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.