China's place in the world

Oct 1st 2009
From The Economist print edition

The world has accepted that China is emerging as a great power; it is a pity that it still does not always act as one


Illustration by Jon Berkley

FOR a country that prides itself on its “peaceful rise”, it was an odd way to celebrate a birthday. The People’s Republic of China marked its diamond jubilee on October 1st with a staggering display of military muscle-flexing (see article). Goose-stepping soldiers, tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles filed through Tiananmen Square, past the eponymous Gate of Heavenly Peace, where, 60 years ago, as every Chinese schoolchild is taught (wrongly, it now seems), Mao Zedong declared that the Chinese people had “stood up”.

For many Chinese, daily life remains a grim struggle, and their government rapacious, arbitrary and corrupt (see article). But on the world stage, they have never stood taller than today. China’s growing military, political and economic clout has given the country an influence of which Mao could only have dreamed. Yet Chinese officials still habitually complain that the world has not accepted China’s emergence, and wants to thwart its ambitions and “contain” it. America and others are trapped, lament these ascendant peaceniks, in a “cold-war mentality”. Sometimes, they have a point. But a bigger problem is that China’s own world view has failed to keep pace with its growing weight. It is a big power with a medium-power mindset, and a small-power chip on its shoulder.

Seventy-six trombones and better nukes

Take that spectacular parade. What message was it meant to convey to an awestruck world? China is a huge, newly emerging force on the world scene. And it is unapologetically authoritarian, as were Japan and Prussia, whose rises in the late 19th century were hardly trouble-free. Nor is China a status quo power. There is the unfinished business of Taiwan, eventual “reunification” with which remains an article of faith for China, and towards which it has pointed some 1,000 missiles. There is the big, lolling tongue of its maritime claim in the South China Sea, which unnerves its South-East Asian neighbours. And China keeps giving reminders of its unresolved wrangle with India over what is now the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it briefly overran in 1962. Nor has it reached agreement with Japan over disputed islands.

China’s intentions may be entirely peaceful, but its plans to build aircraft-carriers are shrouded in secrecy and it is modernising its nuclear arsenal. A modicum of anxiety about its ambitions is more than just cold-war paranoia. And those prey to it will have been reassured neither by the October 1st parade nor by the massive military build-up and the increasingly sophisticated home-grown weapons technology it flaunted.

None of this is to deny that China is playing a constructive—and vital—role on a number of international fronts. A year ago there was much scepticism about whether the huge fiscal boost it announced for its economy was genuine. Its insistence that its main role in responding to the crisis would be to keep China’s economy growing smacked of an excuse for inaction. The stimulus, however, did prove real and effective (though it was imposed without debate). Also, China has been a helpful part of the global recovery effort. At last month’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh it even signed a communiqué committing itself to a process of economic co-operation and IMF-assisted mutual assessment. How far China’s decision-making, opaque even to its own officials, will be submitted to outside scrutiny is questionable. But for a government so fiercely insistent on the inviolability of its own sovereignty, this was a big step.

It has also softened this same principle as applied to some of its nastier diplomatic friends, such as Myanmar and Sudan. Flouting its hallowed doctrine of “non-interference”, it has nudged them into slightly less hostile stances towards the West. North Korea would probably not be a nuclear power today if China had been prepared to exert more pressure on it in the past. But at least China now plays host to the six-party process aimed at getting it to ditch its nukes, and is trying to bring it back to the negotiating table. Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, is off to Pyongyang on October 4th. Elsewhere, China has forsaken belligerence for courtship. Despite those missiles, it at present seems more intent on winning Taiwan by sending tourists to buy it than soldiers to conquer it. And it has agreed with Japan on the joint exploration of some disputed gasfields.

Yet as a constructive international partner in multilateral diplomacy, China still seems to dabble—to pick and choose the issues where it is willing to help. It will find expectations running ahead of it: the more it proves it can contribute, the more will be demanded of it. There is no shortage of issues, from climate change to virus-containment, where its role is crucial. But the image that it would like to cultivate, as a responsible, unthreatening, emergent superpower, is constantly being undercut by two of its leaders’ habits.

One is the knee-jerk resort to hysterical propaganda and reprisals when a foreign country displeases it by criticising its appalling treatment of political dissidents, or accepts a visit from the Dalai Lama or other objects of the Communist Party’s venom. The other is its readiness to put its perceived economic self-interest ahead of strategic common sense. That is the message from its reluctance to contemplate sanctions against Iran. Much as it would abhor a nuclear-armed Iran, China does not want to jeopardise important supplies of oil and gas. And this is merely one among many countries, especially in Africa, where China may be suppressing its global political influence for the mirage of energy security.

Were you watching, Mrs Wang?

China’s leaders rightly point out that theirs is still a poor country which will naturally give priority to lifting its economic development. And this in one sense answers the question about the message conveyed by the National Day parade: its main audience was not the outside world, but China’s own people. With no popular mandate, the government’s legitimacy relies on its record in making China richer and stronger. The display of strength, showing how well it has done in this, hints at its own lack of confidence. For those worried about where China’s rise might lead, that the government is so insecure is not a comforting thought.