For many years, as China grew stronger and more influential, the United States has been pressuring it to assume more global responsibilities.
Ten years ago, a senior American official, Robert Zoellick, urged China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, a term that perplexed the Chinese.
“China is big, it is growing,” the then deputy secretary of state said. “How will China use its influence? We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder” in the international system.
Beijing’s response, typically, was that both China and the US have to be responsible stakeholders. To Beijing, the important thing was to be on the same level as Washington.
China continued to astonish the world with its growth and bounds and, in 2008, when the global financial crisis struck, Europe looked to China for help.
Hu Jintao, the Chinese leader at the time, said China’s priority was to run its own affairs well and China’s growth in itself was a major contribution to global stability and economic growth.
During its years of rapid ascendancy, Chinese officials and academics took the view that talk of China assuming more responsibility was a trap into which they should not fall because it would simply slow their growth.
Little wonder, then, that President Barack Obama commented last year in a New York Times interview that China had been “a free rider for 30 years” and that the United States is still the only superpower to which others look to for help when needed.
Indeed, even when he visited Beijing last November, Obama said at a joint press conference with Presidnet Xi Jinping that the US welcomes the continuing rise of a China that is peaceful, prosperous and stable and, significantly, one that “plays a responsible role in the world”.
Finally, it seems, the United States has gotten its wish.
China under President Xi has accepted the challenge of being a responsible power but perhaps not in exactly the way the US meant when it urged this on China.
In the past 12 months, Xi has made a series of statements indicating China’s willingness to assume greater responsibilities.
But the Chinese leader, in what appears to be a criticism of the United States, has also indicated that big countries should not use the pretext of assuming global responsibility to arrogate even greater power to themselves.
Last May, Xi unveiled his thoughts on a “new Asian security concept” when he addressed a previously low-profile grouping called the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, also known as CICA.
“Every country has the equal right to participate in the security affairs of the region as well as the responsibility of upholding regional security,” he said. “No country should attempt to dominate regional security affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of other countries.”
“It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia,” he added significantly, “solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.” This would seem to leave little room for the US in Asia despite its alliances with Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea.
In July, Xi spelled out China’s willingness to assume greater responsibility when he said in an interview: “As China develops, it will better play its role as a major responsible country. We will be more active in working to uphold world peace, advocate common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and cooperative and comprehensive security.”
In the two years of Xi’s presidency, China has rolled out major projects it plans to implement, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which, despite Washington’s opposition, has won the endorsement of most American allies except Japan, reflecting China’s new-found international clout.
This month, as the crisis in Yemen continues, China has for the first time helped to evacuate 225 foreign nationals along with hundreds of Chinese citizens from Aden, the first time it has evacuated foreigners from a dangerous hotspot.
So Beijing is finally stepping up and assuming responsibility but it is at the same time challenging Washington for regional and global leadership.
One wonders to what extent the US is happy about getting what it had been urging for a decade.
The US Congress finally seems to be waking up to China’s challenge.
Congressional leaders have agreed to give Obama wide power to finish negotiations on a trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 other countries, which the American president has said will enable the US, not China, to “write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region.”
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