Step­ping out of the com­fort zone


China’s eco­nomic ex­pan­sion and emer­gence on to the world scene has been the most im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment since the end of the Cold War, lead­ing some com­men­ta­tors to con­clude that the 21st cen­tury be­longs to the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic or, sim­ply, that China will rule the world.

Such pre­dic­tions are likely to prove mis­taken, not sim­ply be­cause the eco­nomic pro­jec­tions on which they are based are chang­ing but also be­cause of the un­der­ly­ing ques­tion of whether China wants to play such a role.

Of course, China has es­tab­lished it­self as a huge player in re­gions where its in­vest­ments and pur­chases of raw ma­te­ri­als pro­vide a sig­nif­i­cant boost to the in­comes of coun­tries rang­ing from Aus­tralia to An­gola, Brazil to Iran. With its world­wide in­vest­ments, a per­ma­nent seat on the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, nu­clear weapons, its con­tri­bu­tions of troops to UN peace­keep­ing forces and the net­work of Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes spread­ing the cul­tural mes­sage, China’s geopo­lit­i­cal place might seem as­sured.

But, for all this, the na­tion’s for­eign pol­icy re­mains cir­cum­scribed and its global role far more limited than sup­posed by those who see the world learn­ing Man­darin and fol­low­ing a “Chi­nese model”. It in­sists that na­tions should not in­ter­fere in the in­ter­nal af­fairs of other states.

Al­though the step may meet China’s short-term in­ter­ests, it hardly con­sti­tutes a co­her­ent for­eign pol­icy for a global gi­ant.

Com­plain­ing about op­er­at­ing in a world sys­tem with rules set be­fore it be­came in­volved, Bei­jing has come up with few ini­tia­tives to re­form the way global fi­nance or pol­i­tics work. It op­er­ates bi­lat­er­ally with coun­tries in South­east Asia or the providers of its raw ma­te­ri­als. Its re­la­tions are scratchy with the other two ma­jor Asian pow­ers, Ja­pan and In­dia.

In some coun­tries that have prof­ited greatly from Chi­nese in­vest­ment and raw ma­te­ri­als pur­chases, there are signs of ir­ri­ta­tion at the speed and scale of the growth of the Chi­nese pres­ence with South African Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma, for in­stance, speak­ing of the need to find “the means to­ward a more eq­ui­table bal­ance of trade”.

For all the large sums spent on “soft power”, one may ask how much real at­tach­ment it has brought. There are few Chi­nese in­ter­na­tional role mod­els and demon­stra­tors in the Mid­dle East do not clamor to fol­low a Chi­nese path.

The dif­fi­culty in dis­cern­ing a clear line in for­eign pol­icy of the world’s sec­ond-big­gest econ­omy might not mat­ter too much if China was an iso­lated ac­tor on the world stage. But it is not.

Be­cause the coun­try, which has ben­e­fited from glob­al­iza­tion, is bound in with other na­tions. Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has pro­claimed the “Chi­nese Dream” of national re­ju­ve­na­tion, but this can­not be played out by China on its own.

China’s re­luc­tance to take on obli­ga­tions be­yond its im­me­di­ate needs or to craft a broader for­eign pol­icy may seem at first glance sen­si­ble as it con­cen­trates on do­mes­tic chal­lenges and given its sus­pi­cions that the United States is try­ing to con­tain China helped by al­lies such as Ja­pan and the Philip­pines.

Global en­tan­gle­ments can be try­ing. But the re­sult is that, for all the je­re­mi­ads about de­clin­ing US in­ter­na­tional au­thor­ity and the trou­bles of the eu­ro­zone, China re­mains limited in its global role, act­ing only when it sees fit and not com­mit­ting it­self be­yond what is strictly nec­es­sary — with all the in­ter­ro­ga­tions to which that gives rise.

In an in­ter-con­nected world, that leaves a sig­nif­i­cant gap, which com­pli­cates in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and ren­ders the de­vel­op­ment of a truly mul­ti­lat­eral global frame­work even more dif­fi­cult than it al­ready is. Jonathan Fenby is the author of seven books on China, in­clud­ing the re­cent Tiger Head, Snake Tails and China To­day.

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