Q&A: A fresh glance at China's foreign policy

Robert Marquand is the Monitor's Beijing bureau chief. Currently travelling in Hong Kong, Mr. Marquand discussed some of the major issues for China's foreign policy with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

Do you detect any shift in China's foreign policy since the US-led war on Iraq?

A director of a think tank in Beijing told me recently that "Our policy has been evolving into a mainstream policy, the policy of a normal country, since Deng Xiaoping's reforms in 1980." That seems true, taking the long perspective. But since the Iraq war, a couple of thoughts: China has dealt itself into the North Korean question in a way that it can't easily get out of. So China has added that "burden" to its portfolio. Six months ago, China just commented on N. Korea. Now it has a stake in the game. China after the Iraq war has recalculated its assumptions, sources say, and many in the Chinese braintrust feel the US is now the world power for the next 30 to 50 years. China is steadily trying to improve relations with the US, and has done so since Jiang's visit to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas last October. No one would have guessed that two years ago, as the Chinese specialist put it, changes in the international environment (read 9/11 and Iraq) have caused China policy to change. But China itself is changing, toward a greater globalized standard of living and education. Most of my long-time colleagues, however, feel the jury is always out on what direction China is going.

When it comes to nuclear weapons in N. Korea, China seems to be saying publicly that Washington and Pyongyang must work this out. But is China playing a more active role behind the scenes?

Don Oberdorfer's book, "Two Koreas," points out that in the earlier nuclear crisis in 1994, it was a quiet prod by Beijing that forced the North to make a deal with the US. But China hates to be seen "doing things" publicly, as do many Asian states. Still, China is quite active behind the scenes; China doesn't want a nuclear Korean peninsula, something that it didn't quite believe to be possible a year ago. It wants to find a way to get Kim Jong Il to the table; it wants to find some way to be an honest broker between Washington and Pyongyang; it wants to retain influence in N. Korea which is a buffer zone for China. China especially wants to continue to deepen ties with South Korea, something evident by the good vibes today between Hu Jintao and visiting S. Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun. One friend joked with me recently about a hypothetical question for the Chinese spokesperson about next week's armistice anniversary: "Next week is the 50th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. Will China be celebrating with the North, or the South?" Ok, it isn't David Letterman. But for those of us noodling on Asia, its pretty funny.

Taiwan isn't in the news as much lately. Have China and the US reached an understanding on Taiwan? How is the standoff in Hong Kong playing in Taiwan?

Taiwan is out of the news I think partly because the news is very thick these days. I think the understanding between the US and China is that the US continues not to support a referendum on the island. That's not new, but the emphasis now is stronger by the Bush administration, so I'm told, than it was in the days when Bush said the US will "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. Yes, the tensions over Article 23 in Hong Kong are playing very big in Taipei. Beijing's "one country, two systems" formula is still taking a beating in the Taiwanese press.

Did the severe drop in tourism resulting from the SARS scare serve as a wake up call to China's rulers that they must have more openness in their dealings with the press and the international community?

It looked for a while like SARS would bring some freedom to the Chinese state-owned and run media. But a recent spate of firings, press closings, and strictures on Internet operations seem to be saying the springtime of SARS coverage is over.

Are we going to see more Chinese basketball players like Yao Ming in the NBA?

I hope so! Yao was a lot of fun to interview a year ago when he was playing for the Shanghai Sharks. I got to him in his tiny dorm room before we were chased out by official minders, and got to talk with him. He's so intelligent and has a crazy passion for video games and puzzle solving. His shoes are the size of small aircraft carriers, and I remember he was doing his own laundry in a room across the hall. I mentioned that when he gets to the NBA, he won't have to do laundry anymore. But actually I don't think there's another Yao Ming on the horizon from China yet. There is a South Korean high school kid who is already Yao's height and is apparently agile . But he's not in any way ready for American college ball, let alone the NBA. Yao played ball here in China, don't forget, for several years - before making it to the American pros.

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