Achieving common ground in China-US foreign policy is no pipe dream

Robert Lawrence Kuhn looks to a time when China takes a leading role in foreign affairs, working alongside the US to achieve peace and stability from a position of moral authority

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 September, 2013, 2:45am

I have a dream that, in a future Syria-like crisis, the US and China will be arm-in-arm allies, working together to convince others of the high-minded rectitude of their joint initiative to maintain peace and enhance prosperity. It is a dream, in truth, that would benefit China and the world - yet it is a dream, in reality, that China-watchers would dismiss as a "pipe dream". Pessimism prevails, which is why China-US disputations over Syria are worth examining.

The spectre of US military strikes in Syria to punish the Assad regime for egregiously gassing its own citizens exposed fault lines between China's and America's perception of the world. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "China is firmly opposed to the use of chemical weapons by any party in Syria and expresses serious concern about preparations by relevant countries for unilateral military action."

It is a carefully worded statement: China condemns the obvious evil, avoids ascribing blame, and tweaks the US for preparing "unilateral military action". The second and third points critique the US; the second subtly, the third overtly.

At the G20 meeting, President Xi Jinping said: "A political solution is the only right way out for the Syrian crisis, and a military strike cannot solve the problem from the root. We expect certain countries to have a second thought before action."

"It is appalling," asserted a New York Times editorial, that "Russia and China have not been the focus of international outrage and pressure."

There are four deep reasons why China opposes US military action against Syria. First, China has a long-standing, consistent, absolute policy of opposing all cross-border interventions of any kind and under any circumstance. China harbours an anxiety that if they are permitted - especially those seeking regime change - some day, interventions could be used against China itself. While foreigners may dismiss such an extreme scenario, China remembers its "century of humiliation" when it was invaded, occupied and oppressed by Western nations and Japan.

The second reason recognises that China is a developing country with a huge and uneven population, and in order to maintain social stability it must continue to grow its large but fragile economy. Growth requires natural resources, especially oil, and because these resources are often found in countries whose political systems are autocratic - even dictatorial - to be judgmental is deemed not to be in China's interest.

The third reason is that military intervention is inherently destabilising and for China to maintain its economic development it needs stability. Worse, destabilisation in the Middle East would drive up the price of oil, which China imports in increasing abundance, thus constraining growth and stimulating inflation.

The fourth reason is that the US usually takes the lead in cross-border interventions and China feels threatened when US power expands.

Yet, in justifying its opposition to military force, China must seek other rationale. At first, some in China said proof was needed that chemical weapons were used. Then they questioned whether Assad's government was responsible. Then the People's Daily called the US reaction to chemical weapons "making a big fuss". No wonder, then, amidst the confusion of the Russian proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, China was a quick and eager supporter.

I believe it is in the national interests of China and the US to work together such that their foreign policies begin to converge. Surely there are nationalistic issues, and conflicts can compound when parochial media pontificates on disputed borders. But border disputes do not determine national wealth, and national dignity should not be measured by maps. The real achievements of nations - increasing citizens' standards of living - are not the zero-sum games of jousting over slivers of land or sea but are the synergistic accretions of advanced education, knowledge creation, technology utilisation and business entrepreneurship.

Both the US and China should shift their ways of thinking. The US should come to see China without the distorting lens of old history and the cold war. Today's China has no interest in trying to change the world.

So how to modernise China's four reasons for opposing military intervention to stop genocide? First, while Mao Zedong's China might have worried legitimately about international intervention, today's China need not. Today's China is vastly different, having delivered the greatest improvement in standard of living to the largest number of people in history.

Second, while China may derive short-term economic benefits from dealing with dictators, those who oppress their own people are inherently precarious, and China can suddenly find itself on the wrong side of history, as it did in Libya. China's sophisticated policy thinkers are beginning to appreciate these socio-strategic realities.

Third, China should desire, above all, long-term stability - in international economics in general and in the price of oil in particular, especially as the country is becoming more dependent on imported energy. Rescuing sufferers from tyrants enhances long-term stability.

Fourth, for China not to view the US as its adversary, Washington will have to accept that Western democracy may not be ideal for all nations at all times. It must appreciate that China must continue to determine and develop its own system.

In my dream of a post-adversarial world, China would assume increasing responsibility for world peace and prosperity, which would include challenging wicked regimes that trouble their own people. In seeking the moral optimum, China may have to tear up old scripts.

For its part, the US should reject the cold-war mentality of "containing China". Of course, there would remain areas of contention, but different political systems should not be one of them. Rogue regimes are no friends of China. That these countries cause problems for the US - and hence, according to some Chinese, keep the US off-balance and divert it from pressuring China - is yesterday's strategy. In the contemporary world, the real conflict is not between opposing political or economic systems but rather between the forces of modernity, competence and development and those of ignorance, incompetence and oppression.

China becomes a leading nation by asserting, not resisting, moral leadership. To intervene across national boundaries requires an extremely high standard of a sovereign government committing atrocities, maiming and murdering its own people. In such circumstances, I look to a time when China will share responsibility in leading global relief.

I do not advocate that China follow the US; it must pursue its own self-interests, which stress improving standards of living and its increasing prominence and prestige among the community of nations. To secure the former, China requires international stability. To enable the latter, China must have the moral high ground.

I have a dream.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn has long-time relationships with China's leaders and the Chinese government. He is strategic adviser to multinational corporations and the author of How China's Leaders Think