Bringing China into the International System

I talk to people from European diplomatic circles fairly often, and one thing you hear pretty regularly is that European politicians hate the fact that the Chinese take Americans more seriously. Particularly in the context of the strategic economic dialogues – Europe may account for more trade with China than the US does, but China pulls out all the stops when American officials are in town, while it largely forgets about officials from the European Union.

The European Council on Foreign Relations just put together a policy brief, which – while I disagree with the assessment of China’s internal situation – is one of the best things I’ve seen put out recently on “engaging China.”

Better than it seems

The core of my disagreement with the piece is its insistence that China is using new found leverage in the wake of the financial crisis to push its own interests over the interests of the international system. While the writer makes an extremely strong argument at times, particularly relating to the dismantlement of Copenhagen (I would throw Doha into the mix), he overstates his point.

China has also become more open in rejecting western human rights standards and is, on occasion, now even willing to show disregard for its own law. For example, in January 2010, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman responded to a question about the whereabouts of a well-known dissident, Gao Zhisheng, who had been missing for almost a year, by saying that “he is where he should be”. (After briefly reappearing under police control after more than a year, Mr.Gao disappeared again.) This disregard represents a significant change and may create splits within China’s political elite and in public opinion.

This is a fairly easy example, because prior to fairly recently no one in their right mind would ask a foreign ministry spokesman the whereabouts of a well-known dissident. The writer in several other cases points out situations where China seems to be obstructionist, but is in fact participating more than it ever had in the past. The situations in Iran and North Korea come to mind. China should be participating more in these cases, but progress is being made.

He is correct though that China’s biggest foreign policy platform is “we aren’t responsible for that,” and China has been able to put considerably more force behind its diplomatic ploys to be irresponsible since it became everyone in the world’s largest trading partner. I would however disagree that leverage has been quite as great as Western diplomats are prone to think. China is fairly panicked about its economic situation. The RMB hurts China far more than it hurts the West (though less than it hurts other developing countries). And with growth slowing and inflation rising the countless threats economic analysts made last year of stagflation might be coming true. The North Korean situation is a DISASTER for China, and I’m pretty sure that Chinese foreign policy types are panicking trying to figure out what to do.

A little leverage isn’t hard to find

His big point though, that a quid pro quo approach is needed for negotiating with China, I can’t possibly argue with, and I think is something that both Europeans and American leaders should pay heed to. His recommendations are mostly on the grandiose side – he recommends establishing a federal industrial and technological policy to promote Europe as a center for cutting edge technological development… and as protection from intellectual property violations in China – but they all seem fairly necessary (can you think of any other solution to rampant law breaking than aggressive legal action?).

He also looks at human rights as an area where Europe should put more muscle into getting China to act more responsibly, or, more accurately speaking, less barbarically. I think this point should be taken very seriously, as improvement in human rights in China, I think, could easily be contagious. It’s sad to say, but America’s level of incarceration is higher than China’s, the difference in its attitude towards the death penalty is quantitative, not qualitative, and over the Bush years America’s moral compass was slowly syncing with China’s instead of Europe’s. The horrors of China’s human rights policy can help shine a light on areas in the developed world that aren’t as different as we like to think.

The other point I would like to emphasize of their policy outline is possible cooperation with other developing states. They mention this as a possible strategy, but I think engagement with India has truly been underwhelming. There have been a number of headline deals and projects, but there are a lot of areas where Europe and the US could be working better in India’s long-term interests (tossing out the common agricultural policy jumps to mind) and get India more engaged in strengthening the international system rather than deciding, along with China, that it isn’t their responsibility.