China and the tactical utility of international norms

Katherine Morton’s conclusion that we should not expect, much less fear, the imminent arrival of an alternative Chinese normative order is correct. Although rightly regarded as one of the world’s great and enduring civilisations, Chinese ‘soft power’ is still weak compared to its growing ‘hard power’ capabilities. In assessments of its own ‘comprehensive national power’—which includes normative power—Beijing considers itself to be not just behind America but also leading European states such as the United Kingdom and France. Although becoming more active in global institutions, China remains a relatively passive participant in organisations such as the United Nations and within the Security Council compared to permanent members America, the United Kingdom and France. In short, China is finding it difficult to translate economic size into normative leadership, let alone dominance.

Beyond the conclusion, there are other points brought up in the body of the piece which I agree; and other points that I regard as a misreading of not just Chinese norms but Beijing’s intentions in putting them forward.

First, the further areas where we agree…

China undoubtedly regards Western democratic and liberal norms as not just hegemonic but also as weapons which Western countries use to subvert the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is not lost on Beijing that one of the explicit reasons Western governments gave for greater economic and social engagement with China was to hasten the political reform of China’s authoritarian system.

Moreover, China’s idealistic principles of ‘peaceful co-existence’ are indeed consistent with European classical notions of sovereignty and non interference. Authoritarian China sees itself as the outlier in the regional and global international system. ‘Peaceful co-existence’ as well as its self proclaimed ‘peaceful development’ is put forward for defensive reasons in an attempt to both establish the illegitimacy of external criticism of its authoritarian political system and domestic policies, and to convince ‘status quo’ powers that China does not seek to disrupt the pre-existing strategic order.  

Second, the areas of disagreement…

While I would not disagree with Morton’s view of how Beijing defines doctrines and concepts such as ‘peaceful coexistence’, ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious world’, taking the sincerity of these at face value and in good faith, can mislead.

Morton argues that these concepts “buttress a socialist form of political authority that privileges equality and redistribution within the international system.” Yet, the values behind these principles are not consistent with domestic or foreign Chinese thinking and policy.

For example, various Gini measurements of inequality indicate that China has gone from being the most to the least equal society in all of Asia (including India) within one generation – and is matching if not exceeding levels in countries such as Brazil.

In terms of Chinese foreign policy, few seriously believe that China wants every nation to have an equal say in international affairs. Even when it comes to the ‘equality’ of great powers, China will remain the primary obstacle to significant powers such as Japan, Germany and India joining the Security Council as a permanent member. When it comes to ‘redistribution’ in the international system, Chinese largesse—in Africa and Central Asia etc—is guided almost entirely by a resources security policy that seeks to co-opt political elites in resource-rich countries to ensure guaranteed and cheap supply of commodities for its own market. For a country of its economic size, Beijing has a poor record of contributing to global public goods. Its aid policy is almost wholly guided by material interests rather than based on humanitarian grounds.

In this context, it is difficult to make the connection (as Morton does) that Chinese notions of ‘statism’, ‘order’ and ‘equality’ are “more amenable to solving global financial concerns, climate change (via clean development), and non-traditional security issues…” Indeed, Beijing is investing heavily in clean energy technology in order to dominate global markets in this emerging sector, not because it seeks to take the lead on issues such as climate change. China was the major obstacle to any climate change agreement at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. The fact that China will increase its reliance on coal from the current 50% to 70% of its energy needs by 2030 is also indicative. 

A final comment should be made about the Chinese high regard for ‘civilisation’, and for restoring ancient civilisations to their rightful place. As Morton notes, this notion has been frequently promoted by Beijing.

However, it should also be noted that China sees itself as the ‘dominant’ and foundational civilisation in Asia. Historically, this might be true – although the Indians would disagree. But to redesign a regional or global hierarchy that is based on the primacy of civilisations will not likely produce a ‘harmonious world’.

Dr John Lee is a Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He is the author of Will China Fail?.