The rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a military and economic power is widely acknowledged. Today’s perceived wisdom suggests the future belongs to China and that the nation will overtake the United States as an economic power (if not as a military power) at some point this century.
It therefore seems obvious that the West should seek a coherent and effective policy to develop its relations with China. Building ties of mutual understanding is essential so that outlying points of disagreement and difference can be discussed honestly and openly in a constructive context. There remain, quite rightly, many areas on which China and the West do not see eye to eye, such as China’s increased military activity in the South China Sea alongside the ongoing and unacceptable human rights abuses which occur inside the country. Closer diplomatic ties between the West and China offers the best chance of progress on these issues.
Such high hopes, however, remain unfulfilled. A major contributory factor to this apparent failure is that Western approaches towards China seem to be fundamentally confused, with a near ferocious eagerness to forge closer trade links with China being undermined by mixed messages and inconsistency on the diplomatic front.
Take the United Kingdom as an example. The UK is just one among many Western nations who have seen a chance to cash in on China’s economic boom, and it has wasted no time in doing so. Earlier this year the UK, in a move which saw the country break with the position adopted by the US, joined the newly formed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, widely seen as a direct rival to the American favoured World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, visiting China in September, announced that the PRC would be investing in and designing new nuclear power plants in the UK. Business links were also at the centre of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK in late October, just as they were at the heart of Xi’s visit to the United States in September.
Contradictions in Western diplomatic approaches
This eagerness to do business with China is not matched, however, by a consistency in the UK’s wider diplomatic approach. When on his trip to China, George Osborne made a point of not publicly challenging the Chinese government over its human rights record, a move which was lauded in China’s press and widely condemned in Britain. Yet, confusingly, the UK showed no such desire to appease China when human rights were raised both in public and in private during Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK, making Osborne’s silence on the matter in September seem all the more confusing.
This strange mix of obsequiousness and confrontation is inconsistent and does nothing to assist the UK in strengthening either its economic or diplomatic links with China. Nor does a confused relationship with China help the UK in speaking out strongly for those who fall victim to human rights abuses in the nation. It is not just the UK, however, which seems to have a jumbled approach towards China on the diplomatic front. Xi Jinping, on his visit to the United States, had the pleasure of conversing with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Mandarin and met countless business leaders in a demonstration of the strength of economic ties between the two nations. Just a few weeks later, however, President Obama himself openly noted in an official statement that excluding China from the wide-ranging and comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal was a strategic incentive for the US to successfully complete negotiations over the deal, arguing that “we can’t let countries like China write the rules of the global economy”.
It is not hard to see that partly as a result of this seeming mismatch between strong economic ties, alongside limp efforts at a coherent long term diplomatic policy, there has been talk of relations between China and the West stalling completely. How can the West avoid this?
Strengthening the relationship to make a difference
A good place to start would be to foster greater co-operation between China and the West by focusing on areas of common interest, such as the preservation of global peace and the fight against terrorism. It is strange the West has failed to take advantage of Russia becoming less and less of a reasonable partner for China both economically and politically, for there are already several signs that China is not as close to Russia as it has been in the past. Over the conflict in Ukraine, for example, there appears to be a widening gulf between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. In July, Russia alone vetoed a proposed United Nations Security Council resolution on the establishment of an international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the 2014 downing of Flight MH17. Meanwhile Chinese premier Li Keqiang recently issued an affirmation of China’s recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty. China appears to have similar concerns over Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, has recently expressed exasperation over Russian and US tactics over Syria. The West should seize this opportunity: by drawing China closer and strengthening diplomatic ties, Western powers can exert further pressure on Russia over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria by isolating Vladimir Putin.
Western foreign policy makers should also reconsider the need for long term strategies towards China. It takes a great deal of time and effort to build strong diplomatic relations between nations. For China, a country whose government and policy agenda remains consistent over the course of decades, it is hard to know how far it should build relations with Western democracies, considering that the governments and policies of these democracies can change every four to five years. Where possible, Western governments need to ensure that they have a long term strategy in place for foreign policy which will survive a change of government, in order to tackle problems of inconsistent attitudes towards China.
Perhaps most importantly of all, however, a coherent, long term and consistent diplomatic effort to engage with China will help the West’s position in the future when it rightly challenges China for remaining overwhelmingly authoritarian and indifferent to human rights. China has itself claimed that it is prepared to talk about its record on human rights and recognises the many differences which exist between its government and those of Western liberal democracies. All too often, however, Western attempts to address serious concerns over Chinese imprisonment of political and religious opponents have been hampered by a high level of mutual distrust which exists between the two parties. This mistrust will only be overcome when Western governments form a considered and well-executed long term foreign policy which seeks to engage with China as an equal and an ally. Stronger diplomatic ties which eradicate mutual mistrust will increase the likelihood that China will respond more sympathetically to calls by Western governments for an end to human rights abuses. This alone is ample justification for more focused diplomatic efforts.
Trade links between China and the West, while a good base from which to start, have not been enough by themselves to achieve all this. A seemingly inconsistent and misguided foreign policy on the part of Western nations weakens chances of influencing the Chinese government over issues such as human rights. Genuine and sincere attempts at diplomacy are essential, not only because the West needs China’s co-operation to resolve some of the most pressing geo-political problems the world faces, but also to ensure that when China and the West have disagreements they are discussed frankly and honestly, in a matter that befits equal partners who differ from, yet respect, one another.
Thomas Cowie is currently an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge studying Classics. Having lived in China from 2005-06 his particular interests include Chinese foreign and domestic policy and China’s relations with the West. Other interests include the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU.
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*Cover image ‘China festival of lights, dragon‘ by Alias 0591