In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Will China re-define great power politics?

Posted by seumasach on April 1, 2010

New Europe

21st February, 2010

China is presenting its ascent not as a power shift, but as a paradigm shift. It claims that its rise will be different from other powers in the past and sets an example for a fundamental revision of the nature of great power politics. Instead of tragic rivalry for hegemony, it expects to develop strategic relationships that allow all countries to gain and build a stable and prosperous world order. This could herald the end of a history that has been characterized by hegemonic wars and hostile balancing strategies. It could pave the way for stronger institutionalized international cooperation on economic, environmental, and security affairs. In the next three months, New Europe and the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS) will analyze how China is affecting global politics, starting with an introductory essay this week.

Democratizing international relations

When China recovered from nearly two centuries of turmoil and humiliation, its quest for unity, development and status was expected to be long and difficult. In the years after the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949, Chinese leaders sought to secure the feeble sovereignty and to obtain international recognition. From the very beginning, China proposed a set of new rules that had to allow powers to coexist peacefully. Mao Zedong stated that China was “willing to have friendly co-operation with the people of all countries and to resume and expand international trade in order to develop production and promote economic prosperity.” In 1954, premier Zhou Enlai promulgated Five Principles for Peaceful Coexistence, including mutual respect for sovereignty, non-aggression, equality, mutual benefit, and non-interference. The promotion of these diplomatic ideals were aiming both at stimulating cooperation against aggression by the superpowers and at gaining support for the long-term goal of creating a multipolar world order in which all countries could freely develop.

This thinking of democratizing international relations was fairly consistently upheld throughout the following decades. Yet, China was well aware that to change the rules of the game, the structure of international politics had to change first. As long as the global and regional Asian order were dominated by assertive superpowers, Beijing felt that it was left no other option but to complement the idealistic pledge for peaceful coexistence with realist balancing. The first fifteen years of the People’s Republic’s foreign policies were characterized by an inconvenient alliance with the Soviet Union, driven by inconsistent ideological camaraderie and the shared desire to keep the United States out of continental Asia. Underlying tensions came to the surface as soon as Stalin passed away in 1954 and escalated into an overt clash when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.

The “leaning on one side” strategy was replaced with a relentless campaign to oppose the two sides, by encouraging rebel movements to resist imperialism. “Guard against the tiger at the back door while repulsing the wolf at the gate,” China advised to the newly independent countries. It moved from balancing to confrontation, and from confrontation back to balancing in the early seventies, when it turned to the United States for a joint struggle against the Soviet Union. After the Cold War ended, the People’s Republic was relieved from one challenger. But it still felt constrained in its pursuit of status and security because of America’s enduring support to Taiwan, its military presence in Asia’s maritime margins, and its criticism of China’s domestic political transition. It was at that stage that Beijing re-launched its pledge for a multipolar world order in which aggressive unilateral policies by the superpower would be replaced by bilateral and multilateral consultation between all major powers on an equal footing. It also sided with the developing countries to oppose the neoliberal norms that America was imposing. Despite the shifting alliances during the past decades, China has thus not only upheld its doctrine of peaceful coexistence, it also maintained a constant pattern of realist power politics that can be summarized as supporting the third world, trying to foster pragmatic cooperation with the intermediary powers of second world and obstructing the hegemony of the first world.


A critical juncture

China is now moving into a critical phase at which these two features of its diplomacy are challenged. First, the structure of the international order is changing with the fading of America’s unipolar moment. “The decline of U.S. primacy and the subsequent transition to a multipolar world are inevitable,” Wang Jisi, one of China’s leading strategists, wrote in 2004. Not only has the prowess of the lonely superpower been severely affected by the expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its economic clout too has comparatively declined faster than ever before and its soft power is no longer uncontested. China recognizes that America is likely to remain the dominant player, but the second world – that now comprises most regional powers like India, Brazil, South Africa, Russia, Japan and the large European states – is poised to gain influence. Moreover, the third world has gained autonomy and is more assertive in defending its sovereignty or in making value out of its natural resources. As important as the transition of the international structure is the awareness that China has transformed itself. Its comprehensive national power, an indicator used by Chinese scholars to aggregate economic, political and military sources of power, has climbed up onto the fourth rank, behind the United States, Japan and Germany. As its economic interests abroad are expanding rapidly, so will the pressure increase to safeguard them more proactively.

It is at such a critical juncture that many emerging powers in the past relinquished their resistance against imperialist policies by gradually starting to apply the very strategies themselves: the use of coercion to chase unequal economic gains, the creation of spheres of influence, and formation of alliances to prevent hostile powers from obstructing these ventures. It has been suspected that China too will inevitably go down this road. Yet, Beijing once more steps up its efforts to show that its contribution to international politics in the new era will be benign and constructive. In the late 1990s, it introduced the idea of the “Shanghai Spirit” and the “New Security Concept”, a new model of regional cooperation that was not based on alliances, but on open cooperation, with due respect to the interests of the other whiles seeking to fulfil one’s own strategic interests. The New Security Concept, which emphasized among others, “that all countries should transcend differences in ideology and social system, discard the mentality of cold war and power politics and refrain from mutual suspicion and hostility” and that “all countries should meet the objective needs of social development in the era of globalization, respect each other’s security interests and create conditions for others’ security while ensuring their own security interests with a view to achieving common security.” In 2005, Beijing launched its idea of “peaceful development” that contained the following cardinal principles: promoting world peace through its own development, achieving development by relying on itself while persisting in the policy of opening-up and striving to achieve mutually beneficial common development with other countries.

Five pitfalls

Against a long history of rising and demising hegemonic or imperial powers, China’s ascent thus far appears to stand as an exception. It is remarkable how the juggernaut managed to neutralize frictions and to temper distrust. The belief of shaping a cooperative world order also seems to be deeply rooted in top leaders’ thinking. Yet, there are five main pitfalls lying ahead that could derail China’s constructive posturing.

The first one is the arrogance trap. Especially in the last two years, China has given a rough time to the West. It scorned developed countries’ proposals at the climate summit in Copenhagen, criticized them for irresponsible financial policies and even more for their alleged protectionism. The US in particular takes a lot of the blame. Beijing’s fuming response to the dispute about Google, the arms deliveries to Taiwan and the invitation for the Dalai Lama to visit the White House all demonstrate that it will stand strong whenever it feels humiliated by Washington. But Europe too has to come to grips with China’s new assertiveness. Many Europeans were shocked after Beijing executed a British citizen in December last year. Many European officials report that their Chinese counterparts now have a habit to lecture the EU on issues ranging from human rights to government procurement procedures.

Many of China’s frustrations are nothing new. The difference is that compared to a struggling revolutionary China in the past, a rapidly rising China with an outspoken opinion attracts more attention and is more able to defend its interests. Faltering Western countries, uncertain about their own future position in world affairs, perceive a growing power that espouses different values as a challenge or even as offensive. But perceptions do matter. In the eyes of many western countries, China is divesting itself of its traditional “keeping-a-low-profile” diplomacy, and while its leadership aspires a “constructive profile” it now risks getting an “offensive profile”. Such offensive posturing will undoubtedly trigger countermoves and even risk to spiral out of control if it impedes pragmatic cooperation.

A second challenge is the multilateralism bottleneck. Beijing is increasingly making use of international and regional organizations to use exert its influence. It has also embraced the G-20 as a new platform for developing the rules of the game for a new international order. This could be a good thing because it allows China to advance its interests in a peaceful way. China could even act as an intermediary negotiator between the developed world and the developing world. But in practice the People’s Republic still tends to work with the majority of poor countries to promote norms and standards that often menace the interests of the minority of developed countries. In regard to human rights for example, there has been no convergence whatsoever between China and the EU in the framework of the United Nations. In the specialized committees of the World Trade Organization, China almost always sided with the third world. If this predicament persists, multilateral cooperation risks to become ineffective and even to undermine the prospect of inclusive global governance. This will block another potential avenue for cooperation between the great powers.

Third, China’s foreign policies will be determined more by threats than by incentives. Even if Beijing thinks that it can gain from cooperation, for with example Europe, it will pay more attention to what it could loose to other powers. Take the case of Africa. Many high-ranking decision makers have come to understand that China needs collaboration with Europe to safeguard its long-term economic interests. They also understand that the EU’s good governance agenda and even some aspects of the responsibility to protect (R2P) could benefit China’s security. But if China would attach some conditions to its economic relations with African countries, it could loose influence to pragmatic peers like India that tend bother less about good governance. Likewise, China will continue to be reluctant to help stabilizing Afghanistan and its neighbourhood as long as the United States encircles the People’s Republic with a network of military bases, provides military aid to Taiwan or builds strategic alliances that could be used to contain the People’s Republic. Here again Beijing does recognize the benefits of cooperation, but it is held back because it does not trust the future intentions of a possible challenger.

Fourth, there is the need for natural resources. To a large extent China’s recent diplomatic pragmatism has been the consequence of its dependence on foreign export markets. As long as it needs export oriented industries to maintain social stability, this will generate interest in an open international market and even in collectively maintaining global common goods. But this liberal posture will be increasingly at odds with the ambition to secure raw materials. Despite massive investments in making industries more efficient and ambitious policies to replace polluting coal centrals with clean energy, China’s dependence on raw materials from abroad will further increase. This pits it against many other countries that are too slow in reducing their own consumption or others than still need to start their industrialization. Even though China has relied for most of its supplies on the international market, it still tends to perceive the international energy and raw materials market as a zero-sum-game.

Finally, there is no real internal agreement on the meaning of China’s peaceful development doctrine. As long as the current generation of leaders remains in charge, they will likely continue to stick to a very benevolent interpretation that identifies China’s stability to a large degree with the stability of the international society. But a new generation of decision makers and opinion leaders increasingly argues that China should stand up and no longer avoid confrontation. They are supported by an ever-growing group of angry young Chinese who are using the internet to ask for a more assertive attitude towards the West and competitors elsewhere in the world. Several realists also see the peaceful development policy just as a matter of temporary strategic self-restraint. “The first ten to twenty years of this century present China an important strategic window of opportunity for its development,” former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan asserted,  “While taking development as our number one priority, we must grasp the opportunities, deepen reform, open the country still wider to the outside world, promote development and maintain stability.” But there is now consensus on how China should behave if this window were to close or if China manages to consolidate its leading position. This could be more of the same, but for the same token also more offensive.

Sophisticated

The past two decades of China’s re-emergence have been a breathtaking diplomatic balancing exercise. It has been remarkable how the juggernaut managed to neutralize distrust and nurtured the idea that its own development is going to benefit the development of the entire world. In the last few years China’s foreign policy has become much more professional and sophisticated. Political relations are now embedded in a sound economic and public diplomacy. Chinese officials also seem to be increasingly sensitive to the perceptions and expectations in partner countries. They are eager to learn, to anticipate challenges and to adapt their discourses to a heterogeneous audience.

These are all reassuring trends. Yet, progress in China’s foreign policy is frail and reversible. China’s domestic transition faces new important challenges. This could make it even more cautious to sustain good relations with the rest of the world. But it also reduces leaders’ scope to make concessions abroad and even prompt them to gain legitimacy by patriotic posturing. It also remains to be seen how the global climate of economic and political uncertainty will affect China’s ascent. Trade frictions are on the rise and they often amalgamate with tensions over human rights. Stagnation in the West and jobless growth in developing countries produces a very unfriendly environment for any power to rise. In the next weeks we will further examine how China is cooping with these challenges as it engages the world and builds new partnerships.

Jonathan Holslag and Gustaaf Geeraerts, research fellow and director of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies (BICCS).

Frame

BICCS is glad to announce you its spring lecture series on China’s foreign policy, organized in cooperation with the Brussels Regional Government, Kent University and the Institute of European Studies and New Europe. The lectures will be organized on Monday between 15h00 and 17h00 at the premises of BICCS. For more information: www.vub.ac.be/biccs

One Response to “Will China re-define great power politics?”

  1. […] “China is presenting its ascent not as a power shift, but as a paradigm shift. It claims that its rise will be different from other powers in the past and sets an example for a fundamental revision of the nature of great power politics.” Source: In The New Times […]

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