CHINA: More Cautious Than Bold

TOM PLATE WRITES IN HIS SYNDICATED NEWSPAPER COLUMN: I used to find flying on a Chinese carrier a dreadful experience. No more. A recent nonstop from Los Angeles to Guangzhou on China Eastern was as smooth as silk; and the return to Los Angeles from Beijing on Air China was a delight (okay, true — it was Business Class both ways). Friendly skies indeed!

What has happened, you see, is that in modernising and globalising China is becoming increasingly competitive. It’s not the same old People’s Republic of China that could afford to live by its own rules and say to the rest of the world — Go fly a kite for all we care.

The overall national upgrade applies also to the caliber of its international diplomacy. Top entrants to the Chinese foreign service, whose schooling might well include a degree from a place like Princeton or Singapore’s National University, are qualitatively competitive with their best counterparts from the foreign service systems of Japan or Korea or … well … the US, too. (And, generally, their level of spoken English is amazingly good).

But the Chinese historical experience is an awesome span, and one dimension not always recognized is that, notwithstanding its economic renaissance (not to mention its territorial quarrels with immediate neighbors) it retains a culture that can be strikingly cautious. Even regarding relations with the outside world, its foreign policy tends to tack toward core national interests rather than to float big ideas or daring initiatives. Its diplomacy, day-to-day, is risk-adverse. It prefers to work with particulars rather than universals. But it is very actively involved in all manner of international organizations, sometimes contributing positive energy, practical proposals and of course funding.

More than a decade ago, China’s decision to become a member of the new World Trade Organization was epochal — a watershed push away from self-absorbed inwardness and into a new intensity of global entanglement. But that decision did not come easily. The quick varnish of a dozen years cannot wipe away millennia.

At the United Nations in New York, for example, on issues from Syria today to Bosnia almost two decades ago, a recurring complaint goes like this: Why doesn’t China as one of the Permanent Five on the Security Council exercise more leadership? But the perceived Chinese drag is less deliberate than cultural, and its oft-proclaimed doctrine of “non-interference in the internal affairs” of member states is anything but unique in Asia. India, the world’s largest democracy, with a distinctive diplomatic tradition, takes a similar stance. So does Putin’s Russia.

For all that, in recent years Chinese diplomacy has advanced from Bosnian abstention to — more recently — Syrian affirmation. The recent UNSC resolution requiring Damascus to cough up its chemical supplies to international confiscation not only passed with Moscow’s assent but with Beijing’s as well, of course. Viewed over a longer timeline, this is no little change because dictating to a sovereign state exactly what sort of weapons it cannot use in the heat of an existential war qualifies as major international “interference” … in anyone’s diplomatic dictionary.

The fact is that Beijing desires to work in parallel with the US on major issues to the extent consistent with its core national interests. China desires no second Cold War and still views domestic economic stability as an existential goal.

The other factor at the UN in New York is that Beijing trusts the secretary-general, the former South Korean foreign minister who on the Syrian crisis has been working behind the scenes far more actively than is generally known. He stuck to his guns in not caving in to the request of the initially eager-to-flex-military-muscle Obama administration, which wanted the UN to unplug the independent probe of the chemical weapons massacre. That act of resistance was pivotal. It demonstrated anew that the UN was a world organization with its own mind, no limp Western puppet.

In part as a result, China’s 68th UN season will probably prove less predictable than in the past.  The diplomatic instincts of the new Xi Jinping administration have yet to reveal themselves. But the betting here is that the Xi government may be less inclined to be so fearful of the new at the UN. Yes, the times are a–changing.


Tom Plate is LMU’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies and the author of IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FUTURE, a new book published by Marshall Cavendish International (Asia). The career journalist and founder of Asia Media is also the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series.

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