Beijing as an Outcast

By He Qinglian on December 12, 2011

After a succession of diplomatic setbacks in the last two years, this year has been even worse for Beijing. In just the several weeks from G-20 Summit and APEC Summit in early November to East Asia Summit in the middle of that month, the United States has initiated frequent offensives that were seamlessly interrelated and ended with the meeting between US President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the East Asia Summit. The result: the United States got a complete victory, returning to the Pacific politically and militarily; and China suffered a total defeat, losing the dominant position of the Asia-Pacific region that the country thought was firmly within its grip.

Money and Great External Propaganda: China's diplomacy, a projection of its internal affairs
Nine Asia-Pacific countries signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement with the exclusion of China, making the already militarily isolated country an economic outcast in the Asia-Pacific region. To describe this as “being besieged on all sides” might be too pessimistic, yet it would be alright to say the country is slipping into the difficult situation of being isolated by international community for the third time. What angered Beijing the most was that this time the isolation started in the Asia-Pacific region, which the country saw as its own courtyard, and it happened at the time when China considered itself to have “risen peacefully” and was about time to take up the responsibility to lead the world alongside the United States.

Being isolated this time round had truly caught Beijing by surprise. Before this isolation, China had hoped wholeheartedly that its economic ties with Asian neighbors would eventually translate into political trust. But in fact, Southeast Asian countries had been figuring out ways to unite against China and cancel out its influence inserted by one-on-one negotiations with them. Given the dissatisfaction that had been building up in those countries as a result of China taking advantage of it being situated at the upstream of Mekong River and using water resource in an overbearing manner, it was only a matter of time before these countries formed an alliance against China.

China's diplomacy: failed not as a result of incompetent diplomats, but as a result of it being a projection of the country's internal affairs
The characteristic of China’s internal governance in the last thirty years was that it practiced the doctrine “economic development is the absolute principle”. Hence there was the saying widely circulated among officials: “Whatever that could be resolved with RMB are but internal conflicts among the people.” Using the “Contract of Bread with the people” as the basis of its governing legitimacy, the Chinese government promised to keep the people well fed and made them accept one-party dictatorship. This was maintained with lies (control of public opinion, media and shaping of the main theme) and violence. When projected to its diplomacy, this characteristic of the country’s internal governance would mean fostering relationship with different countries through all sorts of economic ties. With richer countries, China would create ties by means of finance, trade and investment so that political trust could in turn be built. And with poorer nations, it would seek political support by means like financial assistance and preferential loans. In recent years it also hoped to obtain dominance in international discourse through great external propaganda. At the same time China strengthened its military might and thereby intimidating neighboring countries into submission.

Toward the populace of the country, however, the Chinese government was not spending as generously. Whether it was the shaping of the social welfare system or the provision of compulsory education, the government had been stingy in its commitment; but when it came to spending in exchange for external support, the Chinese government was considerably generous. Before economic reform, China was widely known for its generosity. In the early 1970s, China's foreign aid commitment shot up on the scale of one billion each year. The highest record of this commitment was set in 1973, when the sum of foreign aid amounted to 2% of the country's GDP, or 7.2% of the year's expenditure. In comparison, the United States only committed 0.0063% of its GDP in foreign aid that year. One could see how generous China had been in foreign aid commitment when those figures were compared with the country's budgeted expenditure on education, which was less than 4% of GDP in the last decade.

Since economic reform, China's foreign aid commitment had at one point been reduced but it showed the trend of climbing back up again in recent years. According to a speech by Wen Jiabao not so long ago, the accumulated amount of the various foreign financial aids—not including the write-off of several hundred counts of mature debt of a few countries—totaled more than 170 billion RMB. Whenever diplomatic ties turned bad, China would instantaneously spend money to buy [friendship back]. Just like this time in East Asia Summit, Beijing still resorted to the old way in dealing with crises: spent money to make ASEAN countries happy. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced that in addition to the $ 15 billion loans previously committed, China would provide another $ 10 billion in loans to ASEAN, and would also set up a China - ASEAN maritime cooperation fund that worth three billion yuan ($637 million). 

Utter disregard of rules: international projection of power above the law
Looking back on the international relation history of the Communist Party of China (aka Chinese Communist Party, CCP) government, it has so far been subjected to “Splendid Isolation” for three times. The first time it was when China-US diplomatic relations was established; the second was from 1989 to the mid-1990s; and now it is sliding onto the path of “Splendid Isolation” for the third time. One would find the fundamental reason of China being isolated on these three occasions was that the value held by the CCP as well as the way it act was thoroughly at odds with civilized countries. When it came to universal values and codes of conduct that had been recognized by the international community, the authorities in Beijing adopted all along the combined measures of sidestepping and using them [to suit its own needs].

In APEC Hawaii Summit this year, US President Barack Obama criticized China for “gaming international rules” and said that “enough is enough”. He didn’t wrong China on the matter. Up till now, China has signed in total twenty three international conventions relating to human rights. With the exception of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the country ratified twenty-two conventions so far. Yet when looking at the real situation in China, one would find that the country’s pledges to these conventions are mostly unfulfilled.

As a country widely known for not following the rules of intellectual property, China has long been in dispute over the issue—one of the major economic clashes—with the United States. Germany, too, felt fed up with China’s infringement on intellectual property, in 2010 it gave five of the eleven Plagiarius Awards to Chinese companies. And an EU report completed in 2010 pointed out that of the counterfeit products entering EU countries in 2009, 64% were from China.

There was a famed opportunistic saying about Chinas abiding by international rules: “keeping a low profile”. The saying meant that when the country was not strong enough, exercise refrain and gather strength would be necessary; but once the time is ripe, it would deal with the world with the [at times arrogant] attitude of a risen nation.

In the decade following China’s entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Beijing took on a docile approach so as not to cause troubles in the first five years, as the transition period after the country joined the WTO was not yet over. But once that period was over, and China switched to an aggressive approach after it became a full WTO member, the world’s troubles began to increase. Since 2007, quality of products made in China had become the main cause of trade frictions. Reports on various deleterious foods, lead-laden toys, and noxious construction materials cast a lingering shadow over goods made in China.

Inside today’s China there are numerous laws, yet none of them have any binding effect on government officials, who behave much the same way in handling foreign affairs. For example, Jiang Yu, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was quoted in March 2011 as saying that “the law is no shield”; and in November 2011, Pang Sen, deputy director-general at China's Foreign Ministry, said in response to the criticism by President Obama that: If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that,” a saying that revealed all the more clearly what the CCP was truly thinking. The saying meant that the reason China would sign agreements to join certain institutions or international organizations was only because the country wanted to have the entry tickets. The rules of those institutions were formulated before China became a member, China had not taken part in their formulation and therefore was not obliged to abide by them. 

Soft Power does not equate “Dollar Diplomacy & Great External Propaganda”
In recent years China has been saying that it wants to build its soft power, which is, as Beijing sees it, a combination of Dollar Diplomacy and Great External Propaganda. In fact, this “soft power” with Chinese characteristics would only work for a while. The biggest gain from the big money spent in the international community was that China had successfully manipulated a few developing countries to wreak havoc on the UN Human Rights Commission (Human Rights Council after 2006) so that motions condemning China's human rights violations were never passed. Most of the rest of the money spent, however, produced no good fruits. One such example would be Myanmar's recent alienation from China. For years China had spent handsome money on Myanmar, and had launched many external propaganda media titles in Burmese, such as the magazine “Mingla(Auspiciousness?)”, to brainwash the Burmese people [so they would not question or stand up to China]. But right after Thein Sein assumed office as the new president of Burma in September this year, the Myanmar government announced to halt the Irrawaddy River dam construction project in northern Burma, in which China had invested $ 3.6 billion.

And the fact is, while being economically dependent on China, the South East Asian countries have never truly relinquished the thought of counting entirely on the United States for security.

I wish that Beijing would come to realize this: its plight in foreign relations resulted not entirely from unwise strategies and tactics, but from China's political system and its value. If no reform to those is carried out, Beijing would only remain an outcast.