Recently, with Jonas Parello Plesner, I wrote a policy paper in which we suggested that China’s reaction to Libya was something that reflected the glimmers of a new foreign policy direction for China. While I have since had some push back from foreign friends who tell me that we are focusing too much on one instance to read a bigger trend, I listened to an interesting presentation by a Chinese friend the other day in which he berated his leadership for their incapacity to act on the international stage.
The presentation came during a two-day conference on what Afghanistan was going to look like post- the US withdrawal. The event itself was a small discussion with long presentations and short discussions. Two elements leapt out at me: first was the fact that over two days of discussions (with mostly Chinese speakers) there was next to no outline of what a Chinese strategy towards Afghanistan (or Pakistan) might look like, and second, the final presentation by a Chinese friend that was a full-on broadside at China’s inactive foreign policy. In no uncertain terms he said that non-interference was another way of saying, “do nothing at all.”
With specific reference to Libya, he praised the successful evacuation of Chinese citizens, but also quoted Churchill’s comments after Dunkirk, that “wars are not won by evacuations.” In fact, he was rather condemning of the fact that it had taken the Chinese government so long to reach out to the rebel’s side when it was clear that they were headed for victory in the long run. Gadaffi was a busted flush, and the Chinese government (that has never liked Gadaffi for various reasons – his support of Taiwan, his former foreign minister’s comments about Chinese colonialism in Africa and Gadaffi’s own comments comparing what he was doing to Tiananmen Square), should have taken less than 80 days to get around to reaching out to the other side.
And the problems were not solely linked to indecision: there was also a very basic lack of capacity within the government in foreign policy terms. People had no idea about the Sunni-Shia difference and there was incomprehension about why the Iranians and the Saudis hated each other so much. This is something I have also heard in industry, where the big State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), have difficulties figuring out whom to send abroad to run their factories or branches since their staff have very little experience with the world. The government has been advocating for companies to reach out to gain managerial capacity and expertise from American or European counterparts.
Overall, his sense (and that of most participants) was that China had generally chosen to abrogate its policy in the Middle East and North Africa since it was a bit too far from home and it was a European/American sphere of interest. While China may have interests there, there was no particular interest in the body politic to actually go out and do anything about this. Instead, the focus was domestic, or more generally focused on waiting to see how things shake out over time while continuing to pursue new investments where they can be advanced.
But the problem with this is two-fold: first of all, this means China will wander into more situations like Libya where almost $20 billion has been written off and 30,000+ people have been evacuated at great expense and effort at short notice. And/or secondly, China will be obliged to simply go around paying people off to protect their interests in the world. The problem with this of course is that pay-offs will simply attract more predators. After it was discovered that the Italian government would tend to pay for its people who were being kidnapped in Iraq or North Africa, Italians were more actively targeted.
The discussion did not particularly come to an absolute conclusion. Instead, it circled around a group of serious thinkers who all seemed to agree with the broad conclusion that China’s foreign policy needed adjustment and in a more proactive direction. While a fellow foreign participant who was new to discussions with China was quite alarmed by this, in many ways it struck me as a potentially positive shift, showing China’s growing willingness to mature as a foreign policy actor. This was not quite the “responsible stakeholder” that Robert Zoellick had called for, but it was the inklings of a China that saw its interests lay beyond its borders as well. How it advances them, however, will be the subject of discussion for the next five years at least.
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