Navigating around the Chinese hegemon on the horizon

Asia Politics World

Author: Xiang Gao, University of New England

How a rising China will integrate itself with the global economic and political order is a salient issue in world politics. On the one hand, China’s rejection of the South China Sea arbitration, its efforts to isolate Taiwan internationally and its willingness to work with controversial leadership in developing states indicate a more assertive ‘China First’ foreign policy. On the other hand, it is evident that China is engaging in significant multilateral and normative actions.

China’s rapid economic growth since 1978 has been accompanied by an increased involvement in global and regional governance. As of 2018, China is an active member of 65 international organisations, has ratified or signed over 220 international treaties and has implemented a significant amount of international obligations and laws into its domestic legal system.

Along with this international engagement, China is developing a ‘responsible power diplomacy’ — creating political discourse around ‘China’s peaceful rise’ and China’s intention to build a ‘harmonious world’. These initiatives seek to displace China’s old image of a ‘hegemon on the horizon’ with the new image of a responsible and cooperative great power that is fully committed to international norms and a rule-based international order.

The notion of a responsible and cooperative great power does not exclude a state from pursuing its national interest. Rather, the normative environment and interactions in the international community impacts the determination of national interests. These norms tend to reinforce policies that provide international public goods (such as security) or facilitate a redefinition of national interest away from the traditional values of absolute state sovereignty and non-interference to include such things as a commitment to institution building and international human rights. Being a responsible and cooperative great power carries with it the notion that the ability to attain foreign policy objectives short of violence and coercion are dependent on shared norms and values.

International values are often ignored in ‘high politics’ concerning national and international security. Yet it is evident that the international community is saturated in these norms and that they have been internalised by national policymakers. For example, states may pursue certain foreign policies that have little if any material reward. Canada is a ‘helpful fixer’ participating in UN peacekeeping missions and South Africa (before the setback of Jacob Zuma) was a ‘beacon of human rights’.

From this perspective, a review of a range of foreign policies suggests that Chinese policymakers have internalised a set of international norms in some areas even as the Chinese state has vigorously pursued unilateral foreign policy objectives.

First, it has increasingly described itself as a ‘responsible power’ that supports and ascribes to international norms. Various UN Security Council votes or abstentions, such as in the 2011 Libyan intervention and collective anti-piracy support in the Indian Ocean, suggest the impact of normative collective values.

Second, it has specifically incorporated and ‘localised’ various international laws and values into its domestic system. For example, after signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, China passed a new mental health law in 2013 that greatly expanded the legal protection of mentally ill persons in committal procedures and treatment protocols.

These localisation measures can be used to garner good will and global leadership opportunities. As China actively seeks to incorporate biodiversity and climate change planning into its domestic law with its development of the China Business and Biodiversity Partnership, it has championed itself as a global leader in these areas. In 2020, China will hold the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

But serious challenges remain. China’s bilateral approach to the South China Sea, increasing strategic reach, and the current disputes over international trade and investment suggest that material national interests rather than normative values may dominate Chinese foreign policy as much as many other great powers.

The international values of sovereign rights and non-interference norms are sometimes used to insulate China from criticism of foreign investment in the developing world. Similarly, China is very cautious of humanitarian intervention and hesitant to join the international community in condemning or sanctioning governments that have violated human rights.

Chinese foreign policy has been influenced by material interests, particularly in areas of national security or ‘core’ national interests. Yet it is reductionist to ignore how the global normative and institutional framework has impacted, and can impact, Chinese foreign policy behaviours. From this perspective, the international engagement proffered by the international community since 1978 has been a success even if one acknowledges the serious challenges in respect to global and regional security, trade, investment and human rights.

The international community clearly expects China to shoulder the global responsibility that is commensurate with its increasing national power. Indeed, some scholars and policymakers are even wary of the ‘Kindleberger Trap’ where a rising China may not be able to provide sufficient global public goods.

The international community should broaden and deepen this normative engagement with China to include collective security and ‘high politics’ issues, with the renewed notion of ‘state responsibility’ in support of the value of human rights and democracy.

Dr Xiang Gao is a lecturer in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at the University of New England, Armidale.