by Sandip Roy
(PNS) -- The kidnapping of eight Chinese workers in Iraq may force China to face the fact that its increasing global engagement comes with a price, China analysts and Chinese media workers say.
When Flora Lin first heard about the kidnappings she was mystified. As a senior reporter for Ming Pao, a Chinese daily based in Long Island, NY, Lin knows many immigrants from Fujian, the same impoverished province the Chinese workers came from. "They have nothing to do with the Chinese government," says Lin. "A Fujianese community leader told us that people like them go to dangerous places like Iraq because they can't pay smugglers $80,000 to bring them to America."
But a message from the kidnappers demanded that Beijing "clarify" its role in Iraq. Economic desperation might have driven the workers to Iraq, but to Iraqi insurgents the workers were symbols of China's global economic clout. In the past, China has been somewhat reluctant to flex the political muscle that comes with that clout. But increasingly, China watchers say, it may have to do just that.
"China will do its utmost to stay ambiguous," says Ling Chi Wang, professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley. "Its natural priority is economic development. But now for the first time since the Communist takeover, China has a global engagement policy."
The signs of that engagement are everywhere. Though it supports the Palestinian cause, China is heavily investing in business with Israel. Beijing just hosted the first security policy conference of the ASEAN regional forum. It's proposing joint military exercises with both India and Russia. It's planning to develop oil fields in Venezuela and Iran, though both nations are on Washington's blacklist. It's signed anti-terrorism policies with Central Asian republics and is participating in peacekeeping in Haiti. And it is actively courting the European Union to overturn the arms embargo imposed since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres.
"2004 was literally the year of China in France," says William Dobson, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, which listed China's growing bonhomie with Paris and its increasing global clout as one of the top 10 stories the media missed in 2004. "The French have been lobbying the EU to lift the embargo because they see an alliance with China as a very effective counter-balance to what they call U.S. hyperpower," says Dobson.
The efforts are paying off. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw just announced that replacing the embargo with a code of conduct was probably inevitable.
Many Chinese protested the war in Iraq. Beijing, however, has expressed its own opposition cautiously. "Maybe they don't want to offend the U.S.," says Joseph Leung, an editor with the Sing Tao Daily in Millbrae, Calif. "But it's clear the Chinese community is opposed to the war in terms of lives lost and money spent."
A New California Media poll echoed those findings. Forty-seven percent of Chinese Americans opposed the war, while 40 percent supported it. But Beijing, says Ling Chi Wang, has little reason to protest too vociferously, since it is satisfied with current U.S.-China relations. "For the first time, in this last (presidential) election, China was not an issue," Wang says. "That's quite a shift from candidate Bush, who had stressed strategic competition rather than co-operation with Beijing."
China's low-key foreign policy stance, coupled with its powerful economic engine, has allowed China to be courted both by Colin Powell and Fidel Castro. Washington has made little fuss about China taking on telecommunication projects in Cuba that were abandoned by Italian and Mexican firms, nervous of running afoul of America's Helms-Burton law, which includes sanctions against companies that do business with Havana. China has sent no soldiers to Iraq, but pledged $25 million of humanitarian assistance.
The kidnapping of the eight Chinese, however, has shown that in order to protect its economic web, China might have to shed some of its studied neutrality. Chinese workers are not just being kidnapped in Iraq. They are also showing up among the dead in suicide attacks inside Israel.
Yet, if the kidnappers hope they can force China's hand, they are indulging in wishful thinking says Yu Ru Chen, editor-in-chief of World Journal.
"If the terrorists feel that because China supports Palestinians and other Third World causes they will be on the terrorists' side, they are mistaken," says Chen. "Anti-terrorism needs world cooperation, and that includes China."
If that co-operation means China will be drawn into America's war on terror as an ally, analysts say, then China will certainly demand something from America in return: Taiwan, or at least the suspension of American's special protector relationship with the island nation.
But for now, the Chinese community watches the events in Iraq as a human-interest story rather than a political chess game. "Those workers took the risk not because they were taking a political stance," says Leung of Sing Tao Daily. "They were just trying to make a living, and nobody deserves to be a hostage for that."
January 22, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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