China’s ‘Peaceful’ White Paper

China’s latest white paper talks about peaceful development. A more nuanced approach would have been better.

China’s white papers are typically policy monologues in which the country’s leaders offer an air-brushed account of their intentions and practices, while studiously avoiding any mention of the many nuances, contradictions and zero-sum decisions that inevitably result from having to implement those policies, however well meaning, in the often cut-throat global arena.

The latest white paper on China’s Peaceful Development, released today by the Information Office of the State Council, provides the usual, pristine account of China’s international role. China aims to ‘develop itself through upholding world peace,’ the document says. ‘It never engages in aggression or expansion.’ The country always plays ‘a constructive role in addressing international and regional hotspot problems.’ And it pursues ‘a defence policy which is defensive in nature.’

Articulation remains Beijing’s weakest suit. By papering over the little cracks in its foreign policy approach, and by pretending that tensions with other countries don’t exist or are at least not of China’s making, the government undermines the honest and positive messages that 99 percent of the white paper conveys. A warts-and-all critique of China’s actions, trumpeting the successes while owning up to a few failures, would be far more convincing.

The document’s most interesting highlights include:

‘(China) never engages in aggression or expansion, never seeks hegemony, and remains a staunch force for upholding regional and world peace and stability.’ The situation on the ground is, of course, far more nuanced. The Philippines and Vietnam regard China’s actions in the South China Sea as aggressive, just as India regards alleged Chinese incursions along their disputed border as aggressive. That doesn’t necessarily mean those countries are right. But China needs to start addressing these allegations specifically and head on, rather than mounting this same generic and simplistic defence. Has China really ‘done its utmost to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea’? It’s hard to claim this without accounting for recent rise in tensions there sparked by the activities of Chinese ships.

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‘China has imported goods worth nearly $750 billion every year, and created over 14 million jobs for those exporting countries and regions.’ This is a nice riposte to the wild-eyed debate in Washington about China’s ‘theft’ of American jobs. China’s impressive economic growth is bound to be blamed once again for the United States’ jobless recovery in next year’s presidential campaign, and China is right to defend itself. It is after all playing, by and large, by the free market rules that the United States once championed.

‘China is committed to pursuing a defence policy which is defensive in nature.’ This formula is no longer sufficient, as the Chinese military introduces power-projection capabilities, such as aircraft carriers, that have no defensive utility. The white paper says that China ‘does not pose a military threat to any other country,’ but the fact is that aircraft carriers and other new systems don’t appear quite so benign to people sitting in Hanoi or Manila or Singapore or Tokyo. China needs to offer a full and open explanation of why its new capabilities pose no threat if it wants its peaceful statements to be believed. The paper says that China opposes ‘the big bullying the small,’ but this is very much how the smaller South China Sea claimants would typify Chinese behaviour. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s notorious observation that there’s no escaping China’s size advantage over its smaller neighbours looms large over Beijing’s claims to respect all countries equally, irrespective of size and influence.  

‘(China) does not interfere in other countries' internal affairs.’ Non-intervention is the bedrock of Chinese foreign policy, but there’s no doubt that China – like all powerful countries – intervenes behind the scenes rather more than it lets on. Last week’s allegation in the Globe and Mail that China offered arms to the failing Gaddafi regime – something Beijing denies – was reminiscent of the 2008 controversy in which China was found to be sending arms shipments to the embattled Robert Mugabe. More generally, China now wields enough political influence in African, Asian and Latin American countries to make the non-interference line sound increasingly old.

‘The Chinese people will enjoy full democratic rights.’ ‘We will continue to hold democratic election.’ Yes, China has experimented with elections at the local level. But celebrating the country’s democratic achievements doesn’t really wash when many of China’s democracy advocates are sitting in jail. Similarly, glossing over the grave problems in Xinjiang and Tibet by promising to ‘treat all ethnic groups as equals and practice the system of regional autonomy of ethnic minorities’ won’t allay the criticism of central government policy in those delicate provinces.