For more than two decades China has abided by former leader Deng Xiaoping’s “keep a low profile” strategy in foreign affairs. But things are changing — China is ready to take on a leadership role in international affairs, and the world will benefit from it.
In a recent speech on the country’s regional diplomacy, China’s President Xi Jinping emphasized “being more active,” “adjusting to new times,” providing “more leadership,” and “contributing to the world.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, also said recently that China is ready to take on more international responsibilities, ranging from foreign aid, peacekeeping, nuclear non-proliferation, and regional security mechanisms.
This is already happening in several areas. China’s Premier Li Keqiang recently spoke of building a new security framework in East Asia, and the country’s senior leaders are making efforts to manage nuclear dilemmas in Iran and North Korea. The country is working with other BRICS countries to establish their own development bank that could rival the World Bank and the IMF. China has also shaped the development of the responsibility to protect norm in international security and human rights, and continues to reform it along with other developing countries.
As these developments have gradually changed the face of international relations, the U.S. has been hampered by problems ranging from its fiscal deficit and domestic political stagnation to international withdrawal, sending a discouraging signal to the world. Gone are the days when the U.S. could singlehandedly provide a stable order for the international community. Now more than ever, the U.S. needs help from other countries to provide global leadership. But Europe has been plagued by its own debt crisis and Japan is struggling to come back from two decades of economic stagnation. China, on the other hand, has recovered quickly from the 2008 global financial crisis and now is the second largest economy in the world.
Not all scholars would agree that China is ready for a leadership role, and several misconceptions should be addressed.
First, leadership is not hegemony. Chinese leadership in global affairs will not mean regional or global domination. China should not impose its own will on other states, and it will not do so. It knows the perils of this approach very well from its own painful experiences since 1840 at the hands of the West and Japan. Moreover, China has sided with the developing countries over many issues for a long time. Indeed, part of China’s identity is still as a developing country, and this ensures that China will continue to restrain itself from bullying other developing or smaller countries.
Second, China cannot lead in all issue areas. Its power and resources are still limited and will remain so for a long time. Yet the country can start taking on more leadership in areas such as poverty reduction, environmental protection, community building in East Asia, foreign aid to developing countries, and international human rights protection.
Third, some worry that China’s pursuit of leadership will generate conflict. This would only happen if the U.S. chose to contain or undermine China’s efforts. More Chinese leadership will lead to more regional and global public goods, a more stable order in Asia, and a more confident and secure China. That, in turn, will help to keep rising domestic nationalism at bay.
Fourth, some within China worry that taking on too much international responsibilities will weaken China’s own social and economic development. This worry is unwarranted. With power comes greater responsibility. China’s power has increased significantly over the last decades and China has been the biggest beneficiary of globalization and economic openness; now is the right time for China to make some contributions to the international community.
To play an effective leadership role in global affairs, China must also adopt meaningful economic, political, and social reforms at home. Just like the U.S., China’s global leadership must come from internal accomplishments. This means that the Chinese government should rebuild its domestic legitimacy through redefining state-society relations and shifting emphasis from GDP growth to morality. The good news is that the current Chinese leadership, led by President Xi Jinping, is keenly aware of this problem and is determined to tackle legitimacy issues through more major reforms.
All this talk about China’s leadership might make some countries uneasy. But they need not worry. The international community must acknowledge that today’s fast-rising China has earned the right to play an important role in shaping a new international order. A more stable and prosperous world will need China to be more active and assertive in global affairs.