It's time to get tough with China. On issue after issue — human rights, trade, Darfur, Iran — the leaders in Beijing have been playing a destructive role. And now, in Burma, they are blocking the United Nations from imposing sanctions on a military regime that is brutally repressing pro-democracy protests.
China's enormous economic and military power makes it largely immune from international opinion. But not entirely. There is one thing it wants desperately: a trouble-free Olympic Games next year. That's where China is vulnerable, so that's the pressure point the international community has to use. A threat to boycott the games could be the only way to get the attention of Beijing's commissars.
Unfortunately, President Bush has already agreed to attend the games, but in Europe, open talk of an Olympic boycott is growing louder. As Edward McMillan-Scott, the vice president of the European Parliament, told Reuters: "China is the puppet master of Burma (and) the Olympics is the only real lever we have to make China act. The civilized world must seriously consider shunning China by using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable."
Reluctantly, we agree. We have long believed in the doctrine of "constructive engagement" with totalitarian regimes. The more trade, the more exchanges, the more communication the better. That's why we strongly approved of Columbia University's invitation to the Iranian leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The best course was to let him speak, let him hear, let him learn.
But China refuses to play by the rules of civilized nations. Instead of opening up its political system, it's cracking down on dissent. Instead of trading fairly, it's manipulating its currency. Worst of all, China's insatiable thirst for energy has corrupted all of its international relations.
Take Iran. Beijing's trade with Tehran will soon reach $20 billion a year, and China is becoming the biggest consumer of Iranian oil. To safeguard those supplies, Beijing (along with Russia) has blocked every attempt by the United Nations to punish Tehran for defying world opinion and developing its nuclear capacity.
Then there's Darfur, the Sudanese region ravaged by civil conflict. China consumes 60 percent of Sudan's oil exports, and until recently, has frustrated international attempts at restoring order and aiding refugees.
But that changed when international celebrities like actress Mia Farrow started referring to the "genocide Olympics" and threatening a boycott. Recently, China endorsed a new international force of 26,000 peacekeepers for Darfur and is contributing 300 engineers to build roads and dig wells.
Chinese officials insist there is no connection between their change of heart and the Olympic issue, but that's absurd. "The Olympics are serving a very useful purpose," Princeton Lyman, an African expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told USA Today. "The Chinese feel the pressure of international opinion. The term 'genocide Olympics' really rattled them."
So rattle them some more. China is one of Burma's major trading partners, buying oil, natural gas, lumber and gems — at steeply discounted prices — from the military junta. In turn, it supplies Burma's leaders with modern weaponry and infusions of cash to support their lavish lifestyles.
"There is no doubt in my mind," says Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, "that if the Chinese authorities decided to put pressure on Burma, things will change instantaneously."
One obvious option for China: withdraw objections to stiffer U.N. sanctions against Rangoon. Another: offer sanctuary to Burma's leaders should they leave the country.
China hates international pressure, and will continue to resent it, but the Darfur example offers some hope. And behind the scenes, China seems to have encouraged Burma's leaders to meet this week with a U.N. envoy, Ibrahim Gambari. Perhaps the boycott buzz is already having some impact.
The other source of hope was the scene in Rangoon, where cell phone cameras and Internet hookups allowed the protestors to show the outside world what was actually happening inside a fiercely repressive country. Yes, Burma cracked down on the dissenters and blacked out the news — just as China did in Tiananmen Square 18 years ago. But across this well-wired globe the trend is all in one direction, toward more information, not less; more channels of communication, not fewer.
China wanted the Olympics to show that it belongs to this modern and open world. But if it continues to coddle dictators and guzzle their oil, calls to boycott the games should grow louder.
President Bush should cancel his reservations in Beijing.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.