Don't let Russian bear take US eyes off Chinese dragon

Some years ago I played host to a promising young Latvian TV journalist, chosen to learn something about American media techniques and matters.

Knowing he spoke both Latvian and Russian, but finding few Latvian-speakers in my west-of-the-Rockies community, I suggested he meet a friend fluent in Russian. The Latvian journalist said gruffly: "I don't want to meet or talk with him; he has a Russian name. I don't talk with Russians."

This underlines the enduring hatred of many Latvians - and citizens of the other Baltic states of Lithuania and Estonia - for anything Russian after years of annexation, occupation, and harassment at Russian hands. Although Latvia finally shrugged off Russian rule in the early 1990s, many Latvians say Russian nationals who settled in their country have stayed and enjoy undeserved advantages.

So President Bush was not out of line to visit with the now democratic leaders of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in Riga over the weekend and brush off Russian President Vladimir Putin's temper tantrum because he did so. It underscores the US president's seriousness about encouraging and bolstering democracy around the world.

Putin resents what he sees as US "meddling" in the former Soviet satrapies that used to surround Russia. Mr. Bush shoots back that "all the nations that border Russia will benefit from the spread of democratic values, and so will Russia itself."

Despite the carefully orchestrated scenario of Bush-Putin cordiality in Moscow this weekend, we may be in for a rough patch in US-Russia relations. But although Putin seems to be backing away from democratic reforms, and though Russia retains7,000-plus operationalnuclear warheads, it poses nothing like the threat to US security it once did.

The growing challenge the US must clearly focus on is that of China, the exploding economic behemoth whose prosperity has triggered a new wave of trade, political, and diplomatic, activism around the world, but particularly in Asia. Some US officials are concerned about a corresponding buildup in Chinese military spending. Reason would suggest that China would be unlikely to launch a conflict that would bring international condemnation, and a cancellation of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, an event for which the Chinese have campaigned so hard. Yet miscalculations can occur - one over Taiwan could start a war that inevitably would draw in the US.

China's military capability, however, is far inferior to that of the US. Though China's regime remains communist, its preoccupation is on building an economy that seems to thrive willy-nilly on free-market principles.

For instance, a few days ago here, I listened to an intriguing presentation from a former Gannett newspaper management executive, Michelle Foster, who spent last year in China as a fellow of the International Center for Journalists. (Mandatory conflict-of-interest disclosure: I am an unpaid board member of this nonprofit organization that sends journalistic trainers to countries where journalists have been under repression's thumb.) Conversant in Chinese, she told us that the most significant change in China is that the government has eliminated funding for the majority of newspapers and media outlets. They must be self-supporting. Hence the executives in a modern, 50-story building in southern China which produces a bunch of newspapers with state-of-the-art technology are hungry, in their new profit-oriented orientation, to learn foreign management techniques.

What this and other evidence suggests is that the world's concern should be not so much with the eroding communist ideology in China that has failed almost everywhere else in the world, but the vigorous Chinese nationalism that seems gradually to be supplanting it.

In recent days, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan have felt the verbal wrath of this new and self-confident China. India, no slouch itself in economic growth, is watching anxiously a Chinese economy that has come to dominate low-cost manufacturing and has made extraordinary inroads into the US market.

While the US is not, geographically, an Asian power, it has long been, and should remain, a key player in that region. It should be cautious about helping China's military buildup (European Union please note). It should press for human rights improvement in China, while engaging China as an ally in efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear-weapons development. It should spur America's competitive capacity with better education, particularly graduating more homegrown engineers and scientists. A friend tells me that when his daughter graduated from Columbia recently she was the only American in her group of 20 PhDs.

It is wise to keep an eye on the Russian bear, but as important to be vigilant with the Chinese dragon.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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