WikiLeaks and China

The steady release of secret US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks continues, but so far disclosures relating to China have been of relatively moderate news interest, such as Beijing's views on North Korea and tidbits on the top leadership.

But one cable, written in January 2009 to mark the 30th anniversary of Sino-American diplomatic relations, is of unusual value as it sheds light on Washington's expectations of its relationship with China over the next three decades.

It's also of interest how some of the predictions have panned out in the two years that have passed since the cable was written.

Speculating on the future, the cable suggested that after a peaceful resolution of the threat posed by North Korea, "tomorrow's Chinese leaders" may put "pressures on U.S. allies like Thailand or the Philippines to choose between Beijing and Washington."

The Korean issue is unresolved, but already China has put pressure on countries to choose sides over the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. The Philippines was the only democracy to join China's boycott of the Oslo ceremonies.

The cable also suggests that the United States may "wish to consider joining the East Asia Summit," a step since taken by the Obama administration.

The cable, drafted by then ambassador, Clark T. Randt, had as its subject "Looking at the Next 30 Years of the U.S.-China Relationship." A summary of the cable in the Guardian, a British newspaper, concludes that over the coming decades, "the two countries will grow more alike as China becomes more influential and more developed."

China today is the world's largest developing country while the United States is the world's largest developed country. Moreover, China is a one-party dictatorship while America is a democracy. Will the two countries really become more alike as time goes on?

The conclusion is not as unlikely as it may appear on the surface. After all, China has changed so much in the last 30 years that it has become virtually a different country.

Certainly, in the 1980s the country's supreme leader Deng Xiaoping deliberately set China on a path toward economic reform to transform the legacy left by Chairman Mao Zedong, who had dominated the People's Republic of China from its founding in 1949 until his death in 1976.

Mao subordinated economic development to ceaseless political campaigns to purify the class ranks while, overseas, he supported world revolution. Deng, however, was a pragmatist who spurned ideology, pursuing domestic and foreign policies to modernize China.

The result is reflected in the 21st century skylines of China's cities and the high-speed trains that link them.

As Randt recalled, in 1979, China's city dwellers on average made the equivalent of $5 a month. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2009, the per-capita disposable income of urban people in China was $2,513.

The cable discusses China's resource needs, in particular energy, and their foreign-policy implications. For example, while the United States had been frustrated by Chinese resistance to tough sanctions aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program, "in the future, a China increasingly dependent on foreign energy supplies may recalculate the risk a nuclear Iran would pose to the greater Persian Gulf region's capacity to export oil."

As it was, by the end of the year, the embassy reported in another cable that a senior Chinese official, Wang Jiarui, head of the international department of the Chinese Communist Party, had praised US policy on Iran, saying that China agreed that Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and that such an eventuality would have a negative impact on Chinese interests.

However, while the Chinese official voiced agreement with the United States "in principle," he insisted that diplomacy rather than military action or stronger sanctions was the best option.

Reviewing Chinese demographics, the cable anticipates China to complete the transition from majority rural population to a majority urban population by 2025. "By the end of the next 30 years," the cable points out, "China should no longer be able to portray itself as the representative of lesser developed countries." Currently, Beijing appeals to Africa by describing the continent as the one with the most developing countries while describing China itself as the world's biggest developing country.

Already, China is singular among developing nations, and Randt's prediction probably does not require another three decades before China is identified by the average citizen in less developed countries as "them" rather than "us."

In that sense, at least, China and the United States will become more alike. As major developed countries with global responsibilities, both are likely to find it crucial to cooperate while dealing with global issues.

Randt also predicts in the cable that China will end up jettisoning its cherished principle of "non-interference" in other countries' internal affairs, and there are signs that China is distancing itself from so-called pariah countries. Other WikiLeaks cables, for instance, suggest that China is losing patience with Burma and call North Korea a "spoiled child."

Like it or not, China will get sucked into other countries' internal affairs. In Zambia, for example, the opposition leader Michael Sata, ultimately defeated, had attacked Chinese investments in the country during the 2006 presidential campaign and the Chinese ambassador had threatened to break relations with Zambia if he won.

Recently, China's image took another hit with a Zambian court issuing arrest warrants for two Chinese managers charged with attempted murder, allegedly shooting and wounding 13 workers at a coal mine. China's economic involvement will be a likely issue in the presidential elections later this year.

As China's economic stake in Nigeria, Angola and other countries increases, it will almost inevitably be drawn into their domestic affairs.

Today, Beijing is fulfilling Randt's prediction from 2009 by already acknowledging growing common interests. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, was in Washington in early January to pave the way for the state visit of President Hu Jintao. In a speech, he echoed many of Randt's themes. "What is it that has brought China and the United States closer to each other in the course of cooperation in the past two years?" Yang asked. "I believe that it is our growing common interests. It is the growing sense of an important reality that China-US relations in the 21st century should be anchored in joint efforts to seize common opportunities and address common challenges for the welfare of our two peoples and the people of the world."

So even if there is no explicit acknowledgement that China is becoming more like the United States, there is a clear recognition of the melding of interests.

The Randt cable concludes on an optimistic note, urging the US to continue "to push for the expansion of individual freedoms, respect for the rule of law, and establishment of a truly free and independent judiciary and press," adding: "Someday, China will realize political reform. When that day comes, we will want to be remembered by Chinese for having helped China to advance."

That may seem unlikely, seeing how China responded to the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. But then, in 1979, it was equally hard to imagine the economic advances that China would make in the next three decades. For all the tension and embarrassment the WikiLeaks revelations have caused worldwide, at least the Randt cable from China not only shows clear-sighted thinking but optimism based on realistic assessment.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong–based journalist and writer. This is reprinted with permission of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization