China’s foreign policy towards US-appointed ‘rogue states’: interest and principles?

10. Aug 2008

Clemens Stubbe Østergaard Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Aarhus University ([email protected])

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The period of the Olympic Games will no doubt see more attempts from lobby-groups and foreign governments to pressure China in the field of foreign policy, be it Darfur and Zimbabwe (and China-Africa relations) or Burma and Taiwan (or Iran). To support these efforts, usually an oversimplified picture of the local situation is disseminated through the Western press, and also an exaggerated image of China’s possibilities to influence and change the picture – if only it would get in line with US-EU policy. Researchers in privately or government financed thinktanks do their bit.

This is easy to do, partly because the issues are very complicated and it is tempting to resort to “good guy-bad guy” imagery, and partly because there is generally not much coverage of Chinese diplomatic activity and diplomacy in many multilateral contexts as well as summit meetings. As we know most of the mediaspace alotted to China is taken up by ‘wow-articles’ on the economy or ‘fie-articles’ on lack of human rights and democracy, i.e the need for regime change. This latter in a manner often resembling the 19th century European missionary activity to bring salvation to the “heathen Chinee”. Then as now, ignorance about China was an important factor. And we are still preaching.

Chinese arguments in relation to the issues mentioned, are usually dismissed as mere window-dressing, scantily covering narrow economic and geostrategic interests. Not so our own arguments of course. And no doubt national interests in the shape of investment, oil, trade, etc do count for a country as focused on economic development as China. However, global stability and free trade are also of the first importance for a country as dependent on world trade as China. Some of China’s arguments or ‘principles’ should perhaps be looked at more closely, from the point of view of furthering stability and the avoidance of military means and war.

A common factor in the cases mentioned is the attempt by Western countries, led by the US, to use the UN Security Council to ‘bully’ the country in question into submission. The Chinese argue that it is not the purpose of the SC to interfere in other UN members internal affairs, at least not without the accept of the country involved. The UN Charter supports this view, and demands a threat to the peace before the SC is involved. China (and Russia) do not normally veto these attempts, but argue against them in the prolonged closed negotiations of the SC, which go on in a smaller meeting room adjacent to the offical SC chamber. Anyone who remembers Colin Powell’s speech to the Security Council, laying out ‘evidence’ against Iraq, will be skeptical of grandstanding in the SC.

The Chinese view is that it is first of all the responsibility of a troubled country’s neighbours and the regional organisations concerned that must be activated. They are directly involved and affected, understand the issues and can take the lead in finding a brokered solution. Therefore they should be given a chance, and bringing in the Security Council too early – based on Western impatience – can hurt the proceedings more than benefit them. So in Africa the OAU and other multilaterals are key to succesful settlements in Darfur and Zimbabwe, just as ASEAN or the ASEAN Regional Forum and its offspring are the key to solving the Burma issue, the 6-party talks to the North Korean problems, and perhaps the SCO for Central Asia issues. It is dysfunctional to ‘go global’ at once, the Permanent 5 members of the SC should let regional powers handle it. (Linked to this is of course a certain distrust about the effectiveness of having the US be the world policeman, a policeman with a marked preference for the gun. )

There is a second step, however. In the case of Sudan, China has helped pressure pres. Bashir to accept a UN security presence and has contributed its full contingent of peacekeepers. A number of important actors, like UN’s Jan Eliasson, the British Foreign Minister and the US’ Special Rapporteur on Darfur have praised China for this consistent pressure since the autumn of 2006. (China has participated in all UN Peacekeeping Operations in Africa).

Just as China opposes what it regards as abuse of the Security Council, it also is skeptical of the utility of imposition of sanctions. I believe it sincerely regards them as ineffectual, can find very few examples of sanctions having worked, and see them as disproportionately hitting the already sick and impoverished, while profiting elites and black marketeers. Sanctions do also tend to cut off the dialogue necessary for coming up with negotiated settlements. In Sudan’s case, how would sanctions help the desperate situation in Darfur? Would they solve the severe problems related to historical hate and prejudice, climate-induced agricultural crisis and starvation, a fragmented country, lack of opportunities for young men, etc. etc.? (see the work of Alex de Waal). Sanctions will mostly contribute a “feel-good” factor in the countries imposing them, and in the Chinese view it is at best naïve to expect them to do more.

This does not mean that China is passive in this and the other contexts. It is very active diplomatically, ‘behind the scenes’, using whatever limited leverage it may have with those governments. But it does so in a covert way that allows them not to lose face from giving in to international pressure, and so furthers negotiations with the opposition (Zimbabwe, Sudan), constitutional reform (Burma), accept of UN forces (Sudan), a solution to the nuclear problem (North Korea -and hopefully Iran). This may involve strong arm-twisting, but the basic approach is to give priority to stability (in the country and the region), to economic development as the only factor which will bring real change to troubled countries, and not least to the problem-solving capacity and views of the countries and organisations of the relevant region itself. Not forgetting promoting China’s own interests too, of course – though stability and the avoidance of military means are themselves part of these.

In their preference for stability, the Chinese sometimes end up supporting dictatorships. (This is of course not unknown for the Western side too. Still, we are much better at managing image-formation and public relations than they are. The world hardly noticed when Thailand became a military dictatorship). They also tend to take a much longer view than western governments permit themselves, dogged as those are by almost permanent election-campaigning. Finally, they go to great pains to limit further militarisation and the resort to war, because of the cost, and because of the damage it may exert on the international system itself. They have reached a point where they benefit greatly from the “status quo”, the international system and the globalisation created and still dominated by the West.

Added to this immediate interest in preserving a system which confers advantages on it, China has -partly for historical reasons – a different emphasis from the West in a number of questions. Sovereignty is still important, as it is
for most countries that have tried losing it. The United Nations and the body of international law is important, as it is for most of the world’s weaker or smaller nations. Sanctions rarely work and instead solutions must come from the people itself, as most of the countries involved in anti-colonial struggle have experienced. And finally, multilateral and diplomatic solutions to conflicts are preferable, as countries with long experience of the horrors of war also tend to feel. Add to this the marked pragmatism, which clashes with for instance the strong ideological bent of neo-conservatives and the fundamentalist Christian right, which encompasses more than 30% of Americans. The Chinese ‘model’, is that there is no model, no “one size fits all”, you look around globally and learn from what you find useful and combine it with local conditions.

Do these differences in emphasis make it impossible to “get the Chinese on board” ? First of all, there is no choice. None of the world’s larger problems can be solved without China, be they non-traditional security threats, conflict resolution, or regulation of the international economy. Secondly, there is a certain consistency in the application of principles, which is sometimes lacking in the foreign policies of the US or EU. This makes China more predictable and also implies that the principles are not just fig-leaves applied in embarrassing situations. Predictability makes it easier to cooperate. Thirdly, China has proved receptive to diplomatic pressure, for instance from the neighbours in ASEAN which have drawn it into regional multilateralism. It has adapted to, though perhaps not yet adopted, a number of international norms, i.e. real international norms, not just those claimed to be that by individual countries. China is in a learning phase, it is a new situation for it to be a great power. While the Chinese want to be a “responsible great power”, and have shown it by revising some of their policies, this phase is also one in which it is crucial that their experience be positive. That they are treated as equal, that being bound by international norms and regimes is reciprocal, that the West accepts relinquishing some influence, in order that China may gain some. There are many ‘win-win’ situations, but there are also some zero-sum games.

Europe has a special role in this connection. Our hands are not tied by the budgetary requirements of a very large defence industry, at least not yet, and we are much closer to China in preferring diplomatic and multilateral solutions. We don’t have geostrategic conflicts or visions of superpower rivalry with China either. Our faith in “regime change” through military intervention or state sponsoring of ‘colour revolutions’ is limited. Though we culturally are very different there is a chance, not of convergence, but of constructive cooperation based on common interests on the world scene. Alternatively, some are talking of a future Chinese-American strategic alliance, giving the two a joint global hegemony, and easing the power transition involved in integrating a China which will by then be a bigger economy than the USA. Given a freer rein, i.e. with a reduced foreign policy role for the Pentagon, skilful American diplomacy could work towards this idea.

Clemens Stubbe Østergaard