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China Conference 2018

‘Big questions remain’ for China taking leadership role on the world stage

Global governance system may need overhaul to accommodate China’s rise, former senior US official says

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 9:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 January, 2018, 11:52pm

Despite its material capacity to rise as a world power, Beijing still has a long way to go to meet international expectations of how it should apply its military and economic weight and adhere to global governance norms, a former senior US official has said.

Speaking at the annual China Conference hosted by the South China Morning Post on Thursday, Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also conceded that the global governance system needed a major overhaul to accommodate China’s rise.

Russel, who is diplomat in residence and senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, noted there was a big gap between Beijing’s ambitions and international confidence in it taking a leadership role on the world stage, especially among China’s neighbours.

“I don’t think anybody doubts that China has the material capacity to achieve President Xi Jinping’s ambitious [global] agenda, but there are some big questions that are outstanding,” he said.

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A recent Pew Research Centre poll in Asia showed some major countries in the region had very little confidence in an expanded and sustained Chinese leadership role in global governance despite Beijing’s attempts to portray itself as a benevolent power.

“That’s a problem. It is important to get those numbers up. And it’s my belief that it’s really the decisions and behaviours of the Chinese government and companies that are going to do that, not speeches or white papers,” he said.

Russel noted that nations in the region often raised questions about Beijing’s readiness to show restraint and to abide by international standards even at the expense of its own short-term advantages.

“What will be the impact on prospects for regional and global leadership from Beijing’s use of technology and big data for repressive political and social controls at home?” he asked.

Russel also said the global governance system was approaching a crossroads due to the changing dynamic in US-China relations and shifting attitudes from both sides towards each other.

“One of the criticisms of the current global system is that it’s slow to grant China a voice or a status commensurate with its growing stature,” he said.

“As much as China has benefited from global rules and institutions, as [US diplomacy guru Henry] Kissinger has pointed out, China is adjusting to an international system that was developed in its absence through a process that it did not participate in. So reform is needed for all sorts of reasons.”

While Americans show growing scepticism over the benefits of Washington’s global leadership and even participation in the international system, China’s new capabilities along with new nationalism are feeding a more ambitious and a more self-interested global engagement, according to the US diplomat.

“We see perhaps a little less humility and a little more entitlement and an understandable sense that China’s increasing strength entitles it to a greater say or a leading role in international institutions,” he said.

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This shift in Chinese attitudes has spurred Beijing to push forward with alternative regional institutions in recent years, such as its belt and road trade plan and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Russel also warned that complementarities between the Chinese and American economies, which have benefited both countries and the world, were decreasing amid growing structural competition.

“To put it simply, we urgently need to develop models of global governance that allow the US and China to engage in healthy competition while continuing to cooperate on big global challenges, like climate change, global health, terrorism, non-proliferation, cyberspace, in space and in regional hotspots,” he said.

But given the deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion between Beijing and Washington, he admitted it remained a tough task for the two powers to adjust to a changing geopolitical landscape.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney, Kinling Lo and Sidney Leng