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Rise of China fitting topic for foreign policy conference

We have so much to learn about how the world's second-biggest economy views itself.

Last weekend was the 39th anniversary of President Richard Nixon's historic opening of China. It was particularly fitting, then, that this year's Camden Conference should fall on the same weekend with the theme "The Challenges of Asia," and that the conference's keynote speaker, Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, had cut his diplomatic teeth as Nixon's interpreter for that memorable visit.

Asked about what he remembered most about the visit, Ambassador Freeman said he was struck by how primitive everything was. When the State Department plane landed in Shanghai, the only sound at the airport came from all the birds -- there seemed to be no other planes. However, he added that members of the U.S. delegation, particularly Henry Kissinger, were most surprised to find that Mao Zedong and his foreign minister Zhou Enlai shared a common strategic framework with the Americans.

Far from being out of touch with global issues, the Chinese were well-versed, and welcomed the opportunity to begin a dialogue that would, in a few short years, return China to a place as one of the major powers in the world.

The economic story of the past 20 years has been the rise of China -- from relative economic obscurity to passing Japan as the world's second-largest economy in 2010. It is a remarkable story, and it was the appropriate centerpiece of this year's Camden Conference, an annual foreign policy educational symposion that takes place each February in the Camden Opera House.

We must be careful not to call this the rise of China, according to Professor Lanxin Xiang of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. He noted that the Chinese simply view this as the return to their historic place in the world. If one understands this perspective, then China's actions in regard to issues like Taiwan and its sensitivities to its global status are easier to fathom.

Interestingly, most who commented on China believe the West has little to fear militarily from China. They view China as having no sense of manifest destiny, nor any interest in spreading its ideology.

In fact, China's commercial success in many areas of the world has come precisely because its interests are purely commercial and, unlike the United States, China attaches no political conditions to its business interests.

The problem for China comes from the imperative for growth to stave off social unrest. The bargain that Deng Xiaoping and his successors have made with their people is to trade economic opportunity for tolerance of the current autocratic governance structure.

In practice this means that the economy must grow at least 6 percent each year or, in its calculus, face social unrest. Government is, in this sense, responsive. Yet at the same time the Chinese autocracy is brittle and sensitive to any perceived threats, resulting in over-reaction to dissent.

We were treated to a glimpse of how a Western journalist tries to manage these governmental sensitivities. Hannah Beech, Asia bureau chief of Time magazine (and a 1995 graduate of Colby), told of her numerous run-ins with Chinese government officials, complete with "self-criticism" sessions.

Yet some of these officials occasionally let the bureaucratic veil fall. Beech described the time when an official who had been chastising her for overstating China's problem with SARS went off the record to ask how bad it really was as he was concerned about his children.

The wrap-up for the conference was given by Ambassador Tom Pickering (a Bowdoin graduate) and the acknowledged dean of American diplomacy. Ambassador Pickering believes deeply in the power of diplomacy. He treated us to a "without notes" discussion of the seven principal foreign policy challenges he envisions over the next 10 years.

It was the tour de force of an able, committed, and, after all these years, still optimistic diplomat. He did let his sense of humor outrun his optimism in only one situation: Iraq, where he compared the current government's situation to the man who leapt off the Empire State Building and was heard to say "29 floors down and it's going well."

There was more, of course – Korea, India and Middle East issues were all on the agenda.

I recommend the conference website – www.camdenconference.org – which has just added a helpful teaching guide to its content. Finally, there were 900 people at the conference at the Opera House and the remote sites in Rockland and in Ellsworth.

However, southern Maine was woefully underrepresented. The conference attempted a video-link two years ago at USM, but not enough of us turned up to make it sustainable. This is something we in the southern part of the state should revisit. There is much to learn.