Going global

Print edition : January 26, 2007

China has sent out a clear signal: the days when it was content to let other powers shape world affairs are emphatically over.


PRESIDENT HU JINTAO (third from right) and Russian President Valdimir Putin (second from left), along with Presidents of the other member-states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, plant a tree in Shanghai on June 14, 2006, to celebrate the organisation's fifth anniversary.-ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AFP

THE last 25 years have seen China wow the world with its stellar economic performance, yet the erstwhile Middle Kingdom has shied away from playing the kind of active role in international affairs that would seem commensurate with its economic weight.

This is because China's politics has primarily been defined by the need for economic development above all else. Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's economic reforms, had warned against the country's playing too active a role in international affairs lest this should detract from the paramount task of ensuring domestic economic growth. His advice has long governed China's actions in world affairs.

The year 2006, however, marked a significant departure from China's traditional foreign policy, signalling the fact that Beijing is no longer willing to watch events unfold from the sidelines and is ready to accept its new status as a world power of import.

Several end-of-the-year commentaries in China's official media have highlighted this departure. A commentary in China Daily dramatically proclaimed:

"Make no mistake, this sleeping dragon has awakened from its centuries long slumber. China is everywhere."

The article went on to observe that in no other year in recent memory had the leadership of China spent "so much time abroad and achieved so much". It added that nearly half the leaders of the United Nations' 192 member-countries visited China in 2006.

Such openly triumphant commentaries in the official media are unusual because China's authorities have in the past tended to downplay the country's growing international clout, choosing to stress instead its "developing country" status and limited military capabilities. Such modest rhetoric is intended to allay the fears that China's "rise" is causing across its immediate neighbourhood and farther.

But that Beijing is finally acknowledging its status as a major player in the international system is evidenced by the fact that Chinese President Hu Jintao has formally developed a theory of international relations: the concept of a "harmonious world".

A recent commentary by Yan Xuetong, head of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies, in People's Daily begins by saying that "2006 has been the first year for the Chinese government to implement its `harmonious-world-oriented' diplomacy". The article recognises that when Hu first formulated the theory in late 2005 it left "world public opinion perplexed, not knowing how to put it into practice".

Indeed, the concept of a harmonious world does seem short on specifics, encompassing as it does broad notions of multilateralism, prosperity for all through common development and tolerance for diversity. These are a laudable set of objectives, but Hu's theory fails to explain the means to achieve these vaunted ends.

In fact, the importance of the "harmonious world" theory lies less in its being a practical solution to the world's problems and more in the fact that it reflects a growing self-consciousness on China's part that its actions have repercussions far beyond its own borders. Given its new power to effect change internationally, China has realised that it must develop a theoretical basis for its changed role in world affairs, and the "harmonious world" concept is a response to this realisation.

ETHIOPIA'S PRIME MINISTER Meles Zenawi, bottom left, looks on as President Hu Jintao applauds during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held at the Great Hall of the People on November 4, 2006. In the back row are Presidents Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed (left) of Somalia and Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar.-NG HAN GUAN/AP

China's recent willingness to be a more active player internationally results from a complex of factors. To begin with, there is no longer any denying its economic muscle. This past year saw China acquire the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world, worth a mind-boggling $1 trillion. It also saw China firmly establishing itself as the world's fourth largest economy, an achievement based on two decades of solid economic growth. According to a recent report by Citigroup, China could be the world's largest economy in the next 25 years.

The commentary in China Daily states that the current administration "no longer tries to hide China's growing economic weight in global affairs and the role it will have to play in order to sustain growth".

In order to sustain its double-digit economic growth, China has no choice but to become more active internationally.

A major proportion of the oil and other natural resources that China needs to feed its growing economy is imported. Thus, Beijing has begun aggressively to woo energy-rich and other raw-material-rich countries across Latin America, Africa and Central Asia. These countries also represent emerging markets for Chinese products. Moreover, sustained economic growth depends on a stable security environment in China's immediate neighbourhood.

Destabilisation of the Korean peninsula, for instance, would unleash a flood of refugees across the border, interrupting plans for the economic rejuvenation of China's northeast. For Beijing, ensuring regional peace and stability is thus critical, and it is aware that China must play an active role internationally to secure this.

Demonstrating its new leadership in a variety of international and regional fora, China hosted three major international summits in 2006: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June, the China-Africa summit in November, and the China-ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) summit, also in November.

These meetings underscored how Beijing is beginning to use multilateral fora as vehicles to serve its national interests.

For instance, the SCO, which comprises China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, has already developed into an international organisation of weight, despite being only five years old.

It binds the energy-rich nations of Central Asia to China and represents a formidable alliance between Moscow and Beijing. Covering an area of 30 million square kilometres, or about three-fifths of Eurasia, the SCO controls a large part of global oil and gas reserves and includes two of the world's five declared nuclear powers. For China, leadership of such an organisation is not only prestigious but also helps set it up as an alternative to the influence of the United States in the strategic central Asian region.

That the SCO became the first regional grouping to oppose bids by India, Japan, Brazil and Germany seeking permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council is an example of the manner in which the organisation is furthering China's interests.

For the Central Asian republics, China's policy of studious "non-interference" in the internal affairs of sovereign countries is a welcome change from America's prescriptive diktats. Moreover, Beijing provides these countries with economic development assistance and increased opportunities for trade and investment.

This year itself China announced loans worth $900 million for other SCO countries. The loans are in the form of preferential buyer's credit for the SCO member states that buy Chinese exports.

The SCO's growing influence has been made possible by the dramatic improvement in Sino-Russian ties. Driven by considerations of maintaining stability in its surrounding regions, China has made mending fences with its neighbours a priority. Russia is not only a large neighbour but also a major source of energy for China.

In October 2004, the two countries made a final and comprehensive settlement of their border dispute. Bilateral trade, worth over $30 billion, is soaring, and Russia is also China's chief arms supplier.

The year 2006 marked an upsurge in Sino-Russian diplomacy, with both Russian President Vladamir Putin and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov visiting China, highlighting what a powerful magnet Beijing has become.

But perhaps even more significant than the SCO summit was the China-Africa meeting, which brought together in Beijing the heads of state of more than 40 African nations.

For a few years now, China has been making concerted attempts to expand its economic and diplomatic clout in Africa, a continent often ignored by the rest of the world. By combining handouts of billions of U.S. dollars in aid and investment with judicious rhetoric that alludes to the spirit of Bandung (the location of the Asian-African Conference of 1955), China has increasingly come to challenge U.S. leadership in the region while being able to acquire the raw materials needed to feed its ever-expanding economy.

During the Beijing summit, Hu promised to double Beijing's assistance to the world's least developed continent by 2009, in addition to offering African nations $5 billion in loans and credits.

The summit was held in a year that saw a slew of big names from Beijing touring Africa, lobbying for lucrative contracts and promising investments. In January, the Chinese Foreign Minister swept through West Africa; the President visited Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya in April and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took in seven African countries in June.

China's Africa push, highlighted by the summit, is resulting in a sharp shift in the received geopolitical status quo as Beijing's influence in the African continent is beginning to replace that of the U.S. and traditional European powers. It is a similar story with ASEAN, where China is once again using its economic weight to win friends. Across East Asia, countries have come to rely on China as a critical market for exports and as a source of the imports that delight importers and consumers alike with their low prices.

In 2005, Sino-ASEAN trade was worth $130.3 billion, up by 23 per cent year on year. ASEAN, which enjoys a trade surplus with China, is today its fifth largest trading partner and market for exports and its third largest source of imports.

Given that ASEAN began life as a regional grouping backed by the U .S. to counter communism in the region, its new-found friendship with China is even more striking. Sino-ASEAN relations are at their strongest ever, with China's leaders at pains to reiterate its benign intentions and "peaceful rise".

In 2005, China took the lead in organising the East Asia Summit in Malaysia and was able to dominate the emerging East Asian Community by dividing it into two blocs: the core, or primary, states with China as the leader inside the ASEAN+3 grouping (China, South Korea, Japan) and the secondary states of India, Australia and New Zealand.

Beijing's leadership continued in 2006 when China hosted the China-ASEAN commemorative summit marking the 15th anniversary of Sino-ASEAN relations. The summit gave a boost to talks on a China-ASEAN free trade area, which is expected to be established by 2010.

But the diplomatic manoeuvres that won China the most plaudits in 2006 were its efforts in getting North Korea (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) back to the negotiating table and helping to restart the six-party talks on the DPRK's nuclear programme.

China's crucial role in facilitating negotiations on one of the world's major potential flashpoints has given it considerable clout, not least with the U.S.

North Korea had left the negotiating table 13 months ago angered at the time by the U.S. blacklisting of a Macau bank in which it had deposited $24 million. During its boycott of talks, North Korea test-fired a new long-range missile in July and then set off an underground atomic blast on October 9. Pyongyang finally agreed to return to talks only under pressure from China, which is the DPRK's main supplier of oil. Beijing's new-found willingness to participate actively on the international stage manifested itself in several other gestures in 2006. For instance, it increased the Chinese troop contingent in U.N. peacekeeping operations in addition to pledging $3 million to the U.N. Peacebuilding Fund.

According to Xinhua news agency, China also provided aid to 86 developing countries in 2006. Major projects include a national theatre in Senegal, an inner-city road upgradation in Kenya, a stadium in Mongolia and a government-building project in Guinea-Bissau.

In short it is clear that China has given up its revisionist stance and begun to act like the status quo power it has become.

China's new diplomacy has not been without its share of criticism. Countries from Japan to the U.S. have expressed unease at its military modernisation programme, calling attention to what they allege is the opaque nature of this process.

Human rights groups have also attacked China's willingness to deal with regimes widely condemned as corrupt and oppressive. For instance, China is currently Angola's largest export market and also absorbs some 70 per cent of Sudan's exports.

China has in fact repeatedly used its clout at the U.N. in the defence of African countries widely condemned by the West. Thus Beijing has resisted any moves towards military intervention in Darfur and stopped all attempts at discussion at the U.N. of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina last year, in which 700,000 people had their homes or businesses destroyed.

But despite these criticisms China's growing international status is irrefutable. Increasingly when the U.N. needs peacekeepers it turns to China, when African countries need aid and infrastructure investment they turn to China, and when the U.S. needs help in its dealings with North Korea it turns to China.

China's new foreign policy, on ample display in 2006, has been characterised by energy and dynamism on the part of its leaders who have tirelessly travelled the world attempting to "manage" the fears surrounding China's rise by presenting it as a "win-win opportunity".

By taking leadership of a variety of regional and international fora, initiating bilateral security dialogues and military exchanges, and dispensing aid and technical assistance in parts of the world where traditional powers such as the U.S. are cautious to tread, China has sent out a clear signal: the days when it sat on the sidelines content to let other powers shape world affairs are emphatically over.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor