January 23, 2011
As Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao met in Washington last week, I found myself reflecting on what China has come to mean to the world.
There’s no denying that China’s rise has produced significant benefits within and outside China, in terms of industry, jobs and rising standards of living. China in that way has become synonymous with progress.
And yet that same nation unapologetically steals copyrighted material. It undervalues its currency. It dismisses concerns about human rights and the environment. It doesn’t “meddle” in other countries’ affairs to rationalize doing business with ruthless, destabilizing regimes.
Surely you’ve heard these concerns expressed elsewhere. But the point to consider here is what it collectively amounts to.
What does it mean when a rising power flagrantly disregards international norms designed to improve on the inter-workings of the world? When a government riding a nationalistic wave in a behemoth of a nation is assertive and uncompromising, yearning to shape the world without the moral responsibility that comes along with it?
Twenty-first century China is largely a celebration of power for power’s sake, reminiscent of the role favored by leading nations prior to World War II – before America successfully inspired a(n imperfect) multi-polar order that stressed stability, sovereignty, democracy, good governance and mutually advantageous trade – and lacking in the moral considerations required to truly help advance humanity.
As Leslie Gelb wrote in the Daily Beast last Sunday, “Real leaders not only assert their interests vigorously, but make compromises and sacrifices in order to lead successfully without the costs of conflict. Chinese leaders today just appear content or determined to continue growing economically and not making any sacrifices.”
For a while this face was widely dismissed as a passing phase of petulant adolescence; extend patience to the communist nation, the theory went, and it would learn the wisdom of respecting international norms.
But in a number of areas China is proving determined to do the exact opposite.
It extracts resources from Africa and resells them back to the continent in finished form at the expense of growing local industries (meeting the definition of imperialism in its plainest sense). It pushes to adopt its own wireless communication system that conflicts with the global standard. It seals its industries off from outside competition. It severely curbs the export of rare earth materials needed to power cell phones, flat screen TVs, and hybrid cars. It defies the internationally accepted right to 12 nautical miles off a nation’s coast to claim nearly the whole China Sea.
Disruptive positions like these appear set to grow in number and impact, when one considers China’s internal power dynamics. There we find, “ a diffuse ruling party in which generals, ministers and big corporate interests have more clout, and less deference, than they did in the days of Mao or Deng Xiaoping” (David Sanger and Michael Wines in last Sunday’s New York Times).
This really is another way of saying that what China needs desperately – if it is to be a force for global progress – is to adopt a progressive, overarching moral code, one that is cognizant of the fine line between power and the abuse of power, that feels a greater feeling of responsibility to the larger world.
Love or hate US foreign policy, there’s no denying that American power is tempered by such considerations, which is why power is safer in Washington’s hands than Beijing’s. Even when that sense of duty has been suspended – as in the case of Iraq – it ignites fierce debate in Washington and among the general public about the impact any pursuit of sheer self-interest may have on other nations, i.e. the collective conscience is guided by a sense of obligation to the global good.
We should – indeed can ill afford not to – expect that standard of conduct from the world’s top nations in the 21st century, a time marked by overpopulation, narrowing self-identification, climate change, and a paranoid scramble for natural resources.
And so let us hope that besides working to solve thorny bilateral issues during President Hu’s US visit this week, Washington also firmly reminds Beijing of its obligations to the world and prepares to act decisively should it continue to shirk that responsibility.
For a China that fails to absorb the point will stand in the way of human progress.