China’s diplomatic multilateralism – 反思中国多边主义外交 – English

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So far, China’s diplomatic multilateralism has deeply changed. To make it simple, one can divide the changing process in three stages.

The first one is the Mao era when China opposed and fought against diplomatic multilateralism, advocating, instead, bilateralism. At that time China closely guarded the concept of national sovereignity, often considering diplomatic multilateralism as a way to interfere in other states’affairs. The second stage is the aftermath of the Reform and Opening policy,when China’s approach to diplomatic multilateralism was fairly passive:according to needs, People’s Republic joined diplomatic multilateralism guided by other states.This balance of power has deeply influenced China’s foreign affairs.In this period China joined a lot of regional and international multilateral organizations. Starting from the end of 90s the country entered a new stage, actively building a multilateral diplomatic system. Being at the beginning a capital-poor country, it gradually become a country with a capital surplus, wanting to “go out” and cooperate with the other countries. The China-ASEAN free trade area is a clear example. Following its abruptly rise, in addition to the satisfaction of its safety needs, China must also undertake more responsabilities in the regional and international fields. For this reason the county must actively establish a multilateral organizations’ system. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Six-Party Talks are two models:the first aims at fighting fear and creating economic cooperation, the second at solving the Corean peninsula question.

Today, China’s diplomatic multilateralism is in a new stage. With a Gross National Income (GNI) of more than 10 trillions USdollars, the country is the second biggest economic system in the world. Even if the GDP per capita is still low, China’s internal changes will have a great external influence. At the same time China speeded up the “Going Out” policy, not only in the economic field, but also in diplomacy and strategy.The People’s Republic and the other BRIC countries founded the BRIC bank; following the Silk Road Strategy, China advocated and established the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” and created Silk Road Fund. I am convinced that from now on China will establish more regional economic organizations and also greater scale, supraregional, international organizations. Despite China’s key role in the process of setting up such organizations, their actions are decided by the regional and internatinal members. As a big, rising nation the People’s Republic cant’t avoid this trend because its sustainable development and its regional and international responsabilities are at stake.

Diplomatic multilateralism is an efficacious way for China’s rise but the country must have a clear consciousness of its status in the diplomatic multilateralism frame. China has experienced diplomatic multilateralism for years so can learn a lesson from the past

Generally speaking, China’s multilateralism, no matter if the approach is passive or active, has some unique traits. First, China’s multilateralism neither challenged the existing order nor established a regional order accepted by other countries. Second, even if we cant’s say that the multilateral organizations set up by China are not useful, they are not as effective as one can expect. Third, for some countries, the multilateral organisations set up by china have taken some action, but they’re irrelevant to the needs of these countries.

Why aren’t the results self-evident?

Why are this traits emerging? Can China learn that lesson from the past ? Let’s consider the following points.

The first is the lack of an effective voice. Like the practice of internal reforms, China’s external opening has little right to speak, that is to say, China cannot always explain its own practice. In many aspects of foreign relations, particularly the most important parts, the senior leaders set the tones, and no other voices can emerge. This is due to the constraints of the Chinese system. The most notable example is China’s implementation of the ‘Silk Road’. When President Xi Jinping visited countries of Central Asia and Indonesia, he spoke about some key points of the silk road strategy. This is extremely important. But then, it seemed like all of China’s Think Tanks were articulating the importance of these key points, as if beyond them, there was nothing else to the Silk Road strategy. With this kind of argumentative policy research, it will be difficult to assert the right for China to speak for itself, as this kind of mechanical explanation and interpretation does not constitute effective policy research. In fact, this kind of explanation and interpretation will not enrich the core content of the Silk Road model, but rather lead to its vulgarisation.

Second, the “campaign method” used to boost diplomacy. Chinese governement officials always adopt this method in internal as well as in foreign affairs. The best example are the Confucius Institutes. Even if Confucius Institutes are the product of a bilateral agreement, they all follow the same logic.In ten years, from 11th November 2004, when the first Confucius Institute was established in South Korea, to 11th November 2014, China founded 475 Confucius Institutes and 851 Confucius Classrooms in 126 countries all over the world. Cant’s say it’s not a quick development. But the “campaign method” will hardly consolidate the institution, contrariwise, it will certainly lead to a change of course. In recent years, The Institutes are facing a difficult situation, as some western universities decided to not renew Confucius Institutes and Classrooms contract. At a higher level,the present situation of the Silk Road Strategy is almost the same, the promotion strategy, in this case too, seems to be th “campaign method”.

Unaware of other countries’ situation, impatient for results, China adopts pressing methods, i.e. the campaigns, to be accepted. A great gap exists bewtween China’s desires and what other countries know about people’s Republic.China believes that the above-mentioned projects are advantageous for other countries or, at least, for bilateral relations, so this one is a good desire. But the other countris absolutely dont’ share this view: judging China’s projects from various aspects such as diplomacy, politic, economy, national defense and safety, they often come at the conclusion that they are not beneficial for them.

What is more, China doesn’t have a full, real knowledge of political strategy in (multilateral) diplomacy so, often, the popularization strategy using campaigns adds fuel to flames:”good intentions, bad method”.According to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, countries can be divided in three groups. In the first one we find countries that received benefits, namely countries with a leading role in asian affairs, including USA, Japan and so on. One can understand why who has received benefits doesn’t like, opposes and even boycott the appearence of new benefits. The Asian Investment Bank considered as an asian bank guided by Japan and USA started a challenge, even a battle and it’s easy to understand why this opposition and boycott stem from these countries.

The second group is the realist group, or the opportunistic group. They’re skeptical about China leading the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. They do not want to give up on this opportunity which is to their advantage, but have many doubts about it. This group includes countries influenced by the United States, such as South Korea. In economic terms, South Korea has already achieved a high level of integration with China, but strategically, it is still highly dependent on the US, and the US can easily influence South Korea’s decisions. The third group consists of the supporters of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Most of them are developing or even underdeveloped countries. They’re eager to develop their economies through the construction of the Silk Road. These countries are expecting a different set of policies.

But because the understanding of the situation in different countries is not deep enough, we cannot analyse and determine the range of their possible reactions, and China often uses a ‘one size fits all’ approach, with comprehensive promotion regardless of the situation. Understandably, this process inevitably meets with strong resistance.

Strengthening policy knowledge

One more important thing is, policy makers and policy researchers do not have sufficient awareness of the distribution of political power within the countries in question, which often results in important decision-making mistakes. It is often the case that, in many countries, although the regime is not democratic but of an authoritarian nature, various types of opposition forces still exist. These different internal political forces have different and sometimes diametrically opposed attitudes and positions in regard to the big countries surrounding them, some are pro-China, some are anti-China, etc. Meanwhile, just as China, other big countries are looking to influence those countries. Through lack of sufficient policy knowledge, China often reaches many agreements with existing, pro-China forces (including trade and investment, infrastructure construction, etc), without taking into account opposition forces. Once the current leadership chooses to step down or leaves for other reasons, China has no mechanism to preserve its interests. A few years earlier, Chinese initiatives in Myanmar faced such a situation, and recently, it’s faced similar challenges in Sri Lanka.

Because China’s multilateral diplomatic practice is still in its early stages, it’s normal that more tuition fees should be paid. However, China could reduce the cost, because China’s there is already huge room for improvement in China’s diplomatic behaviour, and with effort, it could maximally avoid the circumstances described above.

First of all, there needs to be attention paid to the establishment of a right to speak. In an era of sovereign States, each country has a strong sense of its own sovereignty, and in the absence of an effective right to speak, whether in bilateral of multilateral diplomacy, China’s effort to ‘go out’ will be more difficult. Establishing a ‘right to speak’ as part of soft power, it would at least let other countries believe that China’s approach is consistent with the interests of both sides. To establish an effective ‘right to speak’, there may need to be a shift from the use of words coloured with a strong ‘preaching tone’ to a vocabulary toolkit that includes more ‘universal values’. Of course, the ‘universal values’ I mention are not just Western values, they also include ‘universal values’ that China embraces, such as openness, harmony, tolerance, and equality.

Secondly, at the operational level of its ‘going outwards’ strategy, China must improve the professional spirit of its operators, and be more in line with the standard multilateral norms, such as the use of market mechanism, basing “trust” on respect for the law, and having transparent governance systems, and abandon the use of ‘relationships’, black boxes and political influence that the country often uses.

Equally important is the coordination and integration of various elements and bodies within China itself. Many problems in China’s relationship with overseas are the result of the cut-throat competition between various entities internally, rather than the competition between China and other countries. This has long been the case in relation with Australian mining companies, and is now the case for big engineering projects overseas. Many technology companies from China are now roughly equivalent to their overseas counterparts, but the internal cut-throat competition has led to excessive price-cutting. When prices are lowered below economic rationality, even in the absence of competition with overseas companies, this creates a problem for local communities. There are good reasons to ask why Chinese companies can sell at such a low price. And they suspect either China’s strategic intentions, or the corruption of local governments. This has led to heavy losses for China.

Once again, China might have to avoid an excessive, superstitious commitment to multilateralism. Multilateralism is an effective diplomatic and policy approach, but multilateralism does not mean that all countries within the multilateral framework are strictly on a par. For different countries within the framework, different policies must be implemented. In many aspects, in order to achieve a breakthrough in relationships, one must start bilaterally. Advancing bilateral relationships within a multilateral framework may be a more efficient model for diplomacy.

Realistically, the rise of a great country is never easy. Compared with the rise of Britain and the US in the past, the rise of China is even more difficult. If China can effectively make a summary of the lessons it learnt during its ascension, not only could this reduce the costs of its rise, and overcome unnecessary resistance, but it may better lead to China acting as a responsible great country.

The author is the director of the Singapore National University East Asia section.

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Source : aisixiang

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact