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Playing by 'The Rules': Is China a Partner or Ward?

By Pang Zhongying

International norms have influenced China's recent evolution, and the country is ready to participate in a rules-based global order. Political differences will persist, but they should not impede this important process.

Environmental issues are just one cause for tensions between China and the West. Here, a coal-fired power plant in Beijing.
REUTERS

Environmental issues are just one cause for tensions between China and the West. Here, a coal-fired power plant in Beijing.

As China engages ever more actively in the world system, it is coming under increasing pressure from a number of international actors who see its growing profile as one of the world’s biggest challenges. Some in the West are wary of China’s deepening cooperation with the developing world and especially its relations with “problematic” countries like North Korea, Myanmar, and Sudan. And then there is China’s demand for oil in the international market, as well as its environmental issues. Concerns about China’s policies toward its ethnic minorities were voiced in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics earlier this year.

Questions like “Is China playing by the rules?”1 and “What will happen if political and economic power shifts to China?” are being raised in the West. The first meeting of the Transatlantic Economic Council in November 2007 focused specifically on the question: “How do we react if and when we recognize that China does not fully respect the rules?”2 As EU-US relations continue to improve, China will undoubtedly face more concerted Western pressure. One of America’s current strategies is to treat China as a “responsible stakeholder” in the world order. This does not mean that America approves of China’s current activities; rather, it reveals that many in the United States continue to doubt China’s intentions and therefore need to encourage its good behavior. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which monitors for Congress the national security implications of trade with China, has been highly skeptical of China’s commitment to “the rules.” Europe too is wary of China’s rise. The European Union has forged a “strategic partnership” with China, but there are many new developments that have offset the momentum of Chinese-European relations. The intensification of European trade protectionism and European interference in Chinese domestic disputes in Taiwan and Tibet are just two examples.

China faces pressures from all directions: Domestically it is challenged to protect its growing interests and citizens abroad. At the same time, the West presses ever harder for China to take its international obligations seriously. The West has not only interfered in China’s internal affairs but also hopes to persuade China to abandon its policy of “nonintervention.” Within this complex context, China continues to advocate the principles of sovereignty and “non-interference,” while paradoxically it has become more and more involved in international interventions.

China’s International Intervention Policy

In the 1950s China together with other Asian and African countries found itself on the defensive and as a result helped create a new international principle called “noninterference.” Before the principle was fully institutionalized, China entered the Korean War and then the conflicts in Indochina, which included the Vietnam War and other regional battles involving the “international communist movement.” However, by the late 1970s and during most of the 1980s, China again played a small role in international affairs. In 1982 China declared its “independent foreign policy for peace.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, China strictly pursued a “low key” foreign policy.

But since the late 1990s China’s attitude toward international intervention has changed. While it still adheres to the principle of “noninterference,” China no longer opposes international intervention organized by the West, as long as the intervention is legitimate and justifiable. For example, in 2001 a new doctrine of “the responsibility to protect” (R2P) was promoted by the West. Initially, some Chinese analysts worried that this concept would be used to justify unwarranted military intervention by the United States or some European powers, but gradually they recognized that R2P could be used to bridge the divide between supporters of “humanitarian intervention” and supporters of state sovereignty and nonintervention. They stressed that international intervention based on R2P must be only carried out under certain conditions. Particularly, they argued that a United Nations Security Council mandate for military intervention -- humanitarian or not -- is a necessary precondition.

In 2004 China signed on to the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change that released an influential policy report entitled A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, which endorsed the R2P concept. China also agreed to the United Nations 2005 World Summit Outcome, which states: “The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”3 A year later, China supported the similarly worded Security Council Resolution 1674, and UN Resolution 1679 to assist UN peacekeeping operations in Sudan.

Participation in UN peacekeeping operations further reflects this major shift in China’s foreign policy. Since the 1990s, under UN mandates China has sent peacekeeping troops to conflict-stricken areas across the globe, most often to Southeast Asia. In 1992 the United Nations carried out a large-scale peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, and around 800 Chinese engineers and more than 100 Chinese military observers took part. In 2000 China was involved in peacekeeping activities in East Timor. All in all, China has contributed more than 7,000 peacekeepers to at least 21 missions around the world, more than the rest of the UN Security Council’s permanent five members combined. In sum, China is the 13th largest contributor of peacekeeping troops in the world.4

Beyond peacekeeping missions, China has also become involved in other forms of international engagement. China provided civilian and military relief in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia. And currently China is providing more than $10 million in aid for cyclone-devastated Myanmar. As a member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, China supports the global efforts to control, reduce, and remove the danger that nuclear proliferation poses to global security. China has cooperated with the international community and major powers such as the United States and Germany to negotiate nuclear issues with North Korea and Iran. As the chair of the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s denuclearization, China has played a key role in maintaining an effective multilateral process. And as a member of the newly created UN advisory body, the Peacebuilding Commission, China supports post-conflict peacebuilding projects aimed at helping nations recover from war.

Broadly speaking, China’s role in sponsoring, building, and organizing regional institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the East Asia Summit has gone significantly beyond its traditional policy rhetoric of noninterference. More importantly, China has participated in or sponsored regional and international military exercises with a number of key countries and regions.

Nonetheless, China is and will only be a part of international joint efforts mandated by the United Nations or another multilateral regional organization. China cannot carelessly involve itself in every offensive military intervention. Yet as it faces the strategic challenges of globalization, there is already mounting pressure on China to protect the growing number of Chinese citizens and interests abroad. Following the examples of noninterference policies in the African Union and ASEAN charters, China needs to carefully consider its right to intervene in humanitarian crises and severe attacks on China’s interests or nationals.

Although some in the West have harshly criticized China’s noninterference policy when they talk about China’s engagement in the Third World (for example, China’s no strings attached aid policy), the West has also benefited from China’s nonintervention policy. As a result, China’s increasing de facto intervention may create new friction between China and the West, especially if Chinese interventions are unilateral. China and the West need to coordinate and even harmonize their actions when it comes to international intervention.

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