Copenhagen, and why Beijing should not over-play its hand

The Copenhagen Climate Conference showed the world that China was willing to use its power aggresively. But although it walked away without having given an inch, Beijing should worry about over-playing a strong hand

Before the Copenhagen
Climate Conference, the world knew that China mattered. After it, the
world’s attention has turned to how Beijing
uses its new found global potency. The world’s rising power has cast itself in
the role of a realist power with a knack for hardball diplomacy, and seems to get
everything it wants all the time. At Copenhagen,
it walked away without having given an inch.

At first sight, this
looks like a problem for those facing Chinese assertiveness. Trying to find a
negotiating strategy to counter Beijing is
firmly on the agenda of European leaders, gathered in Brussels for a meeting of the European
conference. But it isn’t just those European leaders that need to draw lessons
from that fated conference. China
itself might need to start caring about how Copenhagen made it appear to the rest of the

Chinese rigidity at Copenhagen was personified by He Yafei, China’s chief negotiator. He stuck
obdurately to an inflexible line when others might have sought common ground. If
goal was to adhere to its rigid position, committing nothing beyond its own
domestic policy goals, it is clearly the victor. In terms of public diplomacy,
however, the signs are that the Copenhagen
approach could turn into a long-term miscalculation for Beijing.

China has become used
to playing its hand aggressively (some would say over-playing) – standing firm
on principles it has set by itself, while resisting any real or potential challenge
from abroad. The list of issues and circumstances where China has taken a loud
and defiant stand is long: Europeans had their share of Beijing’s wrath over
Tibet – from Germany and France to Denmark; India has faced the sudden high
profile reiteration of Chinese territorial claims; and the US has run the
gauntlet too – never has a US president come to Beijing with such conciliatory
language, never has he walked away with so little.

So far China has not seemed
to care what others think. The sentencing on Christmas Day of a high profile
but soft-spoken dissident, Mr Liu Xiaobo, looked like a defiant slap in the
face to advocates of democratic governance. Executing a British drug-smuggler
without so much as a nod to a psychiatric evaluation – which was possible even under
Chinese law – also illuminated China’s
capacity to simply put on the sovereignty blinkers. Human rights advocates,
incensed by China’s open
contempt, now sit alongside environmentalists who despair at Beijing’s
sabotage of international targets and counter-proliferation experts who rail
against China’s
resistance on arms controls issues.

The abrasiveness of China’s rise as
a hard power is also starting to annoy realist neighbours who have otherwise
gained from its economic growth. Japan,
for instance, resents the persistent Chinese exploitation of gas resources in
what Tokyo
deems to be its own maritime economic zone. Even Mr Lee Kuanyew, Singapore’s former Prime Minister and a
consistent fan of China’s
assertive approach, has come out for continued military reliance on the US. If China continues
to give nothing on climate change, counter-proliferation or monetary issues, advocates
of constructive engagement with China as a responsible stakeholder have less
and less to show for their approach.

Copenhagen can be seen as a test case. China has sat comfortably among the so-called
Annex B countries, a collection of “developing economies” with few obligations
under the Kyoto
protocol. It has never signaled any disposition towards internationally agreed
targets on emission reduction. It had already obtained from the APEC summit
last November – along with the United States
– a resolution that Copenhagen
would not result in legally binding commitments. Meanwhile Japan and Europe
had always committed more than anybody else in the hope of setting themselves up
as role models. As is clear now, this approach was doomed, leaving Europe in
particular unable to commit to a grand bargain in Copenhagen that it would have had to carry

But China is not
uninterested in climate change. It has its own very severe environmental
problems. It also remains keen on emission reductions in so far as its
export-led model might be able to inundate the world with cheap solar panels
and wind farms. But by playing hardball so ruthlessly, rather than finding a
role as a constructive negotiator, it got an immediate outcome that it wanted
at the expense of a wider ability to wield soft power.

If China is so obstructive
in soft security areas such as climate change, one can guess what its posture
will be on hard security issues. We have known for a long time that China does not like intrusive verification on
any issue, and does not subscribe to legally binding commitments unless
necessary (it took thirteen years to complete China’s WTO entry talks). Its
vision of the international system has always been defensive, based on
self-interest and resting on a narrow vision of China’s long-term position in
the world.

So far, Beijing has been largely immune
to what others think about it for the simple reason that it is used to being
listened to. Twenty-first century China registers on almost any
issue. China
can achieve the remarkable feat of shooting down a ballistic missile in its terminal
phase. It can build roads and airports right up to the Line of Control with India. It has
modernised its Leninist system and turned it into an economic behemoth. Beijing has established a
huge and well-coordinated presence in areas like the internet, the mass media, and
traditional and public diplomacy. A Bank of China change on reserve ratios for domestic banks can move
Wall Street up or down. And of course, as the world’s number one emission problem, China counts also
as a major part of any climate change solution.

international fire power has been bolstered by a large, diversified following among other nations with short-term goals
not served by wider global interests. They do not want to upset the
international system any more than China wants to lead it; they just
want to avoid the costs of either contributing much to it or to the annoyance
of additional rules and oversight.

In essence, what we
have at the onset of the twenty-first century is a China that is regaining the role it
had in the sixteenth century. It seems to be choosing a Sino-centric path,
neither for the international order, nor against it, but rather alongside it
and not caring about anyone else.

The rest of the world has
tried to reassure itself that there is a brittleness to the new China,
with its top-down system and entrenched corruption. Waving fat cheque books at
resource-rich countries or shouting down defiant governments is not exactly an
exercise in soft power. So far this soft power has not been borne out by China’s ability
to get what it wants.

It is doubtful,
however, whether the rest of the world, and particularly a beleaguered group of
industrialised countries, can carry the burden of governing the world alone. If
persists with the way it is going, we will witness a decline in international governance
and a renaissance for geopolitical conflict. That will suit few countries, and Copenhagen has made it clear that this is what an
obstructive Beijing
means. China
cares deeply about its own rise; the rest of us care deeply about its
consequences. China
now needs to start caring about not over-playing an admittedly strong hand.

Francois Godement is a senior policy fellow at
the European Council on Foreign Relations and
Director of the Asia Centre at Sciences Po.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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