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Beijing: A Global Leader With 'China First' Policy

Observers have long hoped for new openness and cooperation from a confident China. They scan every international event, from the majestic Beijing Olympics of summer 2008 to the recent G-20 summit in Toronto, for indications of China’s policy direction. If any clear trend is visible, it is that the world’s second largest economy largely continues with a narrow, fluctuating foreign-policy approach. “On global issues, Beijing appears to act with an odd combination of hesitancy and truculence,” explains David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University. To be fair, China steps into many global systems that were not of its design, with operating values that don’t always mesh with its own political system. Shambaugh anticipates that China will continue with its cautious ways in the global arena, emphasizing domestic and regional priorities, selecting partnerships on a case-by-case basis while being wary of too many global obligations or entanglements. – YaleGlobal

Beijing: A Global Leader With 'China First' Policy

Prodded to take leadership, China focuses on national interests
David Shambaugh
YaleGlobal, 29 June 2010
Greetings countrymen, Hello world! Chinese President Hu Jintao at the G-20 summit in Toronto

BEIJING: China joined other members of the G-20 in Toronto this week, surely a sign that Beijing has taken its seat among the new rule makers of the international system. But what kind of rules does Beijing seek to make and what kind of international posture is China striking around the world?

Following the majestic Olympic Games of 2008, many hoped that China’s symbolic success would breed a new confidence and cooperativeness on the world stage. But this did not fully emerge as, during 2009, many observers discerned a number of troubling indications that suggested a more assertive and less cooperative China. During spring 2010, however, there was a thaw in China’s icy posture towards the West. Most recently, at the G-20 summit in Toronto, Beijing played up its “South-South” solidarity with developing countries.

Where is China’s diplomacy headed? The reason behind fluctuation in Chinese diplomacy lies in the fact that China itself is deeply conflicted about its international identity and the roles it should play in the world.As one leading Chinese scholar told the recent Stockholm China Forum, “China is still wrestling with what kind of world order it wants.”

The reason behind fluctuation in Chinese diplomacy is because China is deeply conflicted about its international identity and the roles it should play in the world.

In the absence of such a global vision and grand strategy, Beijing pursues a more narrowly self-interested foreign policy with a few priorities.  The first has China scouring the globe and striking deals with governments and private companies for energy supplies and raw materials to fuel its continuing economic expansion. 

The second element has been a continuing emphasis on maintaining a peaceful neighborhood around China’s periphery in Asia so as not to jeopardize economic growth at any costs. This preoccupation has lead Beijing to expend efforts to patch up relations with New Delhi in recent months, while trying to ameliorate ties with Japan and, to a lesser extent, South Korea.

Nowhere is the “stability at all costs” strategy more apparent than vis-à-vis North Korea, particularly as exposed by Beijing’s weak reaction to the North Korean sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan. Beijing seems ready to tolerate any and every provocation from Pyongyang.

One part of Asia revealing difficulties in China’s relations is Southeast Asia. ASEAN diplomats recently complained of a more assertive Chinese stand concerning conflicting claims in the South China Sea, which Beijing now defines as one of its three “core interests,” along with Taiwan and Tibet, and has warned off other claimants – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam – from any kind of multinational settlement. ASEAN diplomats also complain about a new assertiveness in China’s attitude towards regional multilateral institution building – arguing that until recently China had been content to allow ASEAN to “drive the car” of regional policy while remaining a passive passenger in the back seat. But recently, Southeast Asian diplomats note, “Beijing has climbed into the front seat, is holding the map, and trying to instruct ASEAN where to go.” It is only a matter of time, they observe, before Beijing seeks to taking over the steering wheel.

The US and Europe have a joint desire for China to become a global partner on global issues and contribute considerably more to global governance.

With respect to the United States and European Union, China has tried to ameliorate strained ties with each and maintain a modicum of correctness in official relations, but underneath various sources of friction exist in each relationship. The problems in each relationship are not only bilateral, but also concern the increasing disappointment that both the US and Europe feel concerning their joint desire for China to become a global partner on global issues and contribute considerably more to global governance.

On global issues, Beijing appears to act with an odd combination of hesitancy and truculence. As Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying once said during her time as ambassador in London, “China is at the center of the world stage, but with its back to the audience.” Instead of stepping up and taking on a range of global responsibilities, China remains internally oriented, self preoccupied, pursuing a largely narrow self-interested foreign policy.

Internationally, China wrestles with a conflicted identity. On the one hand, it aspires to become and possesses many of the attributes of a great power. But Beijing lacks the confidence to act as a great power – particularly in concert with other major powers. China remains hesitant on the international stage, taking baby steps towards being a confident global leader. In short, China remains a global actor without being a global power.

Part of China’s international uncertainty no doubt derives from the leadership’s domestic uncertainties – as the country is beset with multiple pressing challenges and a cautious, insecure leadership atop a transitional political system.

Beijing prefers
smaller groups to bigger multilateral institutions…. A partially engaged
China is far better
than a disengaged or disruptive China.

Another reason for Beijing’s tentativeness likely derives from China’s not sharing the liberal values and norms that underpin most international institutions and system, although China has benefited enormously from them. It is difficult to be a “responsible stakeholder” – to use Robert Zoellick’s famous phrase – in an international system with which one does not share and practice the operating values at home and was not “present at the creation” to shape the system in the first place. In some key areas – like non-proliferation and free trade – Beijing has embraced global norms, but on so many others its hesitancy is obvious. 

Failure to fully embrace liberal norms and institutions does not mean, however, that China cannot be a cooperative partner with others on a purely pragmatic case-by-case basis. But it does suggest that China will continue to act with hesitancy on the world stage, and will be a difficult partner for the West on issues like Iran and North Korea.

Thus we are likely to see China act as a “selective multinationalist” in world affairs, with Beijing working together with a small group of other nations, as distinct from working within real multilateral institutions. Beijing prefers such smaller groups to bigger multilateral institutions, as the latter can constrain its freedom of action. Yet, a partially engaged China is far better than a disengaged or disruptive China.

Beijing is likely to
put its own domestic priorities over international ones
and continue to practice a “China
first” foreign policy.

China’s foreign policy establishment believes that China should expand its global involvements gradually, but only on issues where China’s national interests, particularly security, are directly involved. The selective multinationalists generally eschew broadly increasing China’s global involvements, and they seem to believe that “global governance” is yet one more Western “trap” to tie China down in dangerous foreign entanglements that can only restrain China’s rise. Yet they realize that China must be seen to be contributing to global governance, and cannot be perceived as free-riders on the international system.

So, the selective multinationalists are wary of foreign entanglements, but recognize that China must “do some things,” or yousuo zuowei,as Deng Xiaoping instructed, in the international arena. But such efforts should be seen as largely tactical efforts at image building, rather than endorsements of the global liberal order. Multinationalists thus advocate increasing China’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations, contributing to disaster relief, fighting international piracy in the Gulf of Aden, and being diplomatically involved in the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues.

Over time, it is hoped that China will gain more confidence and contribute more to international institutions and global governance. But, for some time to come, Beijing is likely to put its own domestic priorities over international ones and continue to practice a self-interested “China first” foreign policy.   

The author is director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and currently a senior Fulbright research scholar at the China Academy of Social Sciences Institute of World Economics & Politics in Beijing.
Rights:Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

13 July 2010
I think YaleGlobal should concentrate on other types of articles other than China and India. It's getting very redundant.
-Maddox , USA
11 July 2010
Now, I prefer to a scientic analysis about Chinese behavior or attitude than a normative way. In the area of China study, I assert that if the world want to know China’s foreign policy, the talking of Deng Xiaoping must not be omitted. China is a Communist regime and that Deng Xiaoping the designer of Chinese openness and reform make that come true. Deng have teached his bureaucrats and people that China will never strive for hegemony. “Do not strive for international hegemony” that is a first lesson for Deng to command his officials, this lesson more important than doing obligations or others in the international affairs. In fact, the world of freedom or the West with paradoxical feeling that one hand they issue the Thesis of China Threat, the other hand they want China to involve more global affairs. In the standpoint of China, based on the Neo-idealism that global governance is a ideal for hundreds of years in the western history. Now, it may become a modern version for the West to build the hegemony cross all over the world. Obviously, that is not compatible to Chinese national interest. In spite of, China’s uncertainity in international role may interpret from domestic uncertainity, but interpret Chinese behavior maybe obtain more results from her standpoint or her psychology. Just the case of viewing China as a free riding, this perspective mainly base on China preoccupied her domestic interest. However, a international system with liberal value and norm that easily make its members as a free rider, especially, China not become a top leader yet. China still enjoy some interest form the system. Maybe the problem of Chinese international role is not the issue about confidence or contribute. Maybe more standpoint or psychology from China as a behavior of national interest.
-Chu gohua , Taiwan
7 July 2010
china does not want to make the same kind of mistake the U.S has made by trying to lead the world by itself. china does not like the way U.S has lead the world, so china has been waiting for the fall of U.S to take over. moreover, U.S will be fallen because it will run out of money. when china lead the world, it will invite more countries to the table to decide on the world's issues. china has been working so hard to get ready for the fall of the U.S. to lead the world, you need cash, and that is what china has been working on.
-jhon , west palm
6 July 2010
"In some key areas – like non-proliferation and free trade – Beijing has embraced global norms..." THIS IS NOTHING BUT A BIG LIE. The author is completely ignorant of China's violations of WTO rules and the fact that the maximum no. of cases have ben launched against China.
Also, China continues to proliferate WMD and missiles to the Islamic world to contain the United States and India. The continuing nuclear and missile assistance to Pakistan and Iran by Beijing in violation of global nonproliferation treaties and regimes is welll known and documented. Shambaugh seems to propagating the Chinese government line on non-proliferation. Curiously, he makes no mention of the new Chinese nuclear reactors deal with Pakistan, China's old proxy and a country that is the Jihad & WMD Proliferation Center of the World and has killed more Americans in recent years than any other country.
As is well known, Shambaugh has long been a China apologist. He needs to read his own books and articles over the last decade and ponder as to why he got China wrong. Why is China not behaving as Shanbaugh said it would in his earlier writings? Any explanation, Mr China expert?
-Neville Maxwell , Sydney
4 July 2010
This is a pretty unambitious and not insightful article. So China doesn't take active role in world politics and systems. Why? This article barely delves into the reasons, just state well its values and norms conflict with those of the democratic world. Okay, can we investigate further and say maybe China doesn't take tough actions against Iran or North Korea is because China shares more values and interests with them and coalesce and it is really on their side, so although it tries to act like a responsible stakesholder it can't betray its camp's own interests?
-Latuza , California, USA
3 July 2010
This is 'The Sources of Chinese Conduct.' Chinese foreign policy is made bare. Unnan City, Japan
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Unnan City, Japan
2 July 2010
I'm sure that USA always follow the "USA Second" policy.
-coldplay , Germany
1 July 2010
The world should know that other than praises for our fellow men in other countries, we Chinese have nothing to say about other inhabitants of our shared planet. We would always find faults with ourselves for only then we can strive to improve, even if it proves to be impossible. Certainly sticking our nose into other people's knickers is not one of our habits.
But, commerce, we are most enthusiastic for and mutually beneficial.
These are nice knickers indeed. I have in possession 1,000 different styles here to satisfy your most basic and the most exciting carnal needs. Drop a call, and we can do business, just like Lady Baroness T. said.
We have so many our own problems, if you know them yourself, your mind probably will explode. Because of our retardedly developed venting machines and propaganda splendors like the Economist, the CNN, or Fox, we usually get off by breaking your nose; whenever, for some reason my spit flies off onto your fragranced face. Or sometimes chopping a few heads off, especially for some of our violent fellows and tradition seeking long-knife carriers, I sometimes wonder how the Messers like Mr. Hu, Wen, Ho, and Whi can ever sleep; the jobs have to be a life expectancy killer bordering on self-assisted suicide, and so little pay, and not even a mistress or two.
If you see any Young & Restless (FengQing) like our proverbial Mr. Han, just please please please, ignore him. How does he know that no one ever falls off the train in China while speeding at 200 miles per hour, and how would he know maybe some people prefer to sit on the roof of the train for a more splendid view, and indeed superior air to breathe in the scorching sun at a more leisurely pace.
While their patriotism is admirable, it is not what most of us think in China. There is nothing in the world that we want other than to get the next Bottle of White Wine (read expensive), my wife's next Guccii bag (fake actually), any my kids next lessons (rote learned anyways), the next car, the next house, or the next mistress (shhiii...). To claim that China will model this or that really is just a little bit over the top; our best known models are the ones most slimly clad, smiling splendidly, who whispers with that most tender, vibrating voice, while posing in the most fantastical ways at the Beijing Motor show.
You see, that really got my plum in my mouth wriggling.
For such mundane matters, we prefer to delegate to Uncle Sam. Nice Uncle indeed, who spends the money, resources, and man-power to trouble shoot for all us. It is a good bargain, especially we also get to collect a little interests. It is a jolly good life, we are already getting used to it.
-huyu , huyuhuyu