Can China lead the world?



An increasingly inward-looking United States has many countries and international organisations that rely on its leadership justifiably concerned. From China’s point of view, however, a golden opportunity has presented itself. Since Donald Trump’s election as US president, the Chinese have been notably quiet in adamantly declaring a shift in any sort of political policy. However, it’s now clear that China sees the shake up in the international system as a chance for the country to step up as a leader in international organisations and solving international issues such as climate change, trade and security.

In terms of economic leadership, President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum meeting (WEF) in Davos last month was a clear indication that China would seek to lead the world in promoting the principles of free trade and open markets.

President Xi cautioned world leaders that ‘pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room. While wind and rain may be kept outside, that dark room will also block light and air. No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war’. He reassured delegates that in the face of rising protectionism, China could be counted on to ‘keep its door open and not close it’.

Delegates to the WEF already hold overwhelmingly liberal economic views, and post-American election, were welcoming of anything that provided comfort that liberalism was not dead. Thus, President Xi was seen as a messiah, a new captain to guide the world’s economy. It was incredibly well received as, for once, there was little difference between looking at the front pages of China’s state-run media and most foreign newspapers.

In regards to China’s security aspirations, the change has been even more pronounced. The CCP has actually changed its language around how it discusses China’s ambitions and, in Chinese diplomacy, this usually signals a considered ideological shift. Previous comments have noted that China will play an important part in international security and the international community. During a national security seminar in Beijing on 17 February, President Xi changed this when he said that China would implement the ‘Two Guides Policy' (两个引导), in which China would guide the international community in dealing with firstly, a new world order and, secondly, international security.

Additionally, as David Kelly from China Policy has noted, Beijing has recently felt it’s high time to reassert the benefits of the ‘China Model’ of development (also termed the Beijing Consensus), revamping it on a global scale as the China Solution (中国方案). Xi’s Davos speech, Two Guides Policy and Chinese-led initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Capacity Cooperation all contain the principles of the China Solution: pragmatism, openness and the win-win principle.

Beijing has presented a real case for leading the world in the technology and structural reforms needed to combat climate change. As Jackson Kwok at China Matters notes, in 2015, China invested US$102 billion in renewable energy, more than the United States and European Union combined. It was a key instigator of the Paris 2015 Climate agreement and the COP22 talks, and recently announced that the criteria used to evaluate officials’ performance would focus more on environmental protection and less on GDP. The party believes becoming a world leader in tackling climate change is ideologically sound. Zou Ji, a senior Chinese climate talks negotiator, stated last November that ‘proactively taking action against climate change will improve China’s international image and allow it to occupy the moral high ground’.

Yet even with these grand aspirations and even grander investment dollars, it’s still unreasonable to think that China will lead the world.

It’s difficult to embody what we would typically think of as a true international leader if that only involves economic leadership. It may be true that some countries involved in China’s projects will sacrifice political considerations for economic gains, but this is something that countries that still hold weight in the international system—like the United Kingdom, Australia and much of the EU— would be extremely unlikely to compromise on.

China has thus failed to provide a consistent, attractive ideological basis for leadership in the international political system. As termed by Elizabeth C. Economy at the Council of Foreign Relations, ‘Globalization with Chinese Characteristics’ has simply failed to take off. China has also failed to successfully export the ideas and innovations from its domestic level political system to help other nations. For example, there still remains comparatively little cooperation between China and other governments on implementing Chinese environmental technology or policies.

China has been a ‘fair-weather friend’, seeing international cooperation as worthwhile only when directly beneficial to its own interests, as reflected in its lack of interference in international issues like Syria and Crimea. China showed support for the Ukraine’s ‘territorial integrity’, while simultaneously refusing to participate in US-led sanctions or condemnation of Russia’s actions due to a desire to ‘respect Russia’s state sovereignty’. Similarly, in the Syrian crisis, China has vetoed four UNSC resolutions, mostly following Russia’s actions. In both situations, the desire to grow economic ties with Moscow won out over solving pressing international crises.

Domestically, the party has a lot to worry about. According to analysis by Tyler Headley and Cole Tanigawa-Lau in Foreign Affairs, in 2016, there were 130 000 protests in China—a number that’s increasing steadily year on year. The issues primarily concerned labour laws, social security and environmental issues. The government’s also concerned about protecting its core interests (核心利益) in Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Tibet, Taiwan, and managing regional security issues like North Korea’s nuclear program and the expansionary ambitions of Japan’s military. It’s unrealistic to think that the CCP would ever expend energy and resources attempting to advance China’s leadership in the international community at the risk of domestic instability.

China will rally against protectionism and involve itself more deeply in international institutions, insofar as it advances its own interests, especially in regards to OBOR and the AIIB. But China fundamentally lacks the ideological pull, ambition or resources to lead the world.

Jacinta Keast is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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