Why Does China Still Play Second Fiddle?
Image Credit: flickr/ tomis b

Why Does China Still Play Second Fiddle?


China’s low profile in the current Syria crisis has earned it criticism, with some observers blaming Beijing for not playing a more positive role as a responsible global power. The oft-cited explanations are that China has a “non-intervention” policy or that it is following Russia’s lead in obstructing America’s possible use of force.

Both interpretations are wrong.

Yes, “non-intervention” is one of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” that have guided China’s foreign policy since the early 1950s. China does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, nor will it tolerate interference in its own affairs by other states. But as China’s power grows and its interests extend to every corner of the globe, Chinese foreign policy is gradually departing from this once sacred principle. In fact, China has been practicing what I call “selective intervention” in international affairs.

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Chinese leaders are preoccupied with domestic affairs. Tremendous challenges at home – a widening income gap, a deteriorating environment, an aging population and an increasingly volatile society, among other issues – will keep the Beijing leadership busy and sleepless for the foreseeable future. China is not a global military power as it lacks power projection capability. More importantly, China is unwilling to get heavily involved in international affairs lest it will be distracted from economic development.

However, with trade and investment everywhere, China now has global interests. It has begun to demonstrate its growing power in selective regions of critical importance to its national interests such as the Gulf of Aden, East China Sea and South China Sea, and it has gotten involved in the internal affairs of some countries. For example, China has reportedly interfered in Zambia’s presidential elections in recent years to ensure that pro-China candidates win. China allegedly tried to influence voting in Zambia’s 2006 and 2008 elections, preventing Michael Sata’s from winning. During the campaigns, Sata was highly critical of Chinese activities in Zambia and threatened to establish formal ties with Taiwan. Much to Beijing’s relief, Sata, who was finally elected Zambia’s president in 2011, has since become very friendly toward China. In April 2013, on a visit to China, President Sata praised China and its people for always standing with Zambia and helping in its development process even as Western countries withheld aid because of its ability to pay back its debt.

Most notably, the now-defunct Six-Party Talks aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear programs were initiated and hosted by China. Beijing has also pressured North Korea to open up and become a normal member of the international community. Who can deny that China has interfered in North Korea’s internal affairs?

China has even worked to lower tensions in Syria in its own way. The Chinese government has been in touch will various forces in the Syrian civil war. For example, a delegation of six people sent by an opposition organization called the Syrian National Dialogue Forum visited Beijing in September 2013, meeting with Chinese Foreign Ministry officials to discuss the situation in Syria.

Beijing has been working with all relevant parties in Syria in a balanced way to achieve a political resolution of the Syrian issue. To host the visit by the Syrian national dialogue forum is part of China's efforts. Another opposition group visited Beijing in February 2012. When China’s Middle East envoy Wu Sike visited Syria in October 2011, he also met with opposition leaders as well as Syrian government officials.

Meanwhile, the fact that China often coordinates its position with Russia in major international affairs does not mean that China follows Russia’s leadership. China and Russia are very different powers, with divergent national interests. China is happy to yield global leadership to the United States. China’s opposition to military intervention is also out of its concern that the international community may intervene should conflict erupt in Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang, which China views as internal matters.

Despite the seemingly close relations between China and Russia, the two powers remain suspicious of each other. Just look at how long it has taken for the two countries to negotiate a deal to send Russian gas to China. Though China and Russia have conducted several rounds of joint military exercises as part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) programs, the two powers do not have the same vision for the SCO, and they also vie for leadership within the group. Russia is deeply concerned about China’s growing influence in Siberia and central Asia.

So how should we explain China’s muted role? Chinese foreign policy, just like Chinese society, is in transition. Deng Xiaoping’s admonition that China should “keep a low profile” still dominates strategic thinking, even if it is being challenged by many Chinese, who tend to exaggerate China’s power and argue for a bigger role in global affairs for Beijing. The domestic debate over China’s position in international affairs is inconclusive. As a result, its foreign policies sometimes seem inconsistent.

Despite all its achievements, China is essentially still a large developing nation. There is an enormous gap between global expectations of China’s leadership role and its own willingness and capability. Until that gap is narrowed, China is not ready to assume more responsibilities in international affairs. For some time to come, China will continue to play second fiddle to the United States.

Zhiqun Zhu is an associate professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

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