Is China Ready To Be A Global Power?

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

November 10, 2009

Taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei: “Bide time, conceal capabilities, but do some things.”

Is Deng Xiaoping’s axiom still appropriate to be one of the overarching strategic principles guiding China’s foreign policy?

The first part of Deng’s eight-character axiom has been hotly debated in Washington, with many arguing it is a policy of strategic concealment and conscious desire to hide the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) growing military capabilities (thus the persistent US call for increased transparency).

But it is the second half of the axiom that is really relevant to today’s China. Deng urged China to “do some things” in international affairs – in effect, to pick and choose its unilateral and multilateral involvements where China can become marginally more involved in world affairs, global governance and regional security.

In this decade China has indeed done “some things.”

It has played a particularly vital role in the Six-Party Talks process concerning North Korea’s nascent nuclear program, and has worked generally well in tandem with other members in this process.

China has participated in the “5+1” United Nations Security Council “quintet” concerning Iran’s nuclear program. Within the UN Security Council, more generally, China has played an increasingly active role in recent years – helping to forge consensus among other members on divisive and sensitive issues.

China has also ramped up its contributions to UN peacekeeping operations – contributing at present 2,155 personnel in a dozen locations, making China the 14th largest contributor in the world but first among Security Council members.

China has also begun to contribute to disaster relief beyond its borders, notably the 2004 post-tsunami relief in Indonesia and Bangladesh, and the 2005 post-earthquake relief in Pakistan.

More generally, China has become a major contributor of aid to poor African and other developing societies.

As Premier Wen Jiabao has pointed out, China also contributes to global stability and governance through its domestic modernization and providing food and social services for its population of 1.3 billion.

More recently, China’s economic stimulus package is contributing to recovery from the global financial crisis.

And China’s efforts to control the A(H1N1) virus is an important contribution to global public health. All of these are tangible and important examples of China “doing some things” in the international arena in recent years. But is this enough and appropriate for China today and in the future?

China is a global actor today, but it is increasingly being called upon by other countries, notably the United States and EU nations, to become a more fully engaged and “responsible” global power – as World Bank President Robert Zoellick once described it “a responsible international stakeholder.”

Increasing China’s global contributions and the potential for it to become a global partner of the United States will figure prominently in U.S. President Barack Obama’s discussions with President Hu Jintao when he visits Beijing on a state visit on November 16-18.

President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman have all made speeches this year calling on China to be a greater global partner of the United States. More could be done by China in some of the aforementioned areas. With respect to the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, Beijing could use more of its influence and leverage behind the scenes to halt these programs.

Of course, Beijing is chronically adverse to using sanctions and other coercive measures, but it could still more clearly make the case to the governments in Pyongyang and Tehran that they will face ever-increasing international isolation unless they opt to trade their nuclear ambitions for normalizing their positions in regional and international affairs.

Then there is Afghanistan and Pakistan – two countries where China’s national security interests are directly affected and where the international community has a common mission to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and bring stability and security to Afghanistan and the Pakistani border region. Yet where is China?

Beijing is playing a very low-key role in its discussions with the Pakistani government, providing some weapons to the Pakistani military, and exploiting a large copper mine south of Kabul. This is the image the world has of China’s present role.

It would be much better for China’s image as a responsible major power to be seen contributing (and dying) alongside NATO and other governments and militaries.

If the PLA cannot be deployed into combat zones, why can’t the People’s Armed Police be deployed to maintain security in major cities and train Afghan police (something it has done so well in East Timor, Haiti, and elsewhere)?

Contributing in such a direct way to Afghanistan’s domestic security would be a significant contribution, and would be very positively perceived in the United States and Europe if Chinese soldiers served alongside Americans, Europeans, and other nations that are part of the international coalition.

Just as importantly, China could also contribute significantly to hard infrastructure building, schools and public health clinics in Afghanistan – as it has so successfully done throughout Africa.

The issue of China’s role in the global climate change negotiations is also an important opportunity for Beijing to show it is part of the solution and not just part to the problem.

Specific numbers on emissions caps need to be added to Hu Jintao’s positive speech to the United Nations in September, prior to the UN Climate Change Conference Copenhagen in December.

This is likely to be an issue high on the agenda in Obama’s discussions with Hu.

These are three areas where China can do “some things” more on the global stage and contribute more greatly to global governance.

They are all areas where China’s own national interests are deeply affected, but there is not yet a commensurate commitment from Beijing to match interests with tangible contributions.

It is time for two things to occur: First, the West should recognize more clearly the positive contributions China is already making to global governance; Second, it is time for China to more deeply engaged with the most sensitive security issues of the day.

The summit discussions between Obama and Hu are a good place to begin.