Chinese Multilateralism or U.S. Bilateralism

Posted January 4, 2006

Categories: Articles, China

China has embarked on a vigorous policy of engagement with regional institutions in Asia. From the steppes of Central Asia to the resource-rich waters of Southeast Asia, Beijing has implemented its own version of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “good neighbor policy.”

But this playing-well-with-others approach has presented China watchers with an intriguing riddle. Is China’s new policy toward regional institutions a genuine commitment to regional and international norms, an attempt to displace the United States as primary power in Asia, or simply a method to put smaller Asian countries at ease while China gradually builds up to superpower status?

“In the beginning, during the early 1990s, China viewed regional institutions with a cautious and skeptical attitude,” observes Pang Zhongying, professor at China’s Renmin and Nankai universities. “But when China gradually realised that regional security institutions are not necessarily bad for China’s national interest, its attitude became positive and active.”

Pang, who spoke recently at a Sasakawa Peace Foundation seminar in Washington, DC, identifies several different roles for China in its new regional approach. As a participant, China became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996, it negotiated a declaration on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, and it acceded formally to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. ASEAN includes Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.

As an organiser, Pang said, China has been even more active, partnering with Russia and four Central Asian states to create the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001. And as a mediator, China has hosted the Six Party Talks to work out a collective solution to the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

With these initiatives, China has mended fences with traditional adversaries, strengthened ties with current allies, and attempted to woo the undecided. It has offered a vision of “open regionalism” that contrasts with the more exclusive, bilateral, hub-and-spoke approach of the US. Its combination of flexibility, pragmatism, and gradualism Pang adds, has proven particularly appealing in contrast to America’s often dismissive attitude toward regional institutions. He cites Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s failure to attend the ASEAN annual summit in 2005 and the Clinton administration’s rejection of Japan’s proposal of an Asian Monetary Fund in the wake of the financial crisis of the late 1990s.

Although China seems to be designing an approach specifically to rival U.S. power in the region, Pang argues that Beijing in fact welcomes Washington’s continued military presence. “China realises that U.S. presence in region is useful to some extent,” he says. “Having publicly acknowledged and accepted the utility of U.S. presence in the region, China doesn’t wish to push the U.S. out.”

The utility of the U.S. military is, from China’s point of view, inescapable. It’s a question of money and power. “China needs America’s presence because China needs regional security,” Pang argues, “and America can still provide this common good.”

Prof. Robert Sutter from the Georgetown University identifies this “common good” as the central issue in the asymmetrical relationship between China and the United States vis-a-vis Asia. “Governments basically don’t trust each other in the region,” he points out. “What you see between Japan and China is emblematic of relations between other countries. These countries need stability. But that costs a lot of money and involves a lot of risk. Only one government provides that, and it spends about 50-100 billion a year.”

The U.S. strength in Asia, in other words, is quite different from China’s. “Multilateralism is important but it doesn’t involve, risk, commitment, or cost. China’s thinking has changed on a whole range of issues, and it’s a leader in many of these multilateral organisations,” Sutter says. But, he adds, “China’s foreign aid is very low. It doesn’t put its people in harm’s way, and it doesn’t take any big risks.”

China’s regional influence, although boosted by its ties to myriad regional institutions, is tempered by the costs of regional stability and the utility of U.S. military power. Even China’s widely touted trade relations with its neighbors are not as influential as they might seem. “China’s booming trade relations with Asian countries is largely symbolic,” Pang argues. “Foreign companies in China account for most of the trade with Asia. Last year, 60 percent of China’s trade with Asian countries was from foreign companies based in China.”

Sutter also dismisses the notion that China is offering an alternative to the economic model of globalisation. Such a “Beijing consensus” – in contrast with the neoliberal “Washington consensus” – begins to fall apart on closer examination. “Every year, the World Bank gives China two billion dollars in loans. The European Union promotes governance in China with programmes worth 400 million dollars year. China is still a net recipient and beneficiary of the Washington consensus.”

A traditional limit to Chinese influence has been its policy of non-interference. Although it continues to speak of the importance of this principle, which was proclaimed in part to ward off outside meddling into China’s domestic affairs, Beijing has nevertheless altered its position. “Now China is sending troops to Pakistan for the first time,” Pang notes. “It has conducted military exercises with the SCO. It has also sent peacekeeping troops to many regions of the world. The principle of non-interference is changing with pragmatic attitudes.”

This changing approach to the non-interference doctrine, which underlies China’s new, robust multilateralism, comes at a particularly crucial time. Whatever the motivations behind China’s new policy of supporting regional institutions, it appears to profit from what Jonathan Pollack, professor at the U.S. Naval War College, terms U.S. geopolitical “distraction.” Over the last ten years, Pollack notes, “China’s power has increased in measurable ways, China’s international involvement has increased in measurable ways, whereas the United States has been hugely distracted, to put it mildly, by events well removed from East Asia.” China’s rise – however softened by its commitments to regional institutions, reliant on foreign direct investment, and dependent on the stability provided by U.S. military presence – still in the end jostles against U.S. hegemony in the region. The two countries ultimately have two different visions for Asia.

“China wants in the end an Asia-centered and China-centered regionalism organised around ASEAN, the East Asian summit, and the SCO, whereas the U.S. wants to stay involved in the region primarily through its alliances and its hub-and spoke system and the encouragement of soft, inclusive multilateral organisations that are not connected to security commitments and guarantees,” Princeton professor G. John Ikenberry concludes. “So, in the end, it won’t be either Washington or Beijing that will decide what the institutional structure will be but the others, the weaker states, that will decide: whether to plunk down with China on this kind of regional organisation or plunk down with Washington on this other kind.”

Inter Press Service, December 14, 2006

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