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Current Events

THIS session was devoted to a broad-ranging discussion of American foreign policy. It took in various issues, including Kosovo, Africa and the United Nations. But the main focus was America's attitude to China. Several participants regretted the recent course of events. China's inability to get into the WTO, the bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade and now the Cox report had all soured the mood between Washington and Beijing.


There are four challenges for the Transatlantic Alliance. The first is Kosovo. As President Clinton has indicated, in some ways the best story to emerge from the recent success was the unity of NATO. Kosovo has brought together the leaders of the western world. NATO had also put on a remarkable display of strength, with some 40,000 sorties flown. Now the challenge is how to make the peacekeeping work.

The second problem is China. The Cox report is a thorough exposure of the lax standards of security at America's nuclear laboratories under administrations from both parties. On the other hand, there is no evidence that China has done anything with this information; and since it is a signatory to the test ban treaty, it cannot test its new stolen technology. More generally, the policy of engagement seems to be working. Governor Bush has already said that he supports the extension of MFN to China. There is also some general bipartisan support for China's eventual membership of the WTO. The immediate problem is to control the recent deterioration in the relationship. The bombing of their embassy in Belgrade led to protests in Beijing, which the government did little to control. Meanwhile the charges of espionage seem to have persuaded some in Congress to push for stricter limits on China.

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The third issue is non-proliferation. The conflict between India and Pakistan has become especially worrying now that those two countries possess nuclear weapons. Russia's nuclear arsenal is a permanent source of concern, not least because it is tended by soldiers and scientists who have often not been paid.

And finally there is the great neglected continent of Africa. There are currently six wars in Africa, which receive scant attention in the West. Various leaders, notably Kabila, have proven disappointments. There are, however, some grounds for hope in two important countries. Nigeria, a country of enormous potential, has finally had a free election. And in South Africa, Mbeki has won a resounding victory, and may prove better at cleaning house than Mandela.


An American participant began the discussion with a brief overview of China. His central point was that politics and economics have proceeded along different tracks. Back in the 1970s, when Mao was in power, it seemed inconceivable that any form of liberalisation would happen without politics. Instead change came because of an underlying economic problem: China could not feed itself under communism. Since then, the Chinese have proved to be excellent entrepreneurs, but not particularly good manufacturers. One result is the problem of the highly inefficient state owned industries. The leadership seems committed to working this out, but will not tolerate more than 20 million unemployed. So whenever the number comes close to that level, there is likely to be some degree of political crackdown to keep things in order. On the other hand, the ongoing debate about whether China should devalue seems wrong. Thanks to the firewall around China's currency this is a purely internal issue.

Another American praised the general direction of the Administration's China policy. But he argued that it had been caught out by events. American Conservatives, needled by Taiwan, want China to replace the Soviet Union as an enemy. In

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fact, the Chinese Communist Party is more akin to the PRI in Mexico: it has no interest in exporting the faith. China is also surrounded by powerful countries. Indeed, Asia is like nineteenth century Europe. China does not want to help North Korea; it sees it as a buffer state. The Chinese were humiliated by Zhu's visit, when they thought that WTO membership was on offer. With only 20 long range nuclear weapons, they hardly present a threat. There is thus a need for statesmanship and reassurance. China was also mentioned by an international participant, who warned of a looming row over Tibet; and by a European who thought that it is vital that China begins to introduce a system of law. The panellist sympathised with the idea that a backlash against China seemed to be building. In America: he pointed out that there were moves afoot to stop exchanges of scientific information as well.

Two participants directed the panellist towards events in the Middle East. The panellist expressed cautious optimism about the transition of power in Israel, and also about the new government. The other issue raised was Iran. Here there had also been progress. But America is not going to let Iran into the tent of nations, until it renounces its support for terrorism. Iran also has to take a more responsible attitude towards both nuclear proliferation and the Middle-East peace process.

One participant asked about the United Nations. The panellist pointed out that the Security Council is still providing unsatisfactory leadership. Meanwhile America's ability to influence events and promote reform is severely limited by its refusal to pay its dues. The best hope might be if Europe and America, which together control more than 50% of the UN's budget, acted together more often.

An American participant expressed cautious optimism about the events in Kosovo. This did not convince one Russian speaker. There is an ugly triumphalism in the West, he felt. Victory validated a policy that did not deserve that title. NATO unity may now have been preserved, but it had been threatened. Much the

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same, he thought, could be said for the West's relations with his own country. The panellist immediately agreed that the West should not gloat about its victory; and that Kosovo provided yet another lesson in how the West and Russia could gain by sticking together.

One international participant agreed with the idea that Africa might become a more central part of international diplomacy. One prompt would be the growth of Aids. Out of the 33 million cases world-wide, 22 million are in Africa -- and the number is growing quickly. He also predicted that the push to forgive the debt of the poorest countries would become a millennial issue. But this made others nervous. Another speaker warned that the West's creditable desire to forgive the poorest sinners their debts might also mean that it fails to reward those countries such as Mozambique that have reformed themselves.