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Foreign Policy

The Role China Ought to Play in the World

Oct 05 , 2012

What role should the rising China play in the world? My view is that she should serve as a major global value enhancer in several fundamental aspects;  as a great strategic power, which could redefine the China-U.S. relationship; as a major bearer of international responsibility in various functional areas, making her contribute substantially to the global political economy, security, and ecology; and as a courageous as well as prudent restrainer of abusive power, for both world liberty and justice.

China as a Major Value Provider for Domestic Progress

Modern transnational values can be reduced in a very broad and reductionist way into four basic categories: “economic growth”, “liberty”, “social justice”, and “environment protection”. The primary national achievement that China has made since the initiation of reform and opening-up falls into the category of “economic growth”. But this transnational value itself is definitely not out of her creation. And now from the government to the public opinion, the sense is more and more acute that this achievement has been at the expense of “social justice” and “environment protection”. Since the beginning of reform Chinese society has been economically liberated. The provision of economic rights to 1.3 billion people is indeed a great extension of liberty in the history of the world. However, this value itself is also not an innovation from China, and economic liberty in too many cases in China now is virtually laissez-faire with its huge cost to social justice and environment health, not to mention that there is still a very long way to go before China fully realizes some other basic liberties of her people.

Thus, looking at the development of China and its impact on the world, one can say that we Chinese more and more have firm confidence in the growth of national strength. But (this is a greatest “but”) it is still difficult now to foretell what major contribution the contemporary China will make on transnational values of the world.  

It should be emphasized that in one major aspect China has already contributed an innovative historic value, which was created by Mao Zedong in the later 1920s to early 1950s, and adapted brilliantly by Deng Xiaoping for contemporary China. The principle is that what is best for Washington or Moscow or elsewhere is not necessarily best for China, just as what is best for China is not necessarily best for any of the others. People are fully entitled to travel on their own roads respectively according to their own practice, experience, and decisions. This “local” Chinese experience, vindicated by successful revolution, reform, and growth, could have a great global significance.

China as a Strategic Great Power, and Prospects for China-U.S. Relations

With the assumption that China’s peaceful rise continues, the United States will probably consider China with increasing seriousness or even eventually adopt certain peaceful “final settlement”. That will differentiate the balances of strength and influence in different functional and geographical areas through adopting the rationale of “selective preponderances” (instead of “comprehensive superiority”) or “advantage distribution”.

This will not only entail accepting the leading position China might obtain in terms of GDP, foreign trade volume, and diplomatic/economic influences in Asia, but also accepting the mutual strategic deterrence between China and the United States The U.S. will also need to accept China’s military parity or even a marginal superiority to the U.S. in the former’s offshore area (with Taiwan’s east coastline as the approximate “demarcation line”) and a generally peaceful reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. This means that the U.S. must accept China as a legitimate strategic great power. Meanwhile, the United States, with China’s acceptance, will retain her over-all military superiority in the world in general and in the Central and Western Pacific in particular, as well as her predominance in diplomatic influence in some other major regions. All the above assumes a sharing between China and the United States, and the latter’s final acceptance of China’s peaceful rise as a world power.

But indeed, on the other hand, the great “structural rivalry” in power between China and the United States is becoming broader and more profound than in the past, perhaps like a gathering storm over the distant horizon. What is particularly important is that China’s lasting and escalating military build-up will surely become (or even already begin to become) the most prominent problem in the minds of American strategists and neo-conservatives. Since Ronald Reagan the U.S. has always been determined to maintain its military superiority, perceiving it the most important and prominent strategic asset, while China has made up its mind to realize essential military modernization for her vital national interests and self-respect: this contradiction is surely not absent the possibility of paralyzing the future of China-U.S. relations.

China as a Major Bearer of International Responsibility  

Especially in China’s relations with the United States, European Union, and other western powers, as well as in the increasingly prominent wide issue of global governance, there are newly emerged major problems with relative long-term significance, which may become even more prominent in the near future. These are the international responsibilities a rising China should bear and, especially in the eyes of the western powers, have not yet been borne sufficiently. What is increasingly necessary is China’s assurance, by words as well as deeds, of her “responsible rise” alongside her peaceful rise.

There should be no doubt in China that she must greatly increase her bearing of international responsibility, as long as such bearing (1) will not violate her vital interests and surpass her fundamental capability, while remaining somewhat compatible with increasing her international influence; (2) results from the equal consultation between her and the external world, rather than from any “dictation” or coercion by the latter; and (3) largely matches the increase of her reasonable international rights and privileges. “International responsibility” is rapidly becoming a key word in the issue of China’s grand strategy and foreign policy, and a major challenge that China has to meet positively. It should not be forgotten that China occupies about one fifth of the world’s population, therefore her contribution to the world in terms of international responsibility bearing will in return benefit her own people.

It is right for China to refuse and resist unreasonable demands and pressure from the West. At the same time, it is also right for her to substantially increase the commitment and bearing of international responsibility to address the global challenges. These two things are not at all mutually exclusive. Especially in reducing her huge foreign trade surplus, dedicating herself more to environmental protection, and engaging in international non-proliferation and regional security cooperation, an increase in commitment and responsibility are closely bound to China’s healthy development within and strategic security without. 

China as a Restrainer of Abusive or Excessive Power in the World

China ought to play this role in both the short and long term, as it is so closely connected with a fundamental issue: What might be rising China’s future foreign policy position?

The peaceful rise will and should continue to be a major element in China’s future foreign policy orientation, but far from its basic totality. The rise of peaceful China has been her “traditional” orientation in foreign policy since the launch of reform and opening-up by Deng Xiaoping. Through her peaceful rise, including the strategic prudence and diplomatic accommodation characterized so often by diplomatic compromises, China shall ultimately become an independent World Power, both politically and mentally. Deng Xiaoping himself emphasized this, with his personal language and discourse, as “China…. will be one polar” in the overall “multi-polar” power structure the world will have and ought to have in the long future.         

For this, China is required to check American power as gently as possible with moderation. This means, among other things, that China should have a sort of comprehensive and balanced diplomacy, paying sufficient attention to her relations with the United States and striving for a better selective partnership, while placing firmly its “gravity” of diplomatic attention and strategic operation upon Asia. China therefore should deal with her Asian neighbors in a holistic strategic framework in the above sense. As long as it would not severely damage China’s vital interests and her fundamental national honor, the Chinese government must do its utmost to keep old friends and win new ones along China’s geographical periphery, mitigating the old lasting resentments, avoiding new national antagonism and, over many decades, creating strategic partners or even allies. In the same way, China also should pay sufficient attention to her relations with other powers on other Continents.

Moreover, this sort of foreign policy orientation requires the Chinese state and society to be healthier through domestic reform, and to reduce the excessive interdependence on the United States in terms of political economy. At the same time with almost the same importance, the Chinese government has to guide the related public opinion in China, a substantial part of which has become in recent years less patient, more easily angry, and often underestimating China’s Asian neighbors.

However, there has been a school of thought regarding the contemporary traditional foreign policy orientation mentioned above. “G-2 the Chinese version,” a concept raised in China in 2008, means that the United States must be given a preponderant position in the Chinese foreign policy agenda and national attention for external affairs. This also means that China’s interdependence with the U.S. in the political economy should increase even further. People holding this belief seem to have convinced themselves that this approach can reduce troubles from the United States as China’s greatest troublemaker through some “extra-accommodation,” while enabling China to treat almost all the other troublemakers more forcefully or less attentively. And, they believe or hope, it also can make China obtain the U.S. recognition of, and even assistance to, her “No.2” status and position in the world in the same way. They obviously have more illusions, less strategic sense, and less real great power aspiration than many others in China.

Shi Yinhong is Professor of International Relations at the Renmin University of China.

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