Photo of Kishore Mahbubani Kishore Mahbubani
Rumsfeld's Home Truths on China
The Asian Wall Street Journal, 7 June 2005

To hear some of his critics, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should have devoted his speech in Singapore last Saturday to . . . well, we're not sure what. He's certainly being criticized for being candid about the recent surge in Beijing's military spending, and how this trend, coupled with China's lack of political freedom, may be a cause for concern.

It was a conference on security in Asia. China's military is already the third largest in the world, and it is expanding at a rate that will allow it to project power not just in the region, but around the world. Was there a more worthy topic?

His comments led within a day to a flood of introspective articles on how U.S. "hawks" are now turning their sights on China, and how Asians are fretting that they may now have to take sides. The Australian Financial Review opined that Sino-U.S. ties should not "be left to Rumsfeld and his factional allies, including neo-conservative remnants among the administration's unreconstructed hawks."

At the conference, Kishore Mahbubani, who was once Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations, even warned Mr. Rumsfeld that his views might lead people to think that the U.S. wants to destabilize China. The diplomat was later further quoted as observing, "My feeling is that the Chinese are alarmed. For them the nightmare scenario is for the U.S. to start believing that this tide of democracy should reach China."

Heaven forefend. Surely, Mr. Mahbubani must be confusing the Chinese government with the Chinese people, who presumably would not consider it a nightmare if their leaders consulted them occasionally. As for democracy's tide, it is difficult to see anything new in that. American governments since at least Harry Truman have made promotion of democracy abroad the stated policy of the United States, and the present administration more than any other has pinned its colors to this mast.

Perhaps it is best to rewind the tape and see what exactly Mr. Rumsfeld said in his speech and subsequent question-and-answer session that was so unacceptable.

His remark that China's economy and military had expanded, but "growth in political freedom has not yet followed" was but a statement of the obvious. His view that Beijing "will need to embrace some form of a more open and representative government if it is to fully achieve the political and economic benefits to which its people aspire" is an opinion that many, including us, have held long before this administration came into power.

It is faulty logic however to conclude that those stating these facts or holding these views must by definition be hatching some grand plan to derail China's emergence in the world. As the secretary himself quickly responded to Mr. Mahbubani, "the implication that freedom means destabilization, I believe, is incorrect."

Far from being China-bashers, those who argue that it is in the Chinese government's own interest to respect the rights of its people, and that the men and women who make up the Chinese Communist Party today should put this evolution in motion, are giving both government and party advice they need to hear. Those who lavish empty praise upon Beijing may be saying what a few authoritarians prefer to hear, but hardly are thinking of the consequences.

Likewise, those who dare air potential difficulties in public also do China a greater favor, as it is better to debate matters in the open than allow them to fester unattended. At any rate, this seems to be the view of Mr. Rumsfeld, who told the conference's participants, "transparency is critical to fostering trust and diffusing suspicion."

In this regard, Mr. Rumsfeld revealed that a forthcoming Pentagon report concludes that China's military expenditures are "much higher" than the already robust 12% increase in the defense budget Beijing admitted to this year. China is arming, moreover, at a time when it faces no threat from anyone.

China's leaders may feel that the country's large foreign exchange earnings are best spent on expanding military power, with advanced technology and, as the secretary noted, a "significant rollout of ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan." But has Beijing shown itself to be so benign that its neighbors need not be concerned about its growing ability to work its will in Asia?

Last modified on 23 July, 2007 by Wang Deliang