An adolescent great power

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 December, 2010, 12:00am

China found itself in highly awkward company yesterday as the first nation since Nazi Germany to deny either the recipient or a member of his family permission to attend the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony. And, as if to underline this grotesque precedent, Beijing decided to ape the Nazis by creating a rival peace award in a vain attempt to distract attention from the honour being given to Liu Xiaobo .

This demeaning overreaction to Liu's award emphasises the difficulties China appears to have in assuming its status as a great power. Beijing most certainly wants great- power status but is reluctant to accept the responsibility and modes of behaviour that accompany it.

As best friend to some of the world's most odious regimes, China says it will not be judgmental about their internal affairs, yet the economic and military support it furnishes is hardly neutral. Leadership in the world community requires at least a modicum of concern for a safer world.

But China says this is none of its business and, this week, State Councillor Dai Bingguo published a rare and high-profile essay explaining that Beijing was happy to allow the United States to continue as the world's dominant power. Dai stressed that China's main concern was to focus on its own development and maintain co-operation with other nations. But what does that mean? Clearly it does not include America's forlorn enthusiasm to be the world's policeman, nor is China keen to open its borders like other great nations.

Yet China is looming ever larger on the world stage as seen, for example, in the climate talks in Cancun and in its central role trying to defuse the potentially explosive Korean situation. Moreover, China has recently taken to lecturing the world on matters of financial stability while insisting that other nations refrain from commenting on its currency policy.

Dai's real point in his essay is that foreign powers should stop meddling in China's internal matters and China will do likewise in their affairs. Yet even the dimmest official in Beijing's Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows that the world does not work this way. Indeed, Beijing often goes to great lengths to demonstrate the opposite of its publicly declared policy of non-interference. For example, every year after the US State Department produces a report on the global human rights situation, which is generally critical of China, Beijing then pops up with its own report on the human rights situation in America, which is similarly unfavourable.

China has every right to do this, but in so doing it directly contradicts its own policy. It might be argued that this is a perfectly harmless exercise which neither side takes too seriously, but consistency matters if credibility is to be established.

In some issues, notably the dispute with Japan over a bunch of islands and the long-lasting stand-off over Taiwan, China insists that it is dealing with purely internal affairs. This defies logic because a dispute between nations cannot possibly be an internal matter. China will quickly argue that in the case of Taiwan it does not even recognise the existence of another nation but, here again, the stark reality is that Taiwan is run by a separate entity, with all the trappings of a state not controlled by Beijing.

China has nevertheless been highly successful in using its power to keep Taiwan largely diplomatically isolated, preventing it from even using its name in international forums. This is something of a pyrrhic victory because, at the end of the day, there are two states clearly operating alongside each other, and their governments even hold negotiations about their future status.

Yet the Chinese leadership is much preoccupied with form over reality. This is a dismal way of conducting foreign relations. And China has surely gone well past the stage where it feels the need to whine about not being given enough respect. Respect is earned, sometimes through brute force but often by doing the right thing, which is why Scandinavian nations often punch above their weight in international affairs.

Most of all, China needs to start behaving like a great power, relaxed enough not to prevent its citizens from attending Nobel ceremonies, open enough to engage in real debate as opposed to trading slogans, and be prepared to provide real leadership when it counts. After Beijing's dismal obstructive performance at the last climate talks in Copenhagen, it seemed to have behaved better in Cancun.

But no one will be convinced of China's determination to act like a real world power if it engages in petulant displays of anger when international honours are given to its citizens without Beijing's blessing. Grown-ups take it on the chin.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur