Beijing can best help to meet global challenges if the west respects its perspective and thinking
Three major categories of challenge face the world today: economic, security and environmental, all of which require action at national and global level. China's foreign policy is becoming increasingly conditioned by how it reacts to these challenges – be it the financial crisis and recession, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, manmade humanitarian disasters or climate change.
China has made significant progress in international co-operation over such global challenges. As it has grown in power, and risen in international importance, it has increased its international responsibilities, pushed by the deepening interconnection between China and the world economy. In turn, the world's expectations of China have grown. Globalisation and universal industrialisation have multiplied international challenges; addressing them requires multilateral structures such as the G20, through which China now assumes its international responsibilities.
However, this is not the full picture. The complexity embedded in China's position on many issues of multilateral co-operation requires assessments based on its own various situations. This means China has to take a stance that may not meet the level, or speed, of western expectations – the west that often perceives the world and makes demands of China in an absolutist way.
China is having to weigh problems that include a huge and often grave economic and social bottleneck – primarily the growing gap between rich and poor; the prosperity of the major urban centres and decaying of much of the rural countryside; the rapidly industrialised coast contrasted with underdeveloped inland areas, together with the deterioration of the environment; and the perennial unemployment problem in a country of 1.3 billion, demanding or even forcing the government to give priority to their needs.
In determining foreign policy, an enduring primary concern has been how the resources demanded affect domestic priorities: damaging traditional interests and practices and sparking undesirable debate or opposition in the domestic, informed public and even within the government – an almost overwhelming combination. And the multiplicity of China's foreign interests means policy meeting one global challenge will necessarily conflict with others.
Differences in thinking are also a major factor. China's self-image as an undeveloped rather than developed country, along with its domestic requirements and geopolitical and economic interests as an independent great power, make its opinion often differ significantly from that held by most western countries, and correspondingly limit China's willingness to co-operate. Besides, China's way of thinking, together with a more prudent or conservative political and strategic culture, mean it is less disposed to making commitments. China has moved nearer to the west, but it will continue to have characteristics quite unlike the west.
The breadth of global challenges has provided an extraordinary amount of opportunity for China-western co-operation, much of which has been realised. But it has also created potential for disagreements, suspicions, and rivalry – or even, in the worst case, confrontation. It is right for China to resist unreasonable demands and pressure from the west. And it is also right that it substantially increases its commitment and international responsibility in the world's common enterprise, doing its fair share in accordance with its capacity.
These two positions are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, both are in China's vital interests, now and in the longer term. When it comes to reducing its huge foreign trade surplus, dedicating itself more to environmental protection and engaging with greater vigour in the reform of international financial regimes and non-proliferation, an increased commitment is primarily bound to its healthy internal development and external strategic security. China should participate more actively in building multilateral structures: its greatly increased stakes, capability, and responsibility demand it.
At the same time, the west should be aware that in its dealing with China, all the following should be abandoned or avoided: demands that are too great; explicit double standards; crude pressure and accusation; blame. They will not only be futile in moving China, but will also risk delaying or even blocking multilateral co-operation. The west needs to improve its attitude towards China, and dispel a certain cultural arrogance, narrowness of vision, and a privilege-monopoly mentality.
Fundamentally, whether the world can overcome its challenges will to a great degree depend on whether an accommodation can be reached between the west's universalism and the particularistic ideas of China. The future is still uncertain, and efforts towards a mutual understanding are more necessary now than ever.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017