The world is still shaking from the bombing of China's embassy in Yugoslavia. The tremors are particularly strong in Asia.
In China, Premier Zhu Rongji, economic czar and respected No. 2, was under fire from anti-West, free-trade naysayers even before the NATO blunder. And if the anti-Western political fallout from that attack continues to be felt inside China for some time to come, Zhu could lose his room to maneuver, if not his job. The ultimate losers could include not only Zhu, who has staked so much of his reputation on opening to the West, but also the U.S. president. Bill Clinton's policy of engagement with China could find fewer takers there than ever, leaving a legacy of failure in U.S. relations with the world's most-populated nation.
Clinton unsettled Zhu when the White House, trying to appease Congress, released details of the premier's many concessions in the recent, unsuccessful effort to finish a deal on China's admission to the World Trade Organization. When the premier returned home without America's support for China's entry bid, Zhu faced a wave of anger over what critics there colorfully termed "the giveaway of the century."
Willy Wo-Lap Lam, the veteran China watcher for Hong Kong's leading newspaper, the South China Morning Post, said a lot of the powers-that-be were in open revolt over Zhu's rushi, which translates as "entry to the world." Some leftist purists were reported whispering that Zhu was a traitor.
The premier is really just a committed reformer who accepts that China's bread is buttered on the entrepreneurial side of Marxism. To this end, he aggressively champions modernization, as well as less ideological, more businesslike relations with America. Zhu is China's best hope to improve its economic lot--and the West's best hope for a better bilateral future. But many in China distrust the West more or less across the board, and read China's long history of exploitation by foreigners as a lesson in the dangers of openness to outsiders. The embassy bombing served to push that latent sentiment to the surface, as evidenced by the many street demonstrations, permitted if not encouraged as they were by the government. There is also widespread disbelief that the bombing was an accident.
Zhu could well survive the current turmoil; no one gets to the No. 2 spot in a society of that magnitude and complexity without extraordinary resourcefulness. But for his rushi to proceed with modernization, he will need more support from two quarters.
For starters, his boss, President Jiang Zemin, must more openly stand by his man. Jiang, a wily politician himself, must box in the hard-liners resentful of U.S. power in Asia and bureaucrats trying desperately to protect their jobs from the Zhu downsizing machine. So far he has failed to shield Zhu from charges that the concessions to Clinton would devastate everyone in China from farmers to telecommunications entrepreneurs.
Clinton should also start acting like the true leader of the Western world and less like a politician flummoxed and intimidated by every Republican maneuver from Capitol Hill. For a long time to come, the premier's supporters and admirers will bitterly recall that when Zhu showed up at the White House bearing one WTO concession after the other, all he got for his trouble was a Clintonian promise to revisit the issue later (perhaps after Congress cools down over the China spy and campaign-contributions scandals, it was suggested). So Zhu returned empty-handed, having lost face in public--the worst possible nightmare for an Asian politician.
Under these circumstances, Clinton's apologies for the bombing may seem sufficient to Western eyes, but certainly not to Asian ones. To be sure, those who have followed the Monicagate scandal know full well that our president is not much good at delivering unambiguous, convincing apologies. But Clinton's pedestrian so-sorry to the Chinese people Monday was irresponsible from a leader of the West who has placed such importance on improving relations with the East's largest nation. In Beijing, Zhu, undoubtedly glued to CNN like the rest of us, might well have thought: With friends like Bill, who needs enemies? He wouldn't be the first to say that, would he? It would be a disaster if the one man the West needs most became the unintended political casualty of the NATO bombing campaign.
That could happen. Between the imminent release of the congressional report on China's U.S. spying over the years, the developing politics of next year's presidential race--fueled by the still-surfacing China campaign-contribution revelations--and further fallout over the imbecilic NATO bombing, it's hard to see how China-U.S. relations won't continue to decline--much less how Beijing can be admitted to the WTO soon.
Wise, focused and determined U.S. foreign policy would have arranged for that admission some time ago. But over six and a half years, Clinton's international diplomacy has never much looked beyond the current challenge or crisis. And, as far as China-U.S. relations are concerned, it may never get past this one.
Times contributing editor Tom Plate's column runs Wednesdays. He teaches at UCLA. E-mail: email@example.com.