Mar 19

Past Event

Managing Global Insecurity Project Consultations in Beijing, China


The Managing Global Insecurity (MGI) project visited Beijing, China March 19-21 to elicit Chinese priorities and perspectives on international cooperation and revitalization of the multilateral security system. The visit, one of a series of consultations MGI is conducting in key international capitals, included meetings with government officials, Party leaders, policymakers, scholars, students and private sector representatives. MGI highlighted the vital role China, as new great power, would play in the future of the international security system and introduced some of MGI’s initial recommendations.

Themes from MGI Consultations in China

An Evolution of International Order: During discussions in China, many stressed that globalization has made the world smaller and more interdependent. We are on the “same boat,” one Chinese official emphasized, and therefore have a shared responsibility to keep it afloat. The China of today does not want to see the US economy in a recession—global reverberations of the sub-prime mortgage crisis had radically impacted the Chinese economy. Policymakers and scholars viewed today’s global challenges as severe and transnational—no nation acting alone will be able to address them. One policymaker also pointed to the limits of traditional war in the face of new threats. War used to be a very powerful tool that could settle problems, but when the most powerful country in the world can’t win Iraq, this underscores the limitations of military might. Alongside recognition of new transnational threats, one scholar denoted, must be recognition of the rights and responsibilities of emerging powers. The US will have to pay attention to the legitimate demands of these states as key partners in building an effective international system.

Many participants pointed to an evolution of international order over the past decades. One Chinese interlocutor characterized three stages: The first, from the end of World War II until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, the Cold War period. The second, for the 20 years following the Cold War, a period characterized by one dominate super-power, the United States. This was a time in which the US became “intoxicated” by its superpower status, leading to increasingly unilateral US action. Finally, today’s world, which has seen the rise of new powers including India, China, and many East Asian countries. Another Chinese commentator emphasized that we are witnessing the early stages of a shift of the center of gravity of international relations from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 20-30 years, the US position will be closer to a “first among equals.” It would be important for the US to accept and adapt to this new reality.

One scholar characterized five different ways to understand how global governance could evolve within this new international order: 1) shared governance by great powers; 2) selective cooperation among great powers that often results in unilateralism; 3) an alliance of values, as seen in the call for a “concert of democracies” for global leadership and decision-making; 4) a world with no poles, neither a multi-polar nor unipolar international order; and 5) the failure of unipolarity and US unilateralism. This commentator asked MGI in which of the “five chairs” MGI recommendations would sit. All agreed that a “sixth chair” emerged, where great powers operated in cooperation based on the principle of responsible sovereignty and within the framework of the United Nations, which bestowed broader legitimacy. MGI has introduced responsible sovereignty as a principle that could underpin a strengthened international order. Three levels of responsibility are included: 1) to one’s own citizens; 2) to neighbors; and 3) to the international community to address the transnational affects of domestic policy.

Rejection of a Concert of Democracies – Threatens of a New Cold War: All of MGI’s Chinese counterparts rejected the notion of a “concert of democracies” to govern international affairs as a divisive distraction that would take away from the vast potential for cooperative dialogue to address increasingly shared threats. Some called the notion “dangerous,” saying it could lead to a second Cold War that would separate the world into the “democratic” and “undemocratic.” Others compared this philosophy with that of the crusaders, emphasizing the bold judgment assumed in labeling states “democratic” when the evolution toward democracy was a nonlinear and organic process. Others highlighted that such a dichotomy would leave out many of the emerging powers who must be integrated into the international system. It was important, one Chinese official emphasized, to promote democracy across all states in various stages of democratic evolution and counter-productive to exclude, and therefore lose the ability to influence, those deemed undemocratic.

Reactions to the Principle of ‘Responsible Sovereignty’: The vast majority of Chinese participants in MGI discussions were supportive of the concept of responsible sovereignty, particularly in contrast to the exclusionary “concert of democracies.” However, they acknowledged the importance China bestowed on the protection of sovereignty and highlighted the need for MGI to be specific in defining what it meant to be “responsible.” If responsibility was to be negotiated, they asked, who would negotiate? How would irresponsible sovereignty be dealt with? Some discerned that there must be “differentiated responsibility” based on state capacity and level of development and many noted that China’s first responsibility was its internal affairs. With such a large country and a booming population, it would be increasingly important for global stability for China to manage internal crises and potential catastrophes within its borders.

During a week when the world was focused on the protests in Tibet, MGI’s Chinese interlocutors underscored the sensitivity of sovereignty to the Chinese. One policymaker said that vis-à-vis Tibet, it was the responsibility of the Chinese government to maintain law and order, territorial integrity and human safety. MGI countered that responsibility also entailed a commitment to protecting human dignity and the well-being and safety of citizens.

China’s Role in the International System: Policymakers stressed that after years of focusing on internal development, China was beginning to see the impact of external factors on China’s internal affairs and protection of Chinese national interests. One scholar characterized “transformation changes” in China’s foreign policy as China looked from traditional political security to more comprehensive economic, military, and political security and attached additional importance to transnational issues such as climate change. Across the board, climate change and energy security (see below) emerged as the key issue for China vis-à-vis international cooperation and the multilateral security system.

However, participants underscored that China was still focused overwhelmingly on economic growth and development—but increasingly realized the impact of many other issues – such as climate change, inequality, and energy security – on a successful economy. One policymaker also noted that Chinese do not yet have “energetic discussions” or widespread political debate on the international system. We “sleep on a soft pillow,” he said, because we are not “number one.” We leave it to the US to worry.

Many said that China has never entertained the idea of unilateralism and instead looks for equality and mutual benefit in the international system—“win/win” progress. Characterizing Chinese as “reformers,” they affirmed that China does not seek an overthrow of the current system. Others called for a democratization of international politics, with increasing opportunities for dialogue and conversation between states. One worried that the US and Europe were coordinating policies to contain and control China as a rising power as opposed to engaging China in discussion. Many were complimentary of MGI’s approach because of its focus on ‘listening’ and the use of diverse regional dialogues in crafting the project’s recommendations.

More Representative International Institutions and Fora: Chinese interlocutors looked favorably on MGI’s idea of an expansion and re-conceptualization of the G8 to a new G16 to serve as a more representative forum for great power pre-negotiation and deal-making. However, they emphasized that a simple expansion of the G8 was not enough—a role for the new powers in setting the agenda and convening the summits must be articulated. They highlighted a growing resentment among the +5—who felt they were often invited as an afterthought to G8 summits, without any consultation regarding topics to be covered and priorities set. In form and function, policymakers argued, an expanded G8 must go beyond Europe and the US dictating for others. A G16 must operate on the basis of democratic and equal footing among members. Many also stressed that there was a need to link the G16 to the UN and the UN charter to give the G16 increased legitimacy.

On Security Council reform, policymakers pointed to the many changes in the international system that required a re-assessment of the composition of the UNSC. However, they contended that reform must be conducted carefully after dialogue. Some affirmed that discussions between China and Japan on the issue has improved over the last three years. While in the past, China had vetoed the idea of expansion, the issue was now open for discussion.

Chinese Views on US Foreign Policy: Many MGI spoke with were eager to see a new US President signal renewed US commitment to international cooperation, and ability to overcome the “unilateralist impulse.” Policymakers were particularly critical of the war in Iraq—calling it a wasted opportunity that had become a liability rather than an asset. They viewed a new administration as an opportunity to deepen cooperation and build trust on issues of mutual concern. One interlocutor offered the following agenda for US-China relations that would benefit wider global stability: 1) cooperation on trade and the economy; 2) joint approaches to regional hot spots; 3) combating terrorism and promoting nonproliferation; 3) focusing on international issues of the environment, energy resources, and climate; and 5) expanding cooperation in science and technology. Participants stressed that on economic issues, China had a great interest in a stable U.S. economy and said that the debate on global imbalances was often mis-characterized: China was in fact running a greater trade deficit regionally in Southeast Asia that its surplus with the US. Therefore, the issue required more than the bilateral discussion called for by the US.

Climate Change at the Top of China’s International Agenda: Across the board, Chinese discussants pointed to the issue of climate change and energy security as a possible priority testing ground for revitalized international cooperation. This was an issue that was at the top of the Chinese agenda and required concerted international action to address. In discussions with government ministries, participants emphasized the need to understand the constraints and opportunities facing developing countries on carbon emissions. One pointed out that seventy-seven to eighty percent of the world’s carbon emissions were still from developed countries. Even in their “post-industrialization” phase (between 1990 and 2005), developed world emissions had increased by eleven percent. It was therefore unreasonable to expect developing countries to significantly reduce their emission during what is only the beginning of their industrialization process. This is in addition to the legacy of emissions that the world faced that had originated from the developed world. It would be important to look toward common but differentiated responsibility in future climate agreements based on accumulated GHG, per capital GHG emissions, total emissions, and levels of development

Policymakers and experts also pointed to domestic constraints within China on the issue. A large population, rapid economic growth and development had created an enormous demand for energy. They also underscored that China was taking the issue seriously and had taken important internal steps that often went unrecognized by the international community. For example the Chinese government has set a target to reduce energy consumption per unit GDP by 20% by 2010 and was making plans for further reductions after 2010. One NGO representative pointed to the difficulty of ensuring that national policies and regulations on emission levels were being carried out at the regional and local-level.

However, despite the importance of recognizing the developing world’s right to economic development and growth, Chinese policymakers stressed that they understood the existential threat that climate change posed to all states. China did not want to “repeat the mistakes made by the developed countries, who finished industrilztion 150 years ago but are still emitting.” The key, they explained, was technology transfer and investment. Even simple technologies that exist currently in developed world have yet to reach China. Organizations such as the IFC, which works with local financial institutions to make it attractive for them to finance simple clean technologies, has been overwhelming successful in China and has been unable to keep up with demand. International agreements reached, Chinese policymakers underscored, must create incentives and include commitments on the transfer of technology to the developing world—for reducing carbon emissions, CCS and for the development of alternative sources of energy including hydro, nuclear and solar power. Many called for a “cooperative discourse” on climate change and an agreement that would give countries such as India and China appropriate time to adapt while recognizing the existential threat posed by the issue.

An Opportunity Not to Be Wasted: MGI’s consultations revealed a window of opportunity for the US and other powers to engage China in a cooperative dialogue on many challenges plaguing global stability. Emerging from a period of domestic focus on national development and economic growth, China is increasingly stepping, and being thrust, onto the world stage. MGI’s Chinese counterparts pointed to increasing signs that China is recognizing the value of investments in international cooperation and the international system to protect both its own, and global, security. As one policymaker put it, China now sees that its future is closely tied to the future of the world. The challenge to other key states in the international system, including the US, is to make room for China at the table, seeking dialogue and building trust. The temptation to apply western conditionality that will leave China alienated from cooperative arrangements must be avoided. China will continue to loom large on the global horizon and attempts to revitalize international cooperation and international institutions will not succeed without China’s energetic participation.


For More Information

Managing Global Insecurity