MATTERS OF OPINION
How the world sees China
Public approval of China and its political leadership is almost twice as high in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa as it is in Europe and North America. In sub-Saharan Africa, approval is three times as high as it is in the West.
In Europe and the Americas, many people questioned by Gallup said they could not, or refused to, give an opinion about the Chinese leadership (42% in Europe, 51% in the Americas). The survey of public opinion in 139 nations also found that Europe was the only region in the world where more people disapproved than approved of China’s leadership.
In Asian countries, a majority of people said they expected China to overtake the US as the dominant global superpower within the next 50 years. In surveys of the populations of 13 Asian countries from India and Pakistan to the Philippines and Mongolia, almost twice as many people (38%) expected China to become the leading superpower as those that thought it would never happen (20%). This sentiment was strongest in Bangladesh (56%), Laos and Singapore (both 50%), whereas Filipinos (20%) and Cambodians (15%) thought it was the most unlikely outcome.
But while Europe and the US face much the same issues in their dealings with China, they are in very different geopolitical situations. The US, for instance, has been the world’s leading military power for decades with a massive defence industry and a truly global military presence that extends across the Asia-Pacific region and includes bases in Japan, South Korea, Guam and Singapore. The EU, by contrast, has yet to take on the mantle of a genuinely unified political entity. There has been significant progress in establishing something akin to a European diplomatic service and a common defence posture, but the appointment of representatives capable of speaking for Europe at the political and security level remains a major step that has yet to be taken.
That, at any rate, is how the Chinese leadership must see the situation. The existence of a European bloc is certainly desired by a significant section of Beijing’s ruling elite, so today’s EU of 27 member states is unquestionably seen as progress, even if some member states are perceived as more influential than others. For its past, the EU has generally taken a favourable view of China. The EU’s open and transparent institutions enable the Chinese government to be heard in Brussels, where it has started to exercise discreet lobbying. In China itself, the EU funds numerous projects, ranging from an up-market business school in Shanghai to various exchange programmes for researchers and businessmen. Nevertheless, commercial conflicts exist between the EU and China in sectors as varied as steel, textiles and foodstuffs. Accordingly, the atmosphere can sometimes be tense during bilateral meetings - as was very much the case during the EU-China summit in Beijing in the autumn of 2007.
During the last eight years, China’s relationship with the Bush administration in the US has also had its ups and downs. For example, China was not opposed to the war in Afghanistan in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11. But China does not appreciate external interference in what it sees as internal issues – which has included the Olympic games. Taiwan and Tibet also remain sensitive subjects and raise issues of national sovereignty that Beijing will not compromise on. In the military field, untimely comments from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when he expressed concerns over the increase in the Chinese defence budget, irritated China’s leaders. They see the extra spending as an essential modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and part of China’s positioning on the world’s stage.
China’s global economic weight will only increase with time, and already it is clear that this growing strength will also have political consequences. The Chinese business presence is increasingly visible, for China is now the main investor in India as well as a mayor player in Africa and Asia. Chinese corporations like Lenovo, Huawei, Haier, CNOOC and COSCO as well as its powerful sovereign wealth funds come bolstering the country’s international presence in the US and Europe too. Add that to the growth in the Chinese product range and the relocation of manufacturing to the lower-cost Chinese market, and it's perhaps inevitable that something of a backlash is emerging in the West. Our result is that China is becoming image conscious; of late it has bolstered its contacts with western communications and public relations companies so as to better present China's image to the international media and train Chinese spokesmen in the art of handling the western press.
Europe and the US cannot ignore China’s desire to play a greater role in the world, so it is time to reflect on western attitudes at present towards Chinese progress. Instead of going head-to-head with China, which would be largely counter-productive; improving the dialogue with Beijing looks the wise course. In Africa, for example, China is gaining ground all the time, so it would doubtless be better to discuss African issues with China instead of expressing indignation about the growing Chinese presence there, not least because African countries are generally welcoming Chinese investment with open arms. China’s insatiable search for raw materials is under way in conflict-ridden countries like Sudan and the Congo and from Algeria to Nigeria, where Chinese businesses are investing heavily in the energy sector.
Global governance issues are an important area where the US and Europe should be able to work fruitfully with China, which is after all a permanent member of the UN Security Council as well as being well represented in international organisations, like the World Health Organisation (WHO), where the Director General, Margaret Chan, is in fact Chinese. China has become increasingly active at the diplomatic level; it coordinated the six-party talks on North Korea, supported the approach of other major powers towards non proliferation and has aligned itself with the international community on tackling potentially major pandemics such as bird flu. It has also shown its goodwill on the sensitive environmental question.
Where the US, and, to a lesser extent Europe, appears to have difficulty is the fact that China has been developing its diplomatic relationships to reflect its own national interests – and that often means building links with “difficult” countries such as Iran, Angola, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma and the Sudan. In some instances, the West could benefit practically from China's links to these states and from its relative lack of political baggage when dealing with these regimes. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a good example of the value of Chinese diplomacy, as was the summit of 48 African heads of state in Beijing two years ago. To many non-Western countries, Chinese diplomacy represents an alternative model that has value of its own. Europe and the US, meanwhile, need to work more closely together and develop a common line when dealing with China as a new global power. Europe and America must work jointly with China on topics such as proliferation (including small arms proliferation), the stabilisation of bankrupt states, counter terrorism, the fight against poverty, education and development aid.
Even in the military realm - and despite sensational declarations by analysts on both sides - relative consensus reigns amongst military experts regarding China's right to develop a modern army. The perception is that China is becoming increasingly transparent on this subject. It remains difficult, though, to collaborate with China on defence matters, not least because China's military commanders are known to be sceptical about the benefits of dialogue. The deployment of Chinese troops in international peacekeeping missions like the Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of Congo nevertheless offers opportunities for closer cooperation, and the Chinese navy will increasingly be called upon to carry out security missions in parts of the world where there is a significant Chinese population, such as Africa or Latin America. It seems likely that, one day, Chinese ships will be patrolling in those regions. It is therefore hard to see how greater cooperation between Chinese forces and those of former colonial powers can be avoided in the long run.
But the vexed issue of the export embargo forbidding the sale of European military equipment to China has still to be settled. Not a few experts say that lifting the embargo would help to facilitate the normalisation of the PLA. But first a code of conduct would have to be agreed by the EU and the US, while for its part China would need to sign the UN treaty on civil and political rights - an action that would carry a deeply symbolic value. And the problem of high technology transfers, with potential military applications (so called dual technology), quite rightly, remains a real worry for the Western powers.
And, lastly, there is the non-governmental sector; the US and Europe must encourage NGOs as well as businesses to invest themselves in China - American NGOs already boast a greater presence in China than those of Europe. In the coming 10 years, before China has become the largest or second largest economy in the world, Chinese leaders will still need the West. Networks linking all levels of our respective societies have to be built because it is essential that a China-Europe-US partnership should be created. We must always remember that the greatest danger is not from a successful China but from a China that is held in check.