The deterioration in the West’s outlook on China has been startling. This is partly a result of the sheer range of different fronts on which Beijing’s assertiveness has been on display in recent months. It has been the primary blocking force against tougher sanctions on Iran and the lead obstructionist at the climate talks. It delivered a harsh sentence on pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo and executed the mentally-ill Briton Akmal Shaikh. And then there was Google’s announcement that the scale and nature of recent attacks may result in its pulling out of China, which illustrated both the growing anxieties about Chinese cyber-intrusions and the worsening climate in China for Western businesses.
Disagreements between the West and China on these and other issues are not new; what has startled China’s interlocutors is the brashness with which Beijing now asserts its interests — and its willingness to prevail, even at the expense of appearing the villain. President Obama’s borderline-humiliating visit to China in November was repeated in Copenhagen, where Beijing repeatedly snubbed meetings of heads of government by sending junior officials — one of whom nonetheless felt sufficiently empowered to shout and wag his finger at the U.S. president. European officials have recounted private Chinese demands that the EU’s next China strategy paper should be written “together” and Chinese statements that a failure to lift the EU arms embargo would mean that in the future Europe “will not be able to buy its arms from China.”
These incidents, although minor in their own right, reveal a China far less worried about cooperating or preserving smooth relations with the West than it once was. The West had hoped that Beijing would become a “responsible stakeholder” and use its stronger position to bolster the international system. Instead China seems intent on freeing itself from its constraints.
A nationalist public opinion and insecurities at home have played their part in this development. But it has mostly been driven by a change in Beijing’s perception of power relations since the global economic crisis. China’s success in surviving such a precipitous downturn has given the government a greater belief in its own resilience. And the perception that the United States and Europe need China more than China needs them has been fed by the new U.S. administration, whose conciliatory gestures toward Beijing have been treated as signs of weakness rather than goodwill.
Many Western officials believe, however, that China has miscalculated — and is shooting itself in the foot. Talk of giving Beijing more space on sensitive issues has evaporated. Support from business lobbies has weakened. Heads of government who would happily push China into the “important but not urgent” file have begun to review their strategies.
Already, Beijing is feeling the effects of this pushback. Recent weeks have seen the announcement of arms sales to Taiwan, confirmation of a U.S. presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama, and public criticism from President Obama and Secretary Clinton of China’s currency policies and its stance on the Iranian nuclear issue. The West hopes China will realize it has overplayed its hand and will make some conciliatory moves — such as a modest revaluation of the yuan and acquiescence to tougher sanctions on Iran — to reverse the political dynamic. For all the noise in the last week, Washington has made only a modest tactical shift. But the United States and Europe may yet see this as a wake-up call and make a more serious set of changes to their China policies.
What could that actually amount to? Here are some options being discussed:
- Threats of targeted measures that limit Chinese free-riding, such as stricter sanctions against Chinese companies dealing with Iran. Punishment for currency manipulation, and carbon tariffs.
- A move from comprehensive to selective engagement and integration. Parts of the vast architecture of dialogues and summits may be dismantled. Right now, China is the one to cancel and postpone dialogues, and Western powers are the perpetual demandeurs. This can be stopped. The headlong rush to give a new seat to China at every table in every international process can also be slowed.
- A move to a less Sino-centric engagement and integration policy. Rather than making a bilateral beeline for Beijing, more effort could be employed in coordinating China policy with other like-minded countries. The United States has plenty of room to deepen its cooperation with its treaty allies in Europe and Asia has considerable scope. But more diplomatic energy could be focused on other potential members of a progressive coalition — India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa. Expanded economic, technological, security, and trade advantages can be offered to those countries that are willing to act as system-strengtheners rather than spoilers.
- More consciously competitive policies could be initiated in areas where disagreements on values are likely to persist, such as aid policy or dealing with rogue states. The West would focus less on reaching agreement with China and more on maneuvering around it.
Beijing still has the opportunity to demonstrate that these steps are unnecessary. But it needs to appreciate that the concerns are genuine: a free-rider on China’s scale is just too great for the global security, economic, political, and environmental order to bear. And unwillingness to assume responsibility may come at a price.
Andrew Small is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fundof the United States in Brussels.
This article was first published as a Transatlantic Take in the German Marshall Fund of the United States' Blog, here.
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