When China wake up...

28 September 1997

Until the voluntary dissolution of the Soviet Union from 1990-91, the Communist power and the United States dominated the world stage; now Washington is the sole superpower.

The direction of future world history, in my belief, will depend on the shifting relationship between Washington and Beijing. Recall what Napoleon said about China?

He said: "China? There lies a sleeping Giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes he will move the world."

Before I returned to New York after a short visit home, I gave a talk to students studying international relations at Universiti Malaya's Faculty of Arts on the same day Li Peng, the Prime Minister of China arrived in Kuala Lumpur for an official visit.

The flag of ChinaOn that Thursday morning (21 Aug), although the topic of my talk was The United Nations in the Unipolar World, I devoted at the end of my speech three short paragraphs on China and a decent amount of time it deserved during questions and answers.

It did not surprise me at all that China stirred keen interest. I was pleased by the reaction of the students, a lively group of young Malaysians, causing the lecture period to be extended by a good 40 minutes.

I said: "Lastly, I need to say this. Many people want to know what I think of China. I do not believe a Chinese imperium or empire will emerge for another half a century at least. If I were you I will be more worried about our country - as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said - becoming an 'alien nation' than about the Chinese danger.

"I do believe in Beijing's co-existence policy with its neighbours and the world at large. As we become more mature, Malaysians will share my view about the Chinese just as I believe the number of people all over the world, who think our planet is safer with the United Nations than without it, is growing."

Before I left for an another appointment at the Prime Minister's Department, I told Professor Mohamad Abu Bakar, who chaired the meeting (he invited me over), it had been a worthwhile visit for me. I believe I did manage to fire the imagination of those young Malaysians.

Whether one likes it or not China, first under Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and now Jiang Zemin, who is delicately juggling between free market and Marxism, is awakening, and it may be sooner than most people think possible. If China successfully implements "One country two systems", the communist rule and "socialism with Chinese characteristics" (read expanded free market), the time frame would decidedly be shorter.

Of the four prime ministers I dealt with, only Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra did not visit China as prime minister. He did however, visit China in his capacity as president of Perkim in the eighties. Tun Razak was followed in succession by Tun Hussein Onn and Dr Mahathir. All went to China as head of government and the ruling party, Umno and Barisan Nasional.

Richard Nixon, an expert on China, has this to say about the Chinese in his book, The Real War: "China's present leaders are statesmen with a keen sense of the world who think in global terms. They are communists. They are also Chinese. Since Mao's death they have seemed to grow less communist and more Chinese, less the prisoners of ideology and more pragmatic, less revolutionary and more traditional."

China, asserts Nixon, could become the most powerful nation on earth during the twenty first century.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the United Nations forces led by the Americans, assisted the South not only to halt the communist advance, but to drive the invaders back to the Chinese borders which caused China to enter the war and together with the North Koreans to capture Seoul. The UN forces regained Seoul, and an armistice was signed in 1953.

China became a member of the UN in 1971 replacing Taiwan which between 1945 and the accession of Beijing pretended that it was China. Korea remains divided but both Koreas are members of the UN.

This is an extract from my talk: "You, as students, teachers or academics and I, as a politician-cum-diplomat-and-reporter, know it is often wise to leave a few things unsaid.

"So much has been said and written about the UN that maybe there is little to be gained by what I have to say today. Nonetheless, I would like to share with you some of my thoughts and observations about the world body.

"When a person talks about the UN two questions arise without fail. First, has the world body been a disappointment and second, whether it has achieved the aim of its founders? Depending on one's perspective, the UN has been both a disappointment as well as a success.

"The United Nations was a success when it stopped the communist aggression in Korea in the fifties; it failed in a spectacular fashion in Bosnia. The United Nation was a big disappointment as was the European Union; it only acted after the United States had taken the lead. The United Nations was a winner in 1963 when it endorsed the formation of Malaysia, and before that when it sanctioned Indonesia's claim over Irian Barat or West New Guinea and not long ago, the Desert Storm or the Gulf War.