Do we really want China to be a responsible stakeholder in global affairs?
The West needs to be careful what it wishes for. Western capitals want China to be more responsible and active, but they don’t like it when Beijing is more assertive. China wants respect, but not responsibility.
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Beijing regularly teams up with Moscow to weaken action in the Security Council relating to Iran’s nuclear program, thereby privileging its short-term commercial relationship with the Iranians over its long-term interest in a stable Middle East and a functioning nuclear non-proliferation regime. It provides cover in the Security Council to states widely regarded as pariahs, such as Sudan and Burma (Myanmar). On the other hand, on issues that do not trespass directly on its core interests, for example Afghanistan, China remains strangely disengaged.Skip to next paragraph
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In other words, it is occupied largely with protecting its narrowly-defined interests and those of its allies rather than projecting its influence.
Beijing wants respect, not responsibility
China wants respect, but not responsibility. It is reluctant to bind its own freedom of movement and subsume it within international institutions in the way the United States did after the Second World War, even though Washington’s relative power was far greater then than Beijing’s is now.
None of this is to say that China’s interests coincide exactly with Western interests. They do not, and we should not expect China to act exactly as we do. Nor should we ask China to promote global interests at the expense of its national interests. But as China’s wealth and power grow, its interests expand. A middle-power foreign policy is inadequate for a great power.
If China is to help run the international system, it must help strengthen the international system. Beijing needs to strike a new balance between its traditional economic and security concerns and the broader imperatives it must now satisfy, including stable great-power relations, nonproliferation, and the development of international prestige. China’s UN performance has largely escaped scrutiny in the past two decades, with the world’s head turned by American power and then American overreach. That pattern will not hold, as China may well discover in coming days.
Stepping up – but how?
On the other hand, the West needs to be careful what it wishes for. Western capitals want Beijing to be more responsible and active, but they don’t like it when Beijing is more assertive. China’s version of “stepping up” at the UN will not necessarily be the same as the West’s. How would Washington feel about China involving itself in the Middle East peace process, for example, or establishing “coalitions of the willing” in order to intervene in another country?
World Bank president and former Bush administration official Robert Zoellick famously called on China to be a “responsible stakeholder.” In its performance at the UN, China has so far failed to clear that bar. China’s leaders would probably respond that the responsibilities – and prerogatives – of a stakeholder are open to interpretation.
Michael Fullilove is director of the global issues program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. This commentary is based on a new research paper, “The stakeholder spectrum: China and the United Nations.”