Michael Thawley's comments on China's present global leadership credentials and ambitions are correct and phrased in the refreshingly direct manner Australians usually take as a badge of national pride and uniqueness.
The fact that his comments caused such a stir in Australia (and seemingly in Australia alone) tells us more about the commentators than the comments themselves.
The Chinese state has so far eschewed attempts at global leadership. Rather, Chinese policy-makers are focusing their institution-building efforts at the regional level, as part of what Beijing refers to rather undiplomatically as 'peripheral diplomacy', and among fellow developing-economy states.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for instance, are both regional institutions. The SCO only has Asian member-states and observer-states, while the AIIB has regional and non-regional members, though membership is in strong favour of the regionals and China itself. The New Development Bank (known widely as the BRICS Bank) is in line with China's decades-old view of itself as a leading state in the developing world.
In existing global multilateral bodies, from the UN Security Council to the WTO, China has been comparatively low-key and primarily focused on defending specific national interests. [fold]
China was a late-comer to the WTO and its restrictive trade practices and policies have made it not a leader in that institution but the most frequent subject of cases heard by the WTOs dispute-settlement mechanism. In the G20, a new global body created to better acknowledge rising powers like China and India, Beijing has also failed to take a leading role. In the UN Security Council (another body that has long recognised China's leadership potential), Beijing rarely leads or uses its veto power (unless it is in company with others, usually Russia). On climate change, China was painted as the major villain of the failed 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen.
Recent Pew Research Center polling shows that Australians seem to be a global outlier when it comes to judging China's global economic weight. 57% of Australians mistakenly see China as the world's leading economic power, the highest score among the 40 countries polled. In no other country did a majority of respondents identify China as the world's leading economic power.
The comparatively disproportionate amount of money being invested in Australia into understanding China risks reducing the Australian discussion of Asia as a whole. Given the tempest in the teapot caused by Michael Thawley's remarks, this risk may spill over from Asia, where China is starting to flex its leadership muscles, to the world as a whole, where it is not.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user G20 Australia 2014.