China Steps Up to World Stage, Cautiously

Though commentators were expecting China to approach the G-20 as an Asian Goliath, what they got instead was the traditional cautious dragon. As Asia specialist François Godement argues, such reticence to playing a bigger part on the global stage should not come as a surprise. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some unexpected events. President Hu Jintao meeting with France’s Nicolas Sarkozy startled some observers given the tension between the two countries over Tibet that scuttled an earlier planned summit. Even that unlikely warming of ties could be chalked up to China’s traditional pragmatism. As its stance at the G-20 showed, China remains primarily inwardly focused: its biggest concern abroad is related to access to energy and other natural resources and the preservation of open markets receptive to its goods. However, as Godement notes, China may now be too big not to play a greater role internationally even if culturally such a policy shift were uncomfortable and strategically it meant limiting the country’s options to achieving its domestic goals of solid economic growth. In the end, China acted in a manner which has become hallmark of its behavior: guarded, pragmatic, and ambiguous. Expecting anything different was a miscalculation. And expecting a major change in China’s stance in the near term is likely to be wrong too. – YaleGlobal

China Steps Up to World Stage, Cautiously

China isn’t ready to play the big boy on the world’s stage
François Godement
Friday, April 24, 2009
Making up: French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao meet in London after a Tibet-induced cold spell. enlarge image

PARIS: There is no better indication of the fascination that China now exercises than the comments surrounding its participation at the recent G-20 summit. As the world leaders assembled in London, the world’s focus was on the rising economic power China. One wondered how would China stake its position on the growing division between the US and EU over anti-recessionary measures. Also, would it make a contribution to the IMF’s reserves, or claim instead a greater hand in IMF decisions, or perhaps even openly question the role of the dollar as the major international reserve currency? There was also the question of how, at this summit of world leaders, it would behave with Europeans, after a year of rocky relations over Tibet. How China behaved on all these issues could be an important pointer to the future.

When the meeting ended, it was clear that China was not in a hurry to claim the mantle of leadership, but neither was it willing to play the traditional second fiddle. China has in fact acted in a fashion that will be immediately familiar to long time observers of the Middle Kingdom. It does not want to be perceived as an outlier to the international community, and even less to be isolated. But neither will it put itself on the line for major multilateral responsibilities.

Out of touch with any of the main parties at the summit. China does not want to be stuck with the agenda and the constraints of a Sino-American G-2. Feuding with Europeans, even if it is on symbolic issues, simply lessens China’s options.

Other declarations or gestures by China, however muted, also spoke volumes. Vice-premier Wang Qishan, in charge of economic issues, came forth with a public disclaimer of China’s ability to save the world at the summit. Not only had China done its part already by rescuing its own economy and going on an international shopping spree, but a country’s ability to contribute to international currency reserves should not be judged on the size of its own stash, he said. Characteristically, the world’s third economy, soon likely to speed past a stalled Japan, was again portraying itself as a developing economy.


China plunked down 40 billion dollars on the IMF’s table, but only as a potential loan, when Japan delivered a 100 billion contribution. It also avoided, in the final communiqué of the summit, any reference to a global imbalance that would have implicated China’s role in the crisis, where President Obama directly acknowledged America’s own responsibility.

In other areas, China followed the same course. Europeans were promoting regulation for the global financial system, but also more precisely control of off-shore financial centers. Since China’s inward and outward capital remittances largely flow through these centers, this is no small issue. Thanks to unofficial leaks of the Summit’s discussions by a German newspaper, we know that President Hu Jintao endorsed the principle of regulation. But China fought hard to avoid the inclusion of Hong Kong and Macao on a “grey” list of off-shore financial centers. In the end, they only figured as a vague footnote to the list. It is unclear whether this implies future action by China on Europe’s requests, or whether it has deflected all pressure on the issue.

Let’s chalk up the assessment of China’s stand at the G-20. It was never openly negative to any of the proposals, and in fact it went cautiously with every one of them. It certainly did not brandish the implicit threat of a systemic change for the world’s reserve currency system. On its potentially increased contribution and standing within the IMF, the jury is still out. The G- 20 meeting was certainly not the occasion where an IMF reform of quotas and voting rights could be agreed. But it’s hard to say if China really wants that change, or is happy to hide behind the reluctance of Western members of the Fund to give more prominence to emerging economies.

Above all, perhaps, in a summit of symbols and public gestures, any inkling that there was a common group or position of the world’s emerging economies was absent, and China largely moved as its own representative, and not as a leader of such a group. Posturing was left to Russia’s president on the side of the summit, but there was no particular initiative either with Brazil and India.

The true ambiguity of China’s strategy on the international scene is there. Routinely, China is strengthening ties and mutual interests with the world’s producers of energy and raw materials, and is now even putting its own currency to use in long-term cash for resources deals. But this does not form a strategic axis. Realist calculus, simple and straightforward commercial competition, prevent it. More broadly, China’s needs are about reassurance from the West – and that includes Europe besides the US – towards the stability of its financial earnings and the openness of its principal external markets. And China’s cultural tradition instinctively goes against taking charge of major international responsibilities and the risks that go with them, let alone promote wide systemic change.

The problem with this course is that China’s sheer economic weight now exceeds the prudent commitments it is willing to make. Unavoidably, China is center stage, and under the limelight. There may in fact be, in a stagnating West, an exaggerated expectation by business and market leaders of China’s potential to restart the global economy. China’s economic agenda is largely self-centered, with international contributions often seen simply as an unavoidable burden. The competitive response to the crisis by China’s firms may inject as much of a deflationary trend into global markets as its government stimulus packages create additional demand.

At the G-20, China’s leaders contributed pragmatism and cautiousness, rather than make the splashing entrance into global financial affairs that many commentators expected. If China is to play a role in helping to solve the global crisis, it will likely be in the form of that country moving away from a major external saving imbalance to a more consumer driven economy. Such a shift would require China to become a major player in the global monetary and financial system, limiting Beijing’s ability to control its economy, leading to a sea change in China’s domestic policy and structure – an unlikely event in the near term. And since we are much more likely to see only incremental domestic reform, we should only expect incremental international influence.

François Godement is Director of the Asia Centre at Sciences Po and co-author (with John Fox) of “A power audit of EU-China relations”, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 2009.

© 2009 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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