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