China Learns

Article excerpt

The Power Play

In China, history tends to get politicized. Visitors to a Tang-dynasty museum outside Xian, for example, are treated to a carefully controlled message. The Tang era (A.D. 618 to 907) is described as China's golden age, a heyday of elegance and commerce. A plaque in the exhibit states the theme bluntly: "The prosperity of Tang had [a] direct connection with its all-round open policy ... From here, the advanced culture of Tang spread out, and the gems of the outside civilization came in."

The moral is unmistakable: China prospers when it reaches out to the world. The idea is dear to the country's current leaders, who have staked their reputations on furthering China's economic rise and smoothing out its rough edges. To that end, Beijing has been vigorously courting countries throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, promoting a "harmonious world" abroad while it pushes for a more equitable "harmonious society" at home.

Sounds good, but there's a catch. Being a prosperous and successful great power today requires more than just trade, tribute and mutual back-scratching among sovereigns. From Darfur to Burma, various crises are forcing China to recognize that being a serious international player means accepting some responsibility for maintaining international order.

Recent signs seem promising. China has begun taking baby steps away from its longstanding position on nonintervention abroad. It's helped push the North Korean government into a nuclear-disarmament deal and reversed its opposition to U.N. intervention in Darfur. It's even exerted modest pressure on Sudan to accept U.N. troops and committed 400 of its soldiers -- medical officers and engineers -- to the mission. Consistent with this new role, some academics now suggest that when the Communist Party's 17th congress opens on Oct. 15, officials will not only reaffirm their commitment to a harmonious region but also make clear that China is prepared to join in peacekeeping missions in Asia.

More U.N. peacekeepers -- or peacemakers -- are urgently needed in Afghanistan, which China has resolutely avoided till now. And there's a crisis looming even closer to home: in Burma, where antigovernment demonstrations have been met with violent reprisals. The crackdown demands an international response. Two years ago, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a doctrine known as the "responsibility to protect," under which all U. …