese observers at the Shanghai event to both reprimand Russia and the US for not considering the longer-term impact of their current behavior. China called for new and responsible actions from both the United States and Russia. At the same time, China sees itself as being able to positively encourage, if not bridge, the two.
China invoked the need for cooperation on weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, energy and environmental security, as well as the evolution of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include a "policy partner" role for the United States and dialogue likened to that of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). North Korea and Ukraine were held out as worrisome in the near-term and a potential test for China, Russia and US cooperation. Delegates suggested that China's success in convening the six-party denuclearization dialogue meant an evolution of that mechanism toward other regional security dialogue and a common development agenda, given common needs in North Korea, Russia's Far East and rural China.
China sees this as a time of turbulence and moral quandary. (One Chinese observer privately pointed to disparities in China's "precision engineering," sending manned missions upward while dealing with milk poisonings at home). CCTV described China's success at extra-vehicular activity (EVA) as an "enabling" technology aimed at solution-building for the future. As the newest great power in outer space, China hopes to "space-walk" between Russia and the US, encouraging both checking safety systems and navigating in a manner conducive to stability.

Dr. Steve Noerper is director, worldwide issue networks, and senior fellow, Asia, at the EastWest Institute. He is writing from Shanghai.

EastWest Institute (EWI)

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