Stephen Harper was unfortunately not unique in finding the calibration of foreign policy towards China difficult. While the traditional left wants to grandstand against China on issues of civil liberties and internet access, the traditional right wants to assume that the U.S. remains the sole superpower and pressure China on its responsibilities vis-à-vis “regional” issues like North Korea . The rest of the world looks at China as a huge commercial opportunity and makes deals with a Klondike-style enthusiasm.
None of these approaches are adequate. The post-Iraq world is a world where the international community is starting to construct a new multilateralism, but is far from having the components in place. The weakening of America has been accelerated by the squandering of scarce political capital in Iraq . However, our preoccupation with Iraq obscures the impact of the economic rise of China at the end of the 20th Century, and the failure of foreign policy strategists to understand all the implications of this for global politics.
China is a superpower, and hosting the African leaders’ summit was an assertion of that in symbolic as well as substantive terms. While the Chinese government is starting to play a role that is more than simply about its economic interests vis-à-vis Korea and Iran , Chinese foreign policy is equally at an early stage in terms of dealing with its new role in the world. There are areas of traditional interest (e.g. Kazakhstan , Burma ) and areas of new petro-strategic interest (e.g. Sudan , Angola , Nigeria ) where China ’s role has fundamentally restructured the political environment. It has proven to be increasingly difficult for European and North American foreign policy makers to promote human rights concerns in Gabon , Zimbabwe or Sudan because of China ’s countervailing role. Similarly, UN policies toward Iran and North Korea are subject to China ’s veto power. To pretend that China is now anything less than a superpower is an insult to China and China ’s self-image and simply conceptually wrong. China ’s instincts are historically self-protective and cautiously isolationist, but instincts can change as circumstances change. The new international system cannot function without China assuming a larger role and China will play a role simply by showing up. The question is how we make China ’s positive engagement in a global politics attractive to the next generation of Chinese decision-makers, and how Canadians can maximize their impact on a superpower.
Jane Perlez and James Traub wrote two perceptive pieces on Chinese foreign policy in the New York Times last week. Perlez wrote about Burma , Traub about Angola but both reflected that China ’s practical deal-making and solidarity with post-colonial political experiences is transforming global politics. China currently has no rule of law agenda and is therefore less threatening to the current Sudanese and Zimbabwean governments than western governments. How do we encourage a China that promotes human rights and rule of law in Angola ?
There are potentially new methods of constructive engagement with civil society which exist now that didn’t exist in the era of samizdat that defined the late days of the Soviet Union . The news about the blocking and unblocking of Wikipedia in China last week is a reminder that the erosion of government restraints in a wireless age is probably irreversible. It is also a reminder that in an age of global travel and global education, the next generation of Chinese has internet access when they go to Bangkok or Vienna or Montreal . Information flow is unstoppable. So with this in mind let us start a working hypothesis on the engagement of China :
(i) Treat China as being a great power as well as a superpower. The first part is based on history; the second part is based on current economic realities: China is a great power with great power interests. Its approaches to Uighurs, Tibetans and Burmese have to be understood (not agreed with) in this light. To understand China requires an understanding of Chinese history and one of the rules of new engagement is that we have to be as eager (more eager) to tell the Chinese story internationally than they are themselves.
(ii) The faster Wikipedia and web-based media are established, the faster civil society will grow and create new social networks. By promoting openness of new media, we are accelerating the trends which will most possibly lead to a Chinese version of liberal democracy. Engagement with the next generation is inevitable from Shanghai blogs to the gradual role of a Chinese Wikipedia. Canadian engagement needs to be strategic, assisting the development of the tools of a new economy in China without attempting to preach or sermonize. We avoid the Google dilemma if we appreciate that simply by expanding the information architecture, we create new and different opportunities for engagement. The foreign policy debate is where this engagement can be most effective.
(iii) We should not be afraid to disagree sharply. That is how one treats a major player with respect. On issues like the Chinese government’s moral indifference to Sudanese behaviour, or lack of attention to environmental abuses, we should feel no compunction in being strongly critical. There is no reason to be tentative on the things about which we disagree with the Chinese. But disagreement has to be strategic and enlist the support of Chinese who similarly view the world. A key point of alliance is on environmental issues and this should be pressed at every opportunity given the number of Chinese who travel abroad and want atmospheric pollution dealt with at home. By enlisting the Chinese in a post-Kyoto agenda, we empower Chinese environmentalists with a different approach to politics. Tactically, this creates alliances different from those which result from confronting the Chinese on other issues.
(iv) In the recent past, the west has been ambivalent about China asserting itself beyond its natural geographical sphere of influence. That is now unavoidable, so we should encourage the Chinese to be engaged. That starts with membership in a new G8. Great powers have to assume great power responsibilities. China must assume a responsibility for Darfur and Zimbabwe , not just for neighboring states like Burma and Korea . On issues of international capital market behaviour, we can be increasingly aggressive, demanding that Chinese companies harmonize their behaviour with our standards when participating internationally. After the CNOOC deals of the last couple of years, we know that there is a common language on which we can and must build. Canadian-Chinese partnerships about energy supply have to be contingent on operating by international financial rules. That strengthens our bargaining position and gives the Chinese greater security in their relationship with us.
(v) Environmentalism provides a common theme which can both mobilize new groups within Chinese civil society and create global networks within which the Chinese can participate. China ’s next generation is in large part passionately environmentalist. The challenge of atmospheric pollution is instantly apparent to those Chinese who have traveled abroad Environmentalism becomes a point of contact between the Chinese thirty-somethings in Shanghai and their European or North American counterparts. By engaging Chinese on these issues (ocean preservation, clean technologies), we create new alliances and networks with and within Chinese civil society.
(vi) The more Chinese entrepreneurs export, the more the Chinese leadership will develop a global perspective. It is therefore in our interests to encourage and facilitate the export-oriented activities within the Chinese economy. Our economic initiatives should be about helping the Chinese develop an export strategy, for Chinese cultural products, for commercialized Chinese science and technology, all of which produces a global outlook quite different from the economic culture that comes with an import-substitution industry or simply being a holder of foreign currencies in the way investment is structured.
We need a Canadian foreign policy which is serious about both influencing China and ensuring that Canadian interests are well represented as partners of Chinese economic growth. This will not be done by grandstanding and ideological posturing. The six components of the strategy above are predicated on a respect for China plus a sense of strategy about where we would like to see China ’s role in the global economy evolve. It is a strategy for long term engagement of China in the world. This avoids the business versus human rights dichotomy that currently underlies the debate about how to approach China . That approach will result in less business and no advancement on the human rights agenda.