How to deal with a more assertive China?

Commentary

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.

Thirdly, 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 goals. 

This piece was first published in Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

 

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.

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