World power, world-class responsibilities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2005, 12:00am

China is no longer a Mao closet-country that is closed to the world. More and more, it is becoming China Inc, with interests that branch across the world. For that reason, and before long it will need to modify its position on two outstanding issues.

The first concerns the yuan, which Beijing guards as zealously as a father would a teenage daughter. The United States and Europe resent this currency 'protectionism', because the yuan is cheaper than it ought to be, and is keeping export prices artificially low and hurting western manufacturers.

Washington has been pestering Beijing to stop underwriting its currency. Beijing listens, but warily. It believes the yuan remains vulnerable to uncontrollable outside forces (such as those that caused the Asian financial crisis in 1997). Washington, it feels, is indulging in the 'blame game' again.

Much of Asia agrees with China's assessment that American politicians are acting like, well, politicians. When the US faces a daunting domestic problem, it sometimes seeks to cloud the issue by drawing away attention from the real cause.

With the issue of revaluing the yuan, the domestic problem is the overall trade deficit and the huge federal deficit, where the culprits are Americans who buy too much, usually on credit, and the US government spending beyond its means.

However, conveniently, a foreign culprit is found and trotted out before voters.

This deeply annoys China. Even so, at some point it will have to act on the fact that over the long run an undervalued currency is not in its best interest. Having more or less embraced market ideology at home, it will have to recognise that many of the same rules apply in international transactions.

Beijing will therefore revalue its currency before too long.

It is also in China's best interest to knock some serious sense into North Korea. The nuclear crisis has dragged on far too long.

It should have been settled already, along the lines of a lot of western aid and a non-invasion pact, in return for verifiable de-nuclearisation.

To its credit, China has organised the six-party talks but they have yielded little, and the situation is getting dangerous. It is true that, from China's perspective, Washington and Tokyo are sticking to arguably hardline positions. No matter: if North Korea becomes a verifiable nuclear power, China's interests will be just as hurt as anyone's.

This is why Beijing will get tough with Pyongyang. It worries about the instability that would follow if the regime crumbles. That's a fair point. But should North Korea boast a truly useable nuclear arsenal, China will have even more to fear.

Right-wing elements in Japan will call for nuclearisation and rearmament; South Korea will become even more dependent on the US nuclear umbrella. And the case for US-organised regional missile defence will be, for once, compelling.

All of these are developments Beijing wishes to avoid. But unless it tightens the leash on North Korea, the above will probably happen.

Only China, emerging as a world power, has the strings to get its ally to the bargaining table and hammer out a deal. North Korea needs to denuclearise, the US needs to provide a firm security guarantee, and the wealthy nations must devise an aid package that relieves the desperation of the North Korean people.

Time is on no one's side, except of the North Korean government.

The yuan issue and the North Korean crisis are related. China is at the core of these global concerns. It can no longer blithely duck the hard international questions and recede into its communist cocoon, as in the past.

Finally, outside public opinion now demands that if China wants a place at the top table, it must earn it by showing the world it indeed can be a positive player, especially when the going gets tough.

Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network

Distributed by the UCLA Media Centre