How to deal with a more assertive China?

Western governments need to show they are getting serious. Otherwise we will end up with another Copenhagen

For many
journalists, the presence of the China’s foreign minister and
Hillary’s absence at Wehrkunde will be seen as evidence of the emergence of a
post-American world where rising powers take their place in the cockpit of
global security.  But Yang Jiechi’s presence
will probably have the opposite effect: rather
than strutting his stuff like Putin he will frustrate both sides of the
Atlantic by stressing China’s
reluctance to take over the burdens of global leadership. 

On the one
hand, Obama’s high hopes for a constructive G2 are fading.  After bending over back-wards to accommodate China’s sensitivities on the Dalai Lama and
human rights he still has little show on China’s
currency, Afghanistan or Iran.  The disappointment for Europeans came earlier
when Beijing
unceremoniously cancelled the EU China summit in December 2008. 

But it was China’s performance at Copenhagen
that shocked Western leaders into re-assessing their approach to China.  Beijing
determination to avoid binding targets for itself was no surprise.  But leaders such as Angela Merkel were surprised
at the way Beijing worked to prevent even targets
for the developed world being agreed – in case China itself constrained in future.
And they were distressed at Beijing’s
overt agenda of building a spoiling coalition of developing nations. President
Obama felt personally betrayed when he found himself negotiating with a junior Chinese
diplomat in one side of the conference centre while the Chinese PM met with the
Brazilians and the Indians on the other side of the building. 

Until recently,
Western capitals hoped that integrating China
into global institutions would encourage Beijing
to identify its interests with the preservation of the international system. If
we do not open the exiting order to Chinese participation, they said, China will try
to overthrow it and develop an alternative order of its own.  But seen from Beijing, there has never been a binary
choice.  China has always sought to take advantage
of the economic advantages existing order while protecting its own room for
manoeuvre.  Rather than being
transformed by global institutions, China’s sophisticated multilateral
diplomacy is changing the global order itself.

Firstly, it has played a more active role in multilateral institutions
such as the WTO and the United Nations.  Ten
years ago, China won 43 per
cent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations compared to Europe’s 78 per cent.  But last year, the EU won
only 52 per cent to China’s
to 82 per cent.  In parallel, China created its own “minilateral” institutions
such as the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation and the East Asian Community to
re-assure its neighbours of its peaceful intent and shut the United States
out of its region’s development.  Finally,
China has tried to lessen international
pressure on its client states (such as North
Korea and Burma)
by creating Chinese-led multilateral forums such as the six-party talks which give
it control of the policy process.

Since the 1990s, China
has followed a pragmatic strategy of trying in equal measure to avoid confrontation,
and taking on additional international burdens. It has adopted an approach of defensive
multilateralism – joining global institutions in order to protect China’s
interests but not to support the broader goals of the institutions themselves. Until
recently this was not seen a disruptive force because China exercised its power
cautiously – for example on the UN Security Council it would often complain but
abstain rather than voting against western resolutions unless they touched on
Taiwan.  But in the last couple of years
– as Copenhagen
showed – its approach has changed. 

On the security council, Beijing vetoed
resolutions on Burma in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008. In the world
trade talks in Doha, it worked with India to derail
talks on a global trading system.  And on
Iran, China has used its role in the P5+1 process to
slow action on sanctions, while increasing its own trade and investment in Iran.   China’s
actions since the financial crisis have cast even the previous, modest Chinese
steps towards greater cooperation on issues such as North
Korea or Sudan
in a different light. A more powerful China,
dealing with what it sees as a weakened United States, no longer feels the
same need to make compromises and holds fewer fears about the consequences of
deterioration in relations with the West.

Western policy
has not caught up with changes in Beijing.
Though leaders have been jolted by recent developments, their policies are still
premised on an ever-deepening process of economic and political engagement and
integration alongside, in the case of the United States, a military hedge.
While we need to engage China
on areas of shared interest, it is time for western governments to adopt a more
assertive approach; one which might preserve the bias towards liberal values in
the international system.  Rather than
asking ‘how can we encourage China
to be more liberal?’ we need to ask another question: ‘how can we make the
liberal order China-proof?’

The first step
is ending the “something for nothing approach” of unconditional
integration.  If we open our markets to China or invite
it into global institutions, western engagement needs to be reciprocated with
concrete Chinese actions. 

Secondly, liberal
powers such as the EU and US need to get much better at acting in concert and
breaking up illiberal coalitions in international institutions. If Beijing is going to block forceful collective action in
favor of lowest-common-denominator compromises, the United States and the Europeans
must be willing to let this play out in the eyes of global public opinion. China can then
face the choice of whether it is willing to pay a reputational price.

western countries need to focus more diplomatic energy on integrating “swing
states” as members of the liberal coalition – India, Indonesia, South Africa,
Brazil – and willingness to provide expanded economic, technological, and trade
advantages within the liberal bloc.

This does not
mean moving away from a policy of engaging China, but it does mean engaging it
in a different way.  When China’s top
diplomat comes to Wehrkunde he should be greeted with more than Bavarian beer
and sausages.  Western governments need
to show that they are getting serious, that Beijing will not be allowed to free-ride on
global institutions while simultaneously undermining their most fundamental

This piece was first published in Süddeutsche Zeitung. 


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


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