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Can China meet international expectations?

Beijing: With international power and influence comes global responsibility. Decrying others “interfering in its internal affairs” at the slightest whiff of criticism, this is something with which China is yet to fully come to grips.

Recent figures form the Pew Research Center found most respondents worldwide had mostly positive views of China. A global median of 55% had a favorable view, compared to 34% with a negative view. Ratings were higher in sub-Saharan Africa.

When it comes to the Chinese government respecting individual rights, however, the global median was just 34%. About three-quarters of respondents in the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea and the EU thought China did not respect such rights.

Interestingly, the USA received more favorable responses than China in Asia (66% versus 57%), Latin America (67% versus 57%) and Europe (69% versus 41%). Interestingly, 59% of Chinese under 30 years of age viewed the USA positively, compared to 29% of those Chinese older than 50.

China being at odds with the international community was amply illustrated when its neighbor, led by the despot Kim Jong-un, launched a satellite-carrying rocket into orbit on 6 February. It followed just weeks after North Korea conducted another nuclear test. China, although frustrated by North Korean antics, refused to roundly condemn the dynastic regime.

One side effect of the North Korean rocket/missile launch is that the USA seems set to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula. Talks between the USA and South Korea will happen this week to discuss such a strategic deployment.

Having a capable US ballistic missile defense system deployed so close to its own borders is the last thing China wants. Obviously, it would blunt the deterrence effect of China’s extensive ballistic missile arsenal.

Yet China’s criticisms of a THAAD deployment appear more vociferous than its reaction to North Korea’s illegal tests. Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed Chinese condemnation of such a move to State Secretary John Kerry in Munich on 12 February. Wang “demanded the US side must act cautiously, not use the opportunity to harm China’s security interests and not add a new complicating factor to regional peace and security”.

Wang also reiterated that sanctions against North Korea “are not the aim”, and that instead countries should find ways to restart talks with North Korea. North Korea is clearly in blatant violation of existing United Nations rulings, so China’s stance against sanctions is contradictory.

Think also of the issue of five missing booksellers, one that has gripped Hong Kong. All five have been detained by Mainland authorities for their activities publishing books critical of Beijing and President Xi Jinping. It is widely acknowledged that the latest publisher to disappear, Lee Po, was abducted from Hong Kong in December by Chinese security officials and illegally whisked over the border.

The United Kingdom, in a six-monthly report, demanded from China the “immediate return” of Lee, who is a British citizen. The report asserted, “Our current information indicates that Mr Lee was involuntarily removed to the mainland without any due process under Hong Kong SAR law.” The UK was the first foreign government to accuse Chinese agents of Lee’s kidnapping.

With Britain stating the case was a “serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration”, tensions between China and the UK are set to rise. Relations reached warm, fuzzy heights after Xi was treated like royalty during last year’s visit to London, but the Hong Kong government swiftly described the British assertion as “speculative”.

One of the other Hong Kong booksellers disappeared from Thailand, suggesting Chinese agents may have acted illegally on foreign soil. If true, such blatant actions show growing Chinese confidence and disregard for international law.

The booksellers’ arrests and televised confessions is just one episode increasing frustration amongst Hong Kong citizens over a perceived disregard for such things as academic freedom and freedom of the press. Tensions amongst fringe elements boiled over in a riot in which nearly 50 police were injured on 8 February.

To date, the communist regime – and its security apparatus that has a mandate to do much as it likes on the Mainland – has not explained its actions in this case.

Despite such exposures, China is working hard to boost its international image. Many see this as positive, including China’s greater engagement via its One Belt, One Road initiative. Etienne Reuter, a former senior advisor to the European Commission, told Xinhua, “The new Chinese strategy encourages reconciliation, commitment and cooperation between the various countries of the world to form a community.”

He added, “China is at the forefront as a world power and assumes its responsibilities for peace and the welfare of humankind.” Yet, are such flowery and glowing terms appropriate?

A recent article in Foreign Affairs by Andrew Erickson and Adam Liff analysed Xi’s vision for a “new type of great-power relations” that he has championed since his Washington DC visit in February 2012. In an uncritical acceptance of this slogan, “the Obama administration fell into a trap,” according to the authors.

Why is it a trap? Because the phrase is more than just an innocuous formulaic expression. The authors say, “At best, US acceptance of the “new type of great-power relations” concept offers ammunition for those in Beijing and beyond who promote a false narrative of the United States’ weakness and China’s inevitable rise.”

The danger is that such a great-power status conferred by itself, China and others do not place any conditions on its behavior. Take China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, for example, where the country has not seen fit to consult or heed the concerns of others.

Erickson and Liff continued, “At worst, the formulation risks setting US-Chinese relations on a dangerous course: implicitly committing Washington to unilateral concessions that are anathema to vital and bipartisan US foreign policy values, principles, and interests.”

The writers called for the USA to proactively reshape the narrative. What should this look like then? “It should explicitly articulate and champion its own positive vision for US-Chinese relations, which should accord China international status conditionally – in return for Beijing abiding by 21st-century international norms, behaving responsibly toward its neighbors, and contributing positively to the very international order that has enabled China’s meteoric rise.”

The Thucydides Trap, a theory that says the rise of a new power inevitably leads to conflict with the established power, is a misconception that China has exploited. As part of a simplified narrative designed to stifle the USA, even Xi has warned confrontation is “inevitable” if the USA does not accommodate China. He said in July 2014: “One can ill afford a mistake on fundamental issues, a mistake that may possibly ruin the whole undertaking.”

Rather, perhaps one of the greatest mistakes is that most American leaders do not really know what a “new type of great-power relations” actually means, even though Chinese officials and media use the phrase all the time.

Erickson and Liff listed one cynical interpretation of the phrase that “Xi expects the United States to make certain accommodations concerning China’s ‘core interests'”. However, China has no intention of making its own concessions. Already, the potential for making mistakes appears simply due to diverse expectations between the parties.

There is clearly a paradox. China wants to be treated by the USA and others with the respect it thinks its status deserves. However, it is running roughshod over the feelings and policies of weaker nations such as the Philippines. China seems to be following a “might is right” model in such relations, whereas it complains the USA should not do so.

The two writers concluded, “Above all, the United States must not give tacit approval to a Chinese shortcut to great-power status out of exaggerated fear of inevitable conflict. It must approach Beijing from a position of strength.” Thus, it is China’s responsibility – not just the USA’s – to ensure peace.

It is only in recent months that Obama’s government has taken a stronger stance with China, examples being naval vessels and aircraft conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

In the meantime, China continues to spread its sphere of influence abroad. A report by the Lowy Institute in Australia found that from 2006-13, China was the fifth-highest aid donor in the Pacific (spending USD1.057 billion), behind Australia, the USA, Japan and New Zealand respectively. Fiji was the largest single recipient of Chinese aid in this period.

At the 2nd China Pacific Islands Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in November 2013, China promised Pacific Island nations $1 billion in concessional loans. It is clearly making a major push to curry favor in the region.

China’s efforts in Antarctica are also redoubling. China only established its first scientific research base there in 1985. It currently has four bases (Zhongshan, Kunlun, Great Wall and Taishan, which opened in 2014), but China announced it will find a site for a fifth.

These efforts aim at more than just scientific research, for influence in Antarctica will entitle countries to future access to resources such as fisheries, minerals and hydrocarbons. Added to this is that a ban on commercial drilling for resources in Antarctica will expire in 2048.

Guo Peiqing, a law professor at the Ocean University of China, told The Guardian, “China’s exploration of the continent is like playing chess. It’s important to have a position in the global game.”

China definitely wants to be a major player on the global stage. However, can it play by the rules, or will it make up its own as it goes along? (ANI)