A few days ago U.S. President Barack Obama commented that China has been a free rider for 30 years and the U.S. is still the only superpower that others look to when help is needed. This has triggered a debate (see here and here) on whether China is a free rider and what China should do in terms of contributing to international security. However, Obama’s comment that China is a free rider is unfair and misleading for several reasons.
First, it is wrong to claim that China only imports oil from Iraq, thus becoming the largest beneficiary of the Iraq war. Even importing oil from Iraq benefits Iraq as a country; it is a win-win for both China and Iraq. Also, China’s various investment projects (like communications and roads) in Iraq are actually helping to stabilize Iraq. This is in the national interest of the U.S. because part of the root reason of instability and chaos in Iraq is poverty, which partly resulted from the Iraq war.
Second, the U.S. itself was a free rider for a long time when its navy was weak during the 19th century. When you are weak, you are forced to free ride on others’ efforts. Despite China’s rapid growth in recent decades, its military is still limited in terms of its ability to send troops to fight abroad in places like Iraq. There is no doubt that the U.S. is still the only superpower today in the world. For this reason alone, it is natural to look at the U.S. when the world is in trouble. To be a leader also means that you allow others to free ride because in return a leader gets perks such as dominance, prestige, and status.
Third, the more important question is: who created this mess in Iraq today? While we cannot say that the U.S. bears all the responsibility for it, the 2003 decision to invade Iraq was a really bad one, despite all the good advice from many U.S. scholars. For this reason, the U.S. bears a large amount of responsibility for the current situation there. As the old saying goes, you broke it, and then you have the responsibility to fix it. Things are that simple. It is not wise to criticize China at the moment as the latter is helping to fix Iraq in other and equally important ways. Yes, it was the right decision when the U.S. decided to bomb the Islamic State and China supports it. But do not forget that bombing is not a final solution to the Iraq problem. More attention should be focused on national reconstruction in Iraq, which, unfortunately, is not something the U.S. is interested in or is capable of doing.
Fourth, in recent years China has been more active in taking on more international responsibilities (for example, in peacekeeping). Of course China will choose some responsibilities rather than others when considering its own national interests. All countries do this and it is a natural thing to take care of your own interests first. It is true that China should do more in international affairs to provide public goods and there are signs that China is beginning to do that.
In the end, whether the U.S. really wants China to share more international responsibility is a tough question for the United States, particularly when it comes to sending troops overseas. Responsibility and leadership go hand in hand. You cannot only ask China to take on more responsibilities while not giving China the leadership and status that ought to come with that responsibility. The interesting thing about Obama’s comment is that implicitly he was implying that the U.S. needs help from others in maintaining international security. But was Obama serious in thinking about inviting Chinese troops to Iraq? That would challenge the dominant U.S. position in Iraq and the whole Middle East. Thus it is unlikely that the U.S. would really welcome a more active Chinese military presence in Iraq or any part of the Middle East.
From China’s perspective, it is increasingly clear that it should adopt a more activist approach to international and regional security for humanitarian and other reasons. However, it will be some years before China can build that capacity. In the meantime, China will continue to “free ride.”