Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Is China ready for global leadership?

Is China ready for global leadership?

Is China ready for a larger global role and should the outside world, in particular a regional partner like Australia, embrace this possibility? Evidently not, judging by remarks made by the Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department, Michael Thawley. 'China wasn't ready to take on the responsibility either economically or politically or security-wise,' he said in Canberra earlier this month at the Australian Leadership Forum. 'While China wasn't ready to attempt to create a new international order, it certainly wasn't interested in endorsing the present one.'

Questioning China's readiness for a global leadership in security, economic and political issues is not new. Chinese leaders have been saying precisely this for several years. Their desire to occupy a low-key global diplomatic role was so strong that American officials during the George W Bush period complained about China's failure to be an adequate stakeholder and partner in the international order and to occupy a position commensurate with its new economic power. After the global financial crisis in 2008, China resisted being talked up as part of a 'G2' with the US.

Even when using its UN veto against military intervention in Syria in 2011, China took its lead from Russia. Beijing's dislike of being isolated or exposed on issues unrelated to its direct domestic interests is infamous. The only questions China has been proactive and vociferous about are those relating to its direct strategic space – the South and East China Seas, Taiwan and issues directly around their borders.

A country that promotes multipolarity is unlikely to want to act unilaterally unless it has to. There is no evidence that this fundamental position has changed. And there is a good reason why the government in Beijing, despite all the temptations of slotting itself into a more prominent position, might want to maintain this stance. Every time it does try to articulate a bolder vision of its international status, even in relatively benign areas, noisy constituencies in the US and elsewhere immediately shriek that this is a sign the country is positioning itself on some mission of global dominance. [fold]

If even something as straightforward as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), on which China has taken a lead over the last few months, raises cries of China's 'domineering' and 'hegemonistic' behaviour, then one has to wonder whether the problem is not what China is doing, but more about the rest of the world being congenitally unwilling to cede Beijing some space even where Beijing patently adds value.

The largely negative US response to the AIIB will probably compound Beijing's reluctance to seek a bigger role. Why bother neatly filling the 'enemy' or competitor slot for the world's most powerful country when you know you have so many pressing problems at home, and when you know that partnership with the US is critical for the solution to so many of these problems? (Anyone who doubts the need for such a partnership might care to look at the statement issued by the US last month after the high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which outlined huge areas of common US-China interest and co-operation.)

Is China behaving in a way that can truly be characterised as so antagonistic to the current world order that it can be read as a failure to endorse it?

There are some specific areas where this is true. China's more intense sense of its immediate regional interests in the South and East China Sea means we have seen more assertiveness there. But on most other issues Beijing works broadly within the existing global order. And it hasn't just endorsed that order; in fact it has a huge stake in its stability and success. China is one of the main suppliers of UN peacekeeping forces, a key member of the World Trade Organization, a signatory to a major accord on the environment with the US, the creator of 40% of global GDP growth from 2008 to 2013, the next host but one of the G20, and the key reason why Australia (alone among developed countries) avoided recession from 2008.

China broadly subscribes to the view that it is better to work within the current global system, but in some areas it has a stronger sense of its bargaining power to make tactical moves for more influence and space. The AIIB is the most recent example.

The most we can say is that China's rise creates a very dynamic situation. It is not an all-or-nothing situation in which China is doomed to be a trouble-maker. That's a framing which fails to catch the complex reality of what China is trying to do, and what we as outsiders involved in its development might do to influence it and partner with it.

The best response is to welcome Beijing's constructive contribution and active engagement, while understanding that some of the parameters of the existing order need to be revised in order to embrace it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

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