Stop Lecturing China and Russia

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No Place for US Homilies

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

Not a day goes by in Washington without a smug official or a snooty US columnist delivering a long and tedious sermon to officials in Beijing or Moscow. The Chinese and the Russians are told sternly by the Americans how to behave themselves, that is, if they really, really want to become "full members" of the "international community."

From President George W Bush down to the vice-deputy-assistant secretary of state, not to mention the representative of this or that district in this or that state, American officials and lawmakers seem to believe that they have the right and the obligation to instruct the leaders of China and Russia — and of other alleged backward areas of the world that are not (yet) under direct US control — in Democracy 101, Introduction to Human Rights, and other related topics that are included in the Freedom’s Guide to the Universe.

Deconstructing these American homilies, one would have to conclude that it is Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao — and not Mr. Bush — who are considered today the least popular world figures in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, or that it is China and Russia — and not the United States under the current administration — that are regarded these days as the major threats to international peace by a majority of the residents of our "international community."

Yes, Russia has yet to transform itself into a fully functioning market economy and if it fails to reform its economic system and adopt the rule of law and protect property rights, it would be punished by western investors and would certainly not be permitted to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

But do White House officials, with their political and business ties to the corrupt executives of a bankrupted American energy empire (Enron), have the moral authority to condemn the Russian government for its dealing with the crooked heads of a mismanaged Russian energy company (Yukos)?

And yes, China has a long way to go in moving to political freedom and the adoption of democratic institutions, and the best way to affect that change is by encouraging American businesses and NGOs to engage with China.

But at a time when the US government is being condemned for violations of human rights, including torture, in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and has yet to punish the top officials responsible for those actions, shouldn’t Americans sound a bit less condescending when they criticize Chinese human rights behavior? Americans may be just irritating the Chinese and the Russians with their rhetoric on human rights and related issues, but the United States may be the entering a dangerous zone when it starts to tutor them on how to handle their foreign policy.

Indeed, top on the list of American guiding principles to the New Kids (well, sort of) on the Eurasian Bloc is the need for them to be friendly and nice to their little and helpless neighbors. Repeat after me: Responsible big powers should avoid threatening other states in their adjunct regions or projecting menacing hegemonic tendencies towards them.

The era of outside intervention and intimidation — and certainly military occupation — by leading regional and global powers is over. You can’t just deploy your troops beyond your borders in the name of protecting your interests and advancing your values.

Iraq? Well, that’s different…

Mr. Bush certainly seemed to be in such a mood when he traveled just recently to Russia and made stops in Latvia and Georgia, two states that were part of the Soviet Union before it collapsed and have traditionally been part of Russia’s "near abroad," where political and economic developments could affect its core national interests. Or to put it differently, Latvia and Georgia as well as other states in the Baltic and Caucus regions are what, say, Mexico and Cuba are for the United States: a strategic backyard.

In several speeches and interviews, Mr. Bush went out of his way to admonish the Russians for their earlier occupation of the Baltic and the Caucus. He attacked the government of Russia’s only close ally, Belarus, in words that suggested to many Russians that the United States would seek regime change in Belarus and even include it in the anti-Russian NATO alliance.

"The idea of countries helping others become free, I would hope that would be viewed as not revolutionary, but rational foreign policy, as decent foreign policy, as humane foreign policy," he said, adding that "All the nations that border Russia will benefit from the spread of democratic values, and so will Russia itself."

Mr. Bush made more critical remarks directed at Mr. Putin during his stopover in Tbilisi, Georgia, where Russia still maintains two military bases (which Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili wants removed) and protects the two breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (which Mr. Saakashvili wants ended). "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected by all nations," Mr. Bush proclaimed.

When it comes to China, it is well recognized by American officials and pundits that signals emanating from Washington with regard to Taiwan that challenge the mainland Chinese view that it is a "renegade province" of China, are seen by most Chinese as a US interference in the "internal" affairs of China.

It is not surprising that continuing American criticism of Chinese policy towards Taiwan, including a recent attempt to bring it into a regional security context with Tokyo, coupled with suggestions that China is adopting an aggressive military, are perceived in Beijing as part of an American policy aimed preventing the Chinese from asserting its role as a regional power.

If anything, the recent successful Chinese diplomatic maneuvers towards Taiwan and its continuing winning strategy of expanding its economic and diplomatic presence in East Asia suggest that contrary to the American criticism, it actually knows how to deal with its neighbors.

China is closer than ever to fulfilling its goal of forming an East Asian trade agreement, while Washington’s chances of forming a similar trade pact with the economies in its hemisphere is close to zero. And it’s the Americans who are now seen as pleading with the Chinese to help them resolve the nuclear crisis with North Korea. So perhaps it’s the Americans who need to receive some guidance from the Chinese on how to deal with your neighbors?

In any case, Washington should embrace a very cautious approach when it comes to Russia’s "near abroad" and China’s regional strategic interests. One could only imagine how the US administration would have reacted if Mr. Putin visiting Venezuela and meeting with President Hugo Chavez had expressed support for the forces of "progress" and indigenous Indian movements in Latin America.

Or if Mr. Hu during a trip to Cuba would call for the removal of US military presence from that island. My guess is that under such circumstances, most Americans — and rightly so — would have no patience listening to lectures by the Russians and the Chinese.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).

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