China is a complicated combination of extreme cohesions and contradictions. The only thing that’s simple about China is that it’s a five-letter word.
Politically, it’s a tough-minded Marxist state but with an economy increasingly market-oriented. Its coastal areas are becoming wealthier while the countryside remains largely poor. It is a Chinese chessboard of semiautonomous provinces with the overlay of a single Communist Party. And while overwhelmingly ethnic Han, its main metropolises are starting to resemble world cities. So when we say “China,” in fact we are referring to a universe of very many things – as in the spirit of, say, infinity plus one.
One dimension not always recognized is that, notwithstanding its blazing economic renaissance, it retains a culture that can be strikingly cautious, especially regarding relations with the outside world. Its foreign policy will tack toward core national interests rather than float big ideas or daring initiatives. Its diplomacy, day-to-day, is risk-adverse. It prefers to work with particulars rather than universals.
More than a decade ago, when China finally decided to become a member of the new World Trade Organization, that was epochal — nothing less than a watershed push away from self-absorbed inwardness and a plunge into a new intensity of global entanglement. But that decision did not come easily. It may even be speculated that without the inspired leadership and relentless efforts of then-Premier Zhu Rongji, that bold splash into the 21st century might well have been delayed — or perhaps not ever made. So all this, we see, is still very new: Recall that China’s WTO membership is actually but a mere 12 years old.
The quick varnish of a dozen years cannot wipe away millennia. And so when we assess China’s performance at the United Nations, especially at the Security Council, we feel frustration. After all, this is the 68th session of the General Assembly of the UN, founded in 1945. It’s hardly a new ball game. But on issues from Syria today to Bosnia almost two decades ago, the recurring complaint is like this: Why doesn’t China exercise more leadership? Etcetera, etcetera.
But the perceived Chinese drag – as one of the Permanent Five on the Security Council – is less deliberate than cultural, and its oft-proclaimed doctrine of “non-interference in the internal affairs” of member states is anything but unique in Asia. India, the world’s largest democracy, with a distinctive diplomatic tradition, takes a similar stance, and has done so for decades. So does Putin’s Russia, with much of its landmass actually in Asia proper.
No doubt, Beijing practically breaks out into an open sweat when Council members bring up the Chapter VII use-of-force option in a serious crisis, humanitarian or otherwise. But its default response is not to slam down its veto (as had been the dreary Soviet habit) but to humbly abstain, as it did during the epochal 1995 Bosnia chapter of the Council’s interventionist history. As the influential Mats Berdal of Kings College’s Department of War Studies in London has put it, “China’s chief priority, then, was not by its actions to influence the course of the conflict or the UN’s handling of it. It was instead to express its disapproval of what it saw as the erosion, encouraged by Western countries, of key Charter principles – above all, that of nonintervention in the internal affairs of member states.”
For all that, in recent years Chinese diplomacy has advanced from Bosnian abstention to – more recently – Syrian affirmation. The recent UNSC resolution requiring Damascus to cough up its chemical supplies to international confiscation not only passed with Moscow’s assent but with Beijing’s as well. Viewed over a longer timeline, this is no little change because dictating to a sovereign state which sorts of weapons it cannot use in the heat of an existential war qualifies as major international “interference” in anyone’s diplomatic dictionary.
No doubt some concern about being left out of the diplomatic party – not to mention a desire not to seem indifferent to the odious use of chemical arms – figured in Beijing’s vote. So did two other factors. One is the continuing desire to work in parallel with the U.S. on major issues to the extent possible. China desires no second Cold War and still views domestic economic stability as an existential goal. That helps explain Beijing’s recent public move to tighten its technological exports to impede the North Korean missile program that’s so worrying to the West.
The other factor is the quiet, behind the scenes role of the current secretary-general. Beijing probably trusts the former South Korean foreign minister in a way it did not or could not his predecessor. And on the Syrian crisis, Ban Ki-moon has been working behind the scenes far more actively – and effectively – than is generally known. He stuck to his guns in not caving into the request of the initially eager-to-flex-military-muscle Obama Administration and would not unplug the UN’s independent probe of the chemical-weapons massacre. That was pivotal. To the Russians it sent the signal that a credible finding by the UN panel would undermine its protestation of Syrian government innocence. And to President Obama, paradoxically, the slow but careful UN investigation served to ease the itchy U.S. finger off the bombing trigger – a relief for all concerned.
And to the Chinese it demonstrated in operation a UN organization with its own integrity, no limp Western puppet. In part as a result, China’s 68th UN season will probably prove less predictable than in the past. The diplomatic instincts of the new Xi Jinping administration have yet to reveal themselves. But some change may be in the air: even Russia’s Putin seems to want to avoid abject rejectionism and re-establish Moscow as a big-time diplomatic player. Can Beijing really afford to let everyone else take the lead while it ducks under the Security Council horseshoe? The betting here is that the Xi may be less inclined to be so fearful of the new at the UN.
Tom Plate, Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies, is the author of the forthcoming book “In the Middle of the Future: Tom Plate on Asia” – and the ‘Giants of Asia’ series, which includes “Conversations with Ban Ki-moon” (2013)