New approach to old values
Premier Wen Jiabao, addressing the China-Europe Summit in The Hague on December 9, said: 'Countries with different systems can peacefully co-exist. China and Europe protect a variety of civilisations, promoting dialogue between different types.'
For many in Europe, China is seen as offering on the back of its economic boom a fresh, rational approach to a range of issues, from globalisation to peace.
'China's determination to follow a peaceful road to development is to try to use a peaceful international environment in order to develop itself,' Mr Wen said. 'Moreover, we will use our own development to promote world prosperity. In China's modern history, we have had enough humiliation and deeply know the value of peace.'
In his address, Mr Wen presented values which may differ from Washington's increasingly fundamental and unilateral approach to world affairs. His words were welcome to many Europeans who have also suffered the experience of war. In turn, the European Union indicated that it is prepared to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo against China.
Mr Wen explained that China's interest in the lifting of the embargo is not to immediately buy weapons, but rather to erase the stigma implied by its existence. 'Respect is the precondition for understanding,' Mr Wen said. 'Understanding is the foundation of co-operation.'
Surprisingly little in the way of understanding was expressed in the December 11 edition of The Economist. An editorial, headlined 'Too soft a touch', which said that 'lifting its arms ban on China will do the EU no credit' could have been penned by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The editorial reran an old photograph of tanks entering Tiananmen Square in 1989. Since then, however, China has had three separate generations of leadership and two complete restructurings of government, while its economy has been transformed.
The 1989 Tiananmen killings have been repeatedly raised as a basis for an embargo of technology sales to China. But the Guantanamo Bay detention centre and the resuscitation of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers by Iraq's new occupiers are abuses affronting these very values, and we have seen images even more horrific than the tanks in 1989. Should China still be punished for what happened 15 years ago?
While the editorial blamed China for 'exacerbating tensions between Europe and America', one must ask whether the Bush administration's policies have had anything to do with this?
China, as the EU's second-largest trading partner, offers a counterbalance. There are strategic considerations. The EU wants China to play a stronger global role. The point of lifting the embargo is not to question western values of human rights, but to challenge the unequal and inconsistent application of these values by certain countries. Moreover, when these values are used as mere rhetoric to push forward policies which do not respect the core principles at stake, they instead work against them.
While Washington maintains an arms and hi-tech embargo against China, every year it provides Israel with more than US$84 billion in aid, of which more than two-thirds goes towards weaponry procurements. Western human-rights values condemned the Berlin Wall. They condemn the illegal seizure of land in Zimbabwe. But it seems that neither principle protects the Palestinians. Why cannot 'universal' principles be applied universally?
While China's actions have been condemned in the past, in the present it may be leading by example and, thereby, gaining increasing respect and credibility.
'China's development is not built on harming other nations' interests, but rather [we will] rely on our own strength as a basis,' said Mr Wen. He presents a good alternative. Others may wish to consider it.
Laurence Brahm is a political economist and lawyer based in Beijing