China Power

Can China be a World Leader?

Many Chinese advocate Beijing taking on a greater leadership role on the world stage. Can they get anyone to follow?

Recently I participated in a BBC/Carnegie Endowment debate on the U.S. presidential campaign and policy toward China with the eminent and estimable former U.S. Ambassadors Chas W. Freeman, Jr. and J. Stapleton Roy, and Tsinghua University scholar Yan Xuetong.  The full debate is available here.

The discussion was wide-ranging but what struck me most was an assertion by one of the panelists that the next U.S. president will have to deal with the fact that China has surpassed the United States as the number one power (based on the size of its economy). As a result, in his opinion, China will no longer feel the need to defer to the United States and the current arrangement of international institutions.

On the face of it, it is not an unreasonable assertion. After all, there has long been a view espoused in and outside Beijing that China has somehow suffered under the yoke of institutions that it did not help create. On closer examination, however, it’s not clear when China ever has deferred to the United States and the current global system. True, China has joined a number of multilateral institutions and treaties, but it did so not out of deference to the United States but because it believed it would benefit from participating. When China has determined that its interests are not served by following Washington’s lead—witness the two sides lagging, flagging, or non-existent cooperation on Libya, Iran, North Korea, climate change, cyber-security, etc.—it goes its own way.

The larger issue of what it would mean for China to be both the world’s biggest economic power and its most significant political power is also unclear. What would be the foreign policy principles that China’s leaders would espouse? “Not mixing business with politics” doesn’t seem a commanding value for a global leader, and preaching sovereignty and non-intervention in the face of human atrocity will likely not earn points for leadership. That is not to say that the United States gets it right when it acts first and thinks later; but China’s predilection for inaction appears equally, if not more, problematic.

In addition, the events of the past few weeks suggest that at this moment China is not yet ready to be a leader in its own neighborhood. In response to an undeniably provocative move by the Japanese government to purchase several of the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Beijing acted not with measured words and deeds but rashly by: allowing Chinese citizens to trash Japanese stores and factories and attack people who own Japanese products; condemning Japan at the UN General Assembly; sending marine surveillance ships to continue patrolling in the waters off of the islands; cancelling diplomatic functions with Japanese counterparts; and barring Chinese banks and other officials from participating in the annual World Bank IMF conference, which is being held in Tokyo this month.  In the face of such actions, it is hard to see how, as eminent Chinese scholar Wang Jisi has argued: “China deserves a larger say in the IMF and World Bank,” and “Because China is so successful, it deserves more respect.”

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China Reform editor Zhang Jianjing offers a slightly different perspective. In a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in Caixin, he asserts that in the face of Japanese provocation, “It’s time for China to reciprocate in a calm manner, and to maintain the balance of power within the region. …taking this position means the eventual support of the international community… China’s greatest challenge is a growing group of people that are stalling domestic reforms. By comparison, managing the geostrategic realm is a low stakes game.”  I don’t have the answer to the question of whether and how China will lead, but I hope at least part of the answer may rest with Chinese thinkers and leaders like Zhang.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.'  She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.