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Foreign Policy

China: Contributor, Not a Freeloader

Sep 04 , 2014

In an interview by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times on August 8, President Barack Obama stated that China has been a “free rider” of the world order for the past 30 years.

If President Obama would state that China has hopped on the bandwagon of globalization for the past three decades, he would make sense though his remarks were not fully precise. He shall first recognize that China has caught up with the trend of globalization by relinquishing its vision of “proletarian internationalism”. Then, he shall commend China’s wisdom of riding the wagon, which the U.S. is proud to drive. He shall also appreciate China for its willingness to respect and contribute to the world order the U.S. has hard built.

First, by riding the wagon of contemporary international political and economic thought, China has embarked on its economic reform and ridded obsolete its “proletarian internationalism.” True, there was a time when China was not a free rider of the then international system, which was dominated by Western imperialism and capitalism. China had envisioned changing such a system through exporting its own values and institutions. For quite some time America was concerned by China, which assumed its self-imposed obligation of leading a worldwide revolution.

Three decades after the People’s Republic of China was founded, however, Beijing started to rethink its social and economic path, concluding to employ market economy and international cooperation. China needs a friendly international environment so as to import foreign capital, technology, management and access to external markets. Indeed, America has responded positively. In Washington’s view, it is America that has allowed China to join the bandwagon. To be fair, China has certainly benefited from its economic reform and international collaboration, in which the role of the U.S. has been indispensable.

Second, the U.S. actually has no viable alternative but to welcome China’s jump on the American express. With China’s ending of its mission to liberate the world, Americans are sure to continue to present themselves as world’s savior so they have to welcome China to return to market economy. The U.S. has pushed for a world order of free trade, and without China’s participation such an order is definitely not global. Even for alleviating the Soviet threat, Washington could not afford if China would be uninterested in partnering with America.

Honestly speaking, the U.S. may have benefited no less than China from Sino-US cooperation. In terms of investment, for the recent three decades, China has permitted America’s access to massive Chinese labor and consumption market, especially in allowing the U.S. to tap this inexpensive human capital. The United States’ inability to stop its outsourcing is simply due to China’s vast appeal. With China’s middle class continued ascension, its ability to consume and import is also on the rise. Therefore, it shall not be a surprise that China will overtake America in a few years to become the number one importer of the world and the number one American export destination.

Taking American tourism for example, in 2012 there were one million Chinese tourists who visited America, spending $7,000 per person on average. Compared with all Chinese visiting abroad in 2012, some 70 million, only 1.4% of them had a chance to tour America at that time. Two years ago, compared with a Chinese population of 1.3 billion, only 7 out of 10,000 Chinese would have had such an opportunity. This has pressed President Obama to call for a 40% increase in the issuance of Chinese visas in two years. By now, the U.S. has already issued 1.4 million visas in China in one year, when all Chinese visiting abroad will surpass 100 million in 2014.

Third, China’s riding of the globalization train has not only benefited the U.S., but also the world. Among all P5 countries, China is now dispatching the most peacekeepers under the United Nations mandate. Lately, China has started to send combatant troops in the UN uniform, running higher risks. Chinese navy ships not only joined in America’s 2014 RIMPAC exercises, but also served the UN mission to dismantle Syrian chemical weapons and to protect the sea lane of commercial communication in the Gulf of Eden, with permit of Somalia government.

Chinese contributions to world peace and security are abundant. On the anti-terror front, China works with the U.S. and other governments to share political will and intelligence resources amongst each other, as well as to create financial and physical barriers for terror groups. On the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, China joins the international community to demand that the DPRK and Iran end their respective nuclear weapons programs or suspicious nuclear programs, and impose relevant sanctions along the UNSC line. In conducting such international cooperation, China certainly pays some cost as for a while it has reduced oil imports from Iran.

On the economic and financial area, when the U.S. and the world were stricken by a financial “tsunami” in 2008, China joined the rest of the world by increasing its domestic spending so as to revitalize its own market. In addition to borrowing the over $1.3 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds and setting up the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to institutionally advance China-US cooperation and dispel challenges they face, Beijing has enthusiastically embraced the newly established G20 and played an active role in strengthening international financial institutions and economic sustainability. Since 2011, China has proposed establishing an SCO Development Bank, BRICS Development, and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. These shall contribute to Asian and world development, especially for those underdeveloped and emerging markets.

Understandably, President Obama would complain that China has not acted more proactively in the international system that China has benefited. However, there are two reasons for this that have not been explored. The first is that not all of the world order has been healthy enough for China to benefit and contribute. For instance, the U.S. launched a “pre-emptive” strike in 2003 against Iraq, which has generated great damage to both Iraq and the United States. China would not support America to challenge the world order by launching a war against another country without solid evidence and UN mandate. Given how much Iraqi governance was weakened, now the region is plagued by ISIS, and China has not blocked efforts in the UN for the U.S. to intervene. It is a damage the U.S. has generated and America has to be responsible. It is unreasonable to expect China to send its armed forces to Iraq to quell the disturbance.

The other reason is that China is still under development as measured by per capita income. Therefore, mainland China is not capable of unifying Taiwan, which is under American protection, and Beijing has deep suspicion of the United States. Naturally, China would have reservations over supporting the world order that America has made and dominated. It will take time for the U.S. to relieve China’s legitimate concerns and garner Beijing’s more wholehearted endorsement of a world order that is fair and balanced, rather than being a so called freeloader.

Shen Dingli is Professor and Associate Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.

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