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Expectations of a globally active China

Commentary, 17 December 2009
Americas, Pacific
As President Hu Jintao unveils a new foreign policy initiative, there is now a renewed interest in a more globally active China. However, decisive differences with the US on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan show that actions will continue to be carried out with domestic interests in mind.

As President Hu Jintao unveils a new foreign policy initiative, there is now a renewed interest in a more globally active China. However, decisive differences with the US on Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan show that actions will continue to be carried out with domestic interests in mind.

By Benjamin Knight for RUSI.org

Obama Hu Jintao

In the wake of President Obama's tour of Asia in November, Hu Jintao has indicated that China could begin to play a larger role in global affairs.  The recently announced doctrine entitled 'Hu Jintao's Viewpoints about the Times' outlines a potentially distinct shift in Chinese foreign policy, formerly characterised by Deng Xiaoping as 'adopting a low profile and never taking the lead', towards a greater global role.

Many media observers are arguing that a new bilateral era has dawned for international security.  Proponents of the 'G2' idea argue that the coming years will see the United States and China working together as equals on the world stage.

The events of the past year have shown that, in some areas at least, the Chinese are happy to be thought of as crucial partners.  For example, the economic dialogue at the G20 summit, or the climate change negotiations in the run up to (and certainly during) the Copenhagen talks, China played an important and often guiding role.

On the surface, it would appear that this relationship is indeed exactly what China has pursued for many years and indeed they are flattered at such an idea.  However, an examination of three key international crisis points calls into question the strength and legitimacy of a future Chinese-American partnership. China must be very careful what it wishes for or it will soon find out that it's tough at the top. Clear contradictions between US and Chinese strategic global objectives remain in relation to the problem states of Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Without a rapprochement with America on these issues, ideas of a 'G2' will continue to be unfounded. 

China's global security role?

Now that the hype surrounding the visit has died down, it is clear that little was achieved. The temporary weakness of the US in international affairs encouraged President Obama to bring President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao on board to reinforce the US approach on all three states, with a view to achieving progress together.  Yet the two sides continue to talk over one another, demonstrating their different interests as they do so.

The Obama administration has openly stated that it is not trying to constrain China's rise to power, and that it encourages China to have a responsible influence on the world stage. However, the US also argues that China's acceptance of this responsibility requires an increased commitment to shared international defence and security interests.

This is based on the growing feeling that China has been content to remain on the sidelines while the West tackles political instability in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, China seeks to benefit from the economically strategic investments it has made in these troubled areas. But America's argument has largely fallen on deaf ears. When contemplating the impact of Hu's 'Viewpoints' it is important to keep in mind that forging a greater security role would jeopardise China's primary aim of securing natural resources from foreign sources, and it is for this crucial reason that the Chinese are unwilling to align themselves too closely with Washington in this fashion.   

Energy outweighs counter-proliferation in Iran  

Firstly, cooperation between the US and China is mired in the continuing saga of Iran's nuclear programme.  The US sees Iran as a hard-line and fervently anti-Western state that is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons in secret, with the potential to completely destabilise the region if it succeeds.  The US regards its own response to Tehran as the obvious choice for the international community - the focus being on collective action to impose strict economic sanctions on Iran, in order to halt its nuclear programme.

In contrast, China sees Iran as an investment opportunity, and has pounced on the indecision shown by Western competitors.  China has invested heavily in Iranian oil and gas firms in recent years.  Chinese oil companies successfully acquired rights in the South Pars oil field after the French firm Total SA was deemed to be delaying the process too much, due to its concerns over how potential sanctions on Iran would affect its investment.  Links with Iran may grow even stronger if Chinese oil firms take up an offer to jointly develop Iranian refineries, making Chinese support for sanctions even less likely.  This move would benefit a resource-thirsty China, and relieve a crucial supply crisis in Iran - and by lessening the threat of sanctions, would greatly hinder China-US relations.    

China is certainly wary of the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran -- especially given Iran's known support for Islamic terrorist groups, a spectre that has begun to affect Chinese domestic security. At the same time, Beijing does not want to shy away from what it sees as a good business deal with a perfectly suitable partner.  The joint statement issued by the US and China during Obama's visit simply states that 'The two sides reaffirmed their strong support for a comprehensive and long-term solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiations', demonstrating the US President's inability to persuade China to realign its position on the Iranian issue.

Stability versus sanctions in North Korea   

As far as the issue of North Korea is concerned, the US and China can at least both agree on one thing - neither side on the Korean peninsula should possess nuclear arms, given the hugely destabilising effect that it would have on the region. However, this is where their agreement ends.

While China has proven instrumental in the six party talks, it is simply not concerned by the nature of the regime in the North, in stark contrast to the US position. Provided that Pyongyang disarms and does not stir up too much trouble with the South, China's main objective in its relations with North Korea is to maintain stability. Bilateral trade, which reached $2.79 billion in 2008, up 41.3 per cent compared to 2007, plays a key role in achieving this.

Furthermore, the future scenarios for change in North Korea do not bode well for China. Korean unification could see US influence expanding beyond the demilitarised zone up to China's north-eastern border: thousands of North Koreans might then seek refuge in China were the current regime to collapse. In addition, should partition be maintained, China would be against harsh economic sanctions, arguing that they would have a destabilising affect on the Korean peninsula.

Poignant differences in Afghanistan

The final area of importance, and perhaps the most poignant, is Afghanistan. With the fate of the war still very much in the balance, a beleaguered US needs all the support it can get. China has supported America's 'War on Terror' from the start, because of its own troubles with Islamic terrorism in the north-west region of Xinjiang. Uighur terrorist activities have been traced back to training camps in the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But China's support has been verbal, not physical. The Chinese have done nothing to contribute to the operations actually taking place on the ground.

Instead China has pumped millions of dollars into the Afghan economy (which only recently opened up to foreign investors) by investing in large deposits of natural resources such as the Aynak copper field -- and has its eyes set on other deposits of iron ore and oil. Afghanistan has been added to China's retinue of Central Asian resource providers. The issue of resources is crucial as it is through mining revenues that Afghanistan best stands a chance of rebuilding itself.

However, without the huge Western presence in the region providing security, these investments would have not been viable. The imbalance of cost and benefit between the two sides has provoked anger amongst many Western observers who feel it has been a case of the West paying the cost - in lives as well as hard currency  -whilst the Chinese, with no involvement in the effort to secure Afghanistan, swoop in and outbid foreign competitors for valuable assets to serve their own domestic interests.  

China may reject such an accusation, but tellingly they are in no rush to change their behaviour. Despite the talk of playing a bigger role, China is unwilling if not unable to accept the costs involved in joining the US as an equal partner in global affairs.  Rumours of a 'G2' are therefore misleading and out of touch with both the current state and the future trajectory of China-US relations.    

The US must carefully consider how its partnership with China will operate when there are such obvious strategic and ideological contradictions at play, and it must contemplate the reaction the rest of the world would have to a leading China-US relationship in which the diplomatic differences are so firmly out in the open. 

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI

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