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Shoulder to Shoulder with China as He Parades His Hypocrisy Round the World... Just What is Bush Using for a Brain?

245 February 2002

George has been on his travels again. His first stop was Japan, where he sparked a run on the battered local currency by confusing 'devaluation' and 'deflation' before brushing off some ingrate protesters with ancestral memories of what a real ground zero looks like.

Then it was South Korea, another country spineless enough to demur when the US president's 'axis of evil' is mentioned. Protesters in that part of the world - lots of them - were under the impression that part of that axis was in fact home to many thousands of their relations. They also have clear recollections of what a shooting war on their peninsula means.

Those in the south have no affection for the bampot regime in the north - emigration is strictly a one-way affair between the two Koreas - but they believe their 'sunshine' policy of slow, careful reconciliation was paying dividends before Bush nominated the northerners for destruction. Though they were too polite to say so, officials of the South Korean government are also a little concerned that a proper war on the northern terrorists could send several million refugees in their direction.

Still, no time for that. Onwards to Beijing and a chance for Bush to tell Jiang Zemin to stop selling weapons technology and get down to reaching a proper deal on arms proliferation. This is the same George Bush who has torn up the anti-ballistic missile treaty and tossed aside the Geneva Conventions, and who awarded himself a $48 billion (30 bn) increase in defense spending while his B-52s were still bombing persons unknown in Afghanistan.

The Chinese regime, it should go without saying, is in no position to lecture anyone. Certainly the largest totalitarian regime on earth, possibly the most corrupt, it has a near-Confucian appreciation of double standards. Everything the old men in Beijing do is for the sake of the people - whether the people like it or not. But such is the hypocrisy of China's smiling 'Communists' that they tend to expect a little understanding from other hypocrites. George wants us to stop selling weapons to North Korea and Iran? When will George stop selling weapons to Taiwan? George wants co-operation in the war on terrorism? When will George permit us to deal with our own terrorists in our own way, even if they happen to be a bunch of Tibetan monks? George wants peace and stability? When will George stop using the Afghan war as cover for the building of American bases all over Central Asia, right in our back yard?

The president's visit highlighted two clear contradictions. First, from the Chinese point of view it must seem a little rich to hear him lecture countries about their obligations to international stability when he refuses to hear a single objection to America's under-construction nuclear defense shield - the great destabilizer. Second, if the United States truly believes China is supplying the axis of evil with weapons and the means to make them, why all the smiles and banquets in Beijing last week? When the 'war on terror' was inaugurated there were to be no exemptions among the bad guys. In America's book, anyone who aided a terrorist was to be counted as a terrorist. So what changed?

After all, a recent CIA report accused China point-blank of selling so-called dual-use missile-related items, raw materials and assistance to Iran, North Korea and others. A spokesman for the agency said: 'We're making it clear that weapons of mass destruction, the missiles that deliver them - it's all part of an evil web. You better not be seen as contributing to the construction of that web.'

But those were not quite the words Bush used last week. Thirty years after Nixon visited China - such an auspicious precedent, as the Chinese might say - there the president was with his arm around Jiang, thanking China for its 'anti-terrorism solidarity' and promising to be its 'steady partner'. Why so?

It's not complicated. Whatever might have been said behind closed doors, the public truth is that the US is Beijing's second-largest trading partner, that General Motors has a $750 million stake in a car factory in Shanghai, that Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and every other significant American corporation has major investments in China. Sometimes even the language barrier cannot keep hypocrites apart.

Bush did mouth a few platitudes about human rights, of course, but that was more for the benefit of the Christian Right back home than for the hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners the Chinese regime executes every year. Indeed, what objection could the man who holds the all-time Texas gubernatorial record for judicial slaughter possibly have to state killings? And what are human rights, precisely, to the proprietor of Camp X-Ray?

The truth is that the US and China might squabble - a spy plane here, a spy ring there - but they are now part of the same small, select club. Bush might want China to restrict its involvement in the arms trade, but there is no chance of Beijing being added to the 'axis of evil' list, whatever its sins. Just as Russia's Vladimir Putin has been given a free, bloody hand in Chechnya in exchange for 'solidarity' with America's war, so Jiang has been given only a mild rebuke as a possible 'sponsor of terror.' The big corporations George knows so well would not have it otherwise.

So far, so predictable. Few people outside the United States still believe that anything in international relations is black and white. Many, even among America's allies, understand that Bush the Moralizer is a performance, a sham. The bad guys might be just as bad as he claims - September 11 was an unqualified statement, if ever there was one - but the good guys are rarely as good as they would have us believe. The horrors in Manhattan did not bestow virtue on the Bush White House. The best you could say about the president's trip to China was that it took a large amount of gall.

Has he really earned the right to lecture any country on responsible behavior? Was he, to reverse the argument, just cozying up to a branch office of the evil empire? Do you flaunt a $48bn increase in defense spending - and with it a power that is now beyond challenge - while telling others how to run their armed forces? Do you renew your friendship with your 'steady partner' while accusing him of arming your sworn enemies? Those Americans who are still paying attention could be forgiven for being confused.

After all, the important truth about the axis of evil is that nobody but America wants to play this game. In Beijing, Jiang offered tepid words of caution. France and Germany have both let it be known that their interest in open warfare against Iran or Iraq is nil. South Korea and Japan are dead against a military assault on Kim Jong Il's fantasy kingdom north of Seoul. Even plucky little Britain, having worked so hard to bring Iran in from the cold, quakes, ever so quietly, at the thought of cruise missiles landing on Tehran.

The Asians see dangerously unpredictable consequences if America's next adventures involve them. How is China supposed to react? What happens to Taiwan? What does the United States really intend to achieve if not, in the old jargon, greater hegemony?

The Europeans look at the Middle East, meanwhile, and wonder what Bush is using for a brain. With as much terrorism as any peacemaker could desire raging unchecked over Palestine - treated, indeed, to the malign neglect of the US - does this president really mean to wage war on both Iran and Iraq? And if he does not actually mean it, why say so?

There are two points of view which will not, at this rate, be reconciled. One is American - the belief that no person of goodwill could oppose the United States or doubt the justice of its cause after September 11. The second view encompasses much of Europe, most of the Middle East, large parts of Asia and swathes of the rest of the world. This view holds that America, in the shape of its president, is forfeiting all the moral credit it gained after the atrocities.

Then again, as last week's comedy made clear, George W Bush is still the same man he was on September 10.

Ian Bell
Published in the Sunday Herald (Scotland) 2002 SMG Sunday Newspapers Ltd

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