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 world.
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 China's 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 alone.
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.
This 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 China 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.
Read more on: Asia
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.