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Is China a Global Force for Good?

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China Power

Is China a Global Force for Good?

A broader look at the impact of China’s rise on the world.

Is China a Global Force for Good?
Credit: Chinese flags in Tiananmen Square image via Shutterstock

The existing world order, led by the United States, is one whose aims include collective security, the protection of human rights, promoting negotiation and diplomacy, and improving global welfare. These ideals have been consistent from the League of Nations to goals of the United Nations (UN). Keeping consistent with these aims, we should take a humanist approach when viewing China’s rise, not only analyzing that rise vis-à-vis the United States, but also asking whether China is a global force for good.

Since China’s entrance onto the global stage, most of the language toward its rise has been negative. We frequently hear of China as a threat, a competitor, a revisionist state, an abuser of human rights, a currency manipulator, an accelerator of climate change, and countless others. This rhetoric is particularly vibrant during U.S. presidential elections and when U.S. primacy is challenged, often shrouding the distinction between fact and fiction.

It is this distinction that needs to be clearly articulated.

We are particularly adept at knowing what to look for when making the case for why a country is ‘bad’ or ‘evil’—oppression of the people, false imprisonment, failures to provide food and basic goods—but lacking in our requirements for what is considered a good country. Furthermore, it is challenging to make the case for positive impact in an objective manner, but there do exist recognizable factors to aid us.

China’s Outbound Direct Investment (ODI)

Investment from outside countries can be the type of stimulant needed to spur growth. Inbound foreign direct investment (FDI) played an important role in China’s own economic development and export success. This foreign investment catalyzed China’s economic reform and contributed to lifting hundreds of millions from poverty.

After decades of double-digit growth, China is quickly becoming one of the world’s biggest cross-border investors. This ODI, which includes investing in corporate mergers, acquisitions, and start-ups, is projected to grow from $744 billion to as much as $2 trillion by 2020 (the United States is the global leader at $4.92 trillion).

Targeted mostly in Europe, this ODI was welcomed with open arms in the wake of the global financial crisis that devastated Eurozone economic growth. The U.K., Germany, and France benefited the most from Chinese funding, enabling key sectors to get running again.

Additionally, Chinese ODI has flooded into historically sluggish economies throughout Africa and Latin America. This investment has provided new opportunities to local entrepreneurs has put local laborers to work. For example, nearly 4,800 Ethiopians were employed by the Chinese firm that built Ethiopia’s urban light rail project, and put another 4,000 went to work at a shoe factory close to the capital of Addis Ababa.

Contributions to UN Missions

As China seeks to prove itself a responsible leader and increase its international reputation, its support for the United Nations has grown considerably. According to the China Power Project at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), China is now the third-largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget, the second-largest contributor to the peacekeeping budget, and as of 2015 has pledged more than 3,000 personnel to peacekeeping operations. This has placed China far above the United States, France, and the United Kingdom in peacekeeping personnel.

Additionally, after decades of adhering to a principle of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other countries, China has taken a more active role in the UN Security Council since the early 2000s. In the years between 2000 and 2013, China supported 170 of 178 sanctions-related resolutions passed by the Security Council. The Chinese have also voted in favor of sanctions against countries in whom China has a strategic or economic interest. The historic sanctions against Iran in 2011 and those against North Korea in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2016 (the strongest ever passed) highlight this shift in China’s willingness to work within the Security Council to enforce international standards and norms.

There is much to be desired in China’s enforcement of UN sanctions, but its willingness to participate in the drafting and passing of sanctions is a significant step in the right direction.

China’s Green Energy Footprint

China’s economic growth has resulted in it being the world’s largest consumer of energy, the largest producer and consumer of coal, and the largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Most concerning is the fact that 71 percent of China’s emissions are from coal, which is burned in a dirty and inefficient manner as a result of “subcritical” coal plants.

China’s pollution is not only a problem at home, but has an increasingly negative impact on its neighbors both near and far. As sulfur, mercury, ozone, and particulate matter emitted by China’s coal plants move downwind across the East China Sea, Japan and Korea have been more frequent and urgent in their concerns, referring to the pollution as “air raids.” Understandably, mask sales from one of South Korea’s largest online retailers, Gmarket, jumped 481 percent between 2012 and 2013.

But China is not in denial on the issue, and is now at the forefront of renewable energy production and investment. In fact, a 2012 white paper emphasized the need for “vigorously developing new and renewable energy.” Additionally, China’s has committed to a target of 20 percent of its energy coming from renewables by the 2030.

Contrary to China critics, there is reason to believe that this is more than just rhetoric. The Chinese invested $89 billion in renewable energy projects in 2014, a 31 percent increase over 2013. Furthermore, they have become the world’s largest market for renewables, with an estimate that one in every four gigawatts of global renewable energy will be generated by China through 2040.

In line with China’s penchant for massive infrastructure projects, China’s massive dam projects have resulted in hydroelectric power becoming the main source of renewable energy production. From 2003 to 2013, China increased this capacity by 224 percent, propelling China to become the world’s leader in hydropower in 2014.

These contributions to the global welfare do not excuse China from their many mistakes and policies that have led to international criticism and widespread skepticism, nor should they. But in a charged political climate that has resulted in stone throwing and accusations that often ignore the truth, clarity is needed where China has been a force for good and areas where praise and support are necessary.

Brian R. Moore is a WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a former research intern at the China Power Project at CSIS in Washington, D.C. He is also an M.A. candidate at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in the Asian Studies program. He tweets @thebrmoore