From Sir Graham Watson MEP, member of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the People's Republic of China
China’s increasing economic dominance is bound over time to translate into a shift in its geopolitical power. As a former Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing brings both experience and insight to the debate about how China will shape the new global order. But his description of China's "independent foreign policy of peace" does not address the questions of the country’s role in multi-lateral institutions nor its regional military and political ambitions.
Li Zhaoxing welcomes international co-ordination, but conceives it primarily as closer engagement with Europe and the U.S. rather than revived multi-lateralism. Yet China is relatively unknown in the global arena. The increasing uncertainty about its intentions and territorial ambitions results in political ‘insurance policies’ being taken out in case these turn out to be less than benign. Neighbouring countries like Japan, India, Indonesia and Vietnam are increasing their defence postures, making mutual alliances and increasing their overtures to Washington. Indeed, the region is becoming increasingly tense. As British commentator Timothy Garton-Ash recently observed, this region could be at serious risk of military conflict.
Evidence that China is expanding its military footprint, and flexing its political muscles, comes from a variety of sources: China's public rhetoric in response to North Korea's sinking of the South’s naval corvette, the Cheonan; Beijing’s vociferous demands for an apology after a Chinese fisherman was arrested for ramming a Japanese coastguard; declarations of sovereignty over the Spratly Islands accompanied by increased patrols, and assertions that the South China sea is a "core interest" on a par with Tibet and Taiwan.
As China’s regional presence grows, it becomes increasingly urgent for Beijing to manage this power and, just as importantly, to manage perceptions of its power. This is where multi-lateral institutions come to the fore. The key to the international legitimacy of the Chinese leadership lies in the sincerity and depth of their engagement with multi-lateral organisations.
China currently practises an extremely sophisticated form of diplomacy whereby it joins global institutions to protect its own interests, selectively participating to minimise the impact on its sovereignty without sharing the wider goals and philosophies of those institutions. Such an approach not only undermines the credibility of China but also weakens the global architecture that protects the liberal order.
All countries, China included, depend on the functioning of an international treaty-based system, whether we are talking about open financial transactions, secure maritime trading routes or legal structures to protect economic and human interests. Reviving multi-lateralism requires efforts on all sides. For China it means respecting and enforcing international agreements and treaty commitments. For Europe and the U.S. it means reforming institutions. First, emerging countries must be fairly represented in global decision-making structures. Second, we must recognise that emerging countries do not share developed nations’ historical investment in the liberal world order. Global institutions must therefore be restructured around shared political, strategic and economic interests. Only then will countries like China have enduring incentives to uphold and protect that order.
The ideals of multi-lateral institutions must be upheld during this transition. There are rumours, for example, that China would contribute to the International Monetary Fund on condition there is no more public discussion about exchange rates and currency devaluation. Such trade-offs must be avoided. We must ensure, in the words of World Bank President Robert Zoellick, that China becomes a "responsible stakeholder in the international order" rather than allow the international order to be diluted.
A strong and powerful China can be a force for good in the world. Its soaring productivity and strong domestic balance sheet can rejuvenate and stabilise the global economy, especially if it reorients its consumption towards the domestic market. China is not alone, however, but exists within a global international order. Its political power must be embedded in the multi-lateral order. A Chinese superpower can either revive these structures to everyone’s benefit or weaken the system irredeemably.