Monday, October 8, 2007

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Thinking about China's weight gain

Steve Clemons thinks that China is running diplomatic rings around the United States:

It is China that is "out multilateral-ing" the United States today. As we have been distracted in Iraq, China has rolled out aid and development programs globally, helped institute yet another Asian multilateral effort in its "East Asian Community" initiative, launched a multilateral security organization in the "Shanghai Cooperation Organization", and was the key factor in the recent negotiating successes with North Korea over its nuclear program. As State Department Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and chief negotiator with North Korea Christopher Hill has said, "China has become the first stop for any American diplomacy."

While much of the world perceives -- at best -- America as a status quo power but more realistically as a superpower in decline that will eventually look something like a well-endowed military state and more as an ordinary great power -- that same world looks at China as an ascending power. China's weight gains in global affairs matters.

This has been a recurring theme among foreign policy wonks.

I share this concern, but I also have my doubts. North Korea aside -- and it's a big aside -- China has had a pretty lousy year of diplomacy. I pointed his out last week:

Even China has had its diplomatic stumbles this year. Despite claims about the rise of Chinese "soft power," it has experienced some nasty blowback from its aggressive investments in Africa and its inadequate consumer regulation at home. The uprising of the monks in Myanmar also caught China short—a replay of Beijing's slow response after the 2005 tsunami.
I'm not the only one who's observed China's bad year.

As China amasses more "weight," it will also find itself amassing more global criticism. Beijing is valued now because it acts as a check against American power -- but the reverse will also be true.

Critics often bash the Bush administration for buying into a crude "bandwagoning" theory world politics. These fears of China seem to be predicated on the same kind of bandwagoning logic, however.

Clemons and others would point out that the difference is that while the Bush administration cares only about hard power, the Chinese have been astutely developing its soft power capabilities. Well, maybe. Are the Chinese initiatives at multilateralism significant or not? The Shanghai Cooperation Organization could be significant, but for every warning I read I also come across analysis suggesting that the organization doesn't matter that much.

Consider this an open thread -- are concerns about Chinese-led multilateral initiatives overblown or not?

posted by Dan on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM


Whom, exactly are they going to be multilateral with?

S. Korea, India and Japan are all far better disposed to the US, even when not actively hostile to China. The South East Asian and South American nations are either interested in making money or in making socialism, but in either case their concerns are local. Russia will look after its own interests, as will Europe, and if China can manage any sort of success in Africa, I believe we will all wish them good luck.

That leaves meddling in the Middle East, which China (along with everybody else, for that matter) is already doing.

As a final point, we've needed China's help with North Korean diplomacy since 1954. It's an area where China has historically had influence, not an are where it is gaining influence. So Steve Clemons isn't helping his argument by citing the latest nuke agreement.

OK, Professor, that's a bit simplistic, but I think more or less complete. Any glaring errors?

posted by: heedless on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

Well, is it important whether China's multilateralism is working?

Isn't this the heart of the matter? Isn't it true?

"While much of the world perceives -- at best -- America as a status quo power but more realistically as a superpower in decline that will eventually look something like a well-endowed military state and more as an ordinary great power -- that same world looks at China as an ascending power. China's weight gains in global affairs matters."

posted by: Nick Kaufman on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

It seems like China, at the very least, is assessing this current era of globalizations, making adjustments and engaging with the world through a variety of ways: whether building relationships with Australia (for minerals) or Third World coutries for other resources while giving loans. When there is blowback they learn. They invest in Blackstone, build up their navy in a smart way,

What I see is China engaging the world and quickly adjusting to current realities. In this way they seem to clearly be outmanuevering the USA.

The USA on the other hand, is stuck in that Cold War/Vietnam, Baby Boomer mentality and is doing a lousy job at adjusting to realitites in Iraq and the rest of the world. We seem to make all the wrong moves all the time. A movement is underfoot to make us approach this new World Order the way Thomas P. Barnett would (an out of the box approach), but for now, it has very little momentum.

The US may have stronger cards overall, but day to day, it is playing its hand poorly.

China may not have many cards, but day to day, they seem to understand the game much better.

posted by: Patrick on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

I wonder if quoting from an opinion piece that quotes oneself is not a bit excessive even by Steve Clemons' standards. Surely a link, without the quotation, would have sufficed.

posted by: Zathras on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

China is increasingly exposed to political and economic shocks from around the world. This is a new phenomenon for them. It would be bizarre if they didn't show a faster rate of growth in involvement in international affairs than a power like the US that has been entangled all over the world for decades.

posted by: srp on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the Shanghai grouping. Part of the problem is that a number of Western analysts cast the SCO as a new Warsaw Pact, and if that is the standard the group falls quite short. But the SCO has been doing quite well in terms of giving its member states options--and it has also served a pretty undervalued role in defusing potential crises, not least of which would be a series of resource wars across Eurasia.

Beijing has taken a Leninist approach--"better fewer, but better." That is, don't try anything too grandiose with the SCO but make sure what it does it does successfully--as the recent exercises demonstrated.

Finally, I'd call attention to what Chris Marsh from Baylor has been saying about China's soft power offensive in Russia ("The Year of China in Russia") and the impact that has been having in reducing some of the traditionally negative feelings many Russians have had about China.

posted by: Nikolas Gvosdev on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

I imagine China will reap as much of a return out of their soft power as the US has through the last few decades--meaning they will realize the returns on their investment are somewhere between slim and none. Some people just love to be afraid and to try to make everyone else afraid. And if people like this Steve Clemons character are so smart why aren't they in charge of something more than a keyboard?

posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 10.08.07 at 05:24 PM [permalink]

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