A visiting expert on Chinese foreign policy says the country’s growing presence on the world stage comes with risks to the international order - but believes containment is not the right response, as Sam Sachdeva writes.
China’s growing assertiveness on the world stage is blindingly obvious - but the best way to deal with it is less clear.
For Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the issue is understanding the values that distinguish the country from others on the world stage.
Glaser, who spoke to Newsroom during a New Zealand visit, says China’s increasingly muscular approach on the world stage is largely due to its growing capabilities.
While the country largely limited itself to domestic issues (such as building its economy) in the 1990s and 2000s - adhering to former leader Deng Xiaoping’s motto of “Hide your strength, bide your time” - under Xi Jinping it has been able to look out across the horizon.
“They now have the capabilities to protect their interests far more than they did in the past, and their interests have of course expanded dramatically - they’re not just along their borders but further out,” Glaser said.
US creates 'vacuum' for China
Glaser says that expansion was aided by the global financial crisis in the late 2000s, which created a sense in China that the United States was on a downward trend.
That belief was boosted by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans Pacific Partnership, creating a “vacuum” that Xi and China have sought to fill.
“China is seeing this opportunity, with the Trump administration’s emphasis on America First and to some extent protectionist policies and bilateral trade agreements...to present itself as, I don’t want to say the saviour of the region, but a responsible power that has everyone’s interests at heart.”
As part of its increased influence, China has been pushing for what Glaser describes as “deference to Chinese interests, for all of their neighbours and maybe some countries further away to take China’s interests into account”.
That means “punishing” those countries which take any decisions damaging to its national interests - although she says they have done so without transparency and with plausible deniability.
“China would never constrain their own options...yet it expects others to do so.”
For instance, after imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, China blocked salmon imports from Norway for several years - ostensibly due to food safety concerns.
The Philippines suffered similar problems with tropical fruit exports following the South China Sea dispute, while South Korea faced economic losses over the deployment of a US-built anti-missile system to guard against threats from North Korea.
The issue may ring a bell to some in New Zealand: in August 2016, China tightened controls on kiwifruit imports after the Government launched an inquiry into alleged Chinese steel dumping.
“Norway was essentially compelled to kowtow and say they’d never do it again and that they’d always respect Chinese interests,” Glaser says.
She says the pressure exerted by China, often without basis in international rules, raises important questions about its view of other countries’ sovereignty.
“China would never constrain their own options like that, yet it expects others to do so.”
That, she argues, shows the broader risk to the rules-based order of China’s growing dominance.
“We don’t share values with China, the Chinese increasingly make that clear: they’re developing their own set of socialist values, they speak out quite directly against the relevance of Western values to their society.”
Rule-maker or rule-breaker?
While some say China has earned the right to be a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker, Glaser says it’s “a myth” that the country has been shut out in the past, pointing to its permanent role on the UN Security Council and in developing the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“China were deeply engaged in 10 years of negotiations [on the convention]...but that didn’t get them to respect the rule of law at the tribunal [on the South China Sea].”
While China has shown a willingness to abide by the rules of global financial institutions, such as the WTO’s dispute mechanism process, when it comes to security issues and areas that affect their sovereignty, she says the Chinese have been “unbending”.
On the trade front, she says there may be some reason to be sceptical about China’s newfound advocacy.
For one, it has appeared uninterested in other countries’ attempts to lift labour standards through multilateral FTAs, instead focusing simply on improving market access.
“From countries that have signed onto TPP, there’s a recognition that trade liberalisation is good but it’s also not enough - we do need to create some standards to protect labour.”
Then there is the issue of China’s apparent attempts to influence other countries’ foreign and domestic policy, as detailed in a research paper by Canterbury University professor Anne-Marie Brady.
With Australia this month introducing proposed foreign interference legislation in response to concerns across the ditch, Glaser says it is an issue New Zealand should be mindful of.
While issues with foreigners making financial donations to politicians are the easiest to identify, Glaser says Brady has discussed a range of other concerns, such as Chinese government attempts to influence migrants in other countries or control local Chinese media.
With “everything” in China controlled by the CCP, she says the Government sometimes tries to test the waters in terms of influence, such as with overseas universities that host a Chinese-funded Confucius Institute.
Communication, not containment
So what is the best way to deal with China’s ascension on the world stage?
Glaser says talk of containment is the wrong approach, rooted as it is in “the old Cold War days of the Soviet Union”.
“Back then, countries chose sides. Today countries don’t want to choose sides - they want good relations with both the US and China.”
Some Chinese-led initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, look like their Western equivalents in part because of the involvement of Western countries like New Zealand, helping to shape best practice instead of attempting to block it.
“We can’t shut China out and we certainly shouldn’t try to do so, so we need to influence them by being at the table.”
However, Glaser argues against the suggestion that the revival of the Quad - a strategic alliance between the US, Japan, Australia, and India - is about containment.
“If countries are like-minded and working together to protect their interests, that’s a good thing - it’s wrong to see it as a containment strategy and wrong to see it as anti-China.”
Alliances such as the Quad help to counter China’s preference to “divide and conquer”, picking off countries one by one and using its might as leverage against them.
When it comes to the issue of China’s alleged attempts at interference, Glaser said Kiwis and citizens of other countries need to better understand its motivations.
“All countries need to help people understand that when you deal with China, it’s not the same as dealing with a democracy.”
That doesn’t mean cutting business or educational ties, she says; instead, “it’s just a matter of asking questions and understanding what are their interests”.