China sees APEC as chance to enhance its diplomatic influence

October 27, 2014 15:37
Foreign Minister Wang Yi asserts that “China has consistently upheld international rule of law in its diplomatic practice”. Photo: AFP

An increasingly self-confident China is now seeking to reshape the world through playing leadership roles in international organizations, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum next week in Beijing. This is a rare opportunity, since APEC members take turns hosting the annual meetings, with China last playing host in 2001.

The Chinese government is taking steps to ensure that Beijing, which has been choking under thick layers of smog, will enjoy acceptable quality air during the week-long meeting by shutting down factories and cutting the number of cars on the road.

More importantly, China is acting to ensure political tranquility with its neighbors. The last thing it wants is a flare-up over disputed territory with countries such as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, India and others.

Thus, China’s top foreign policy official, Yang Jiechi, was scheduled to visit Vietnam this week for talks and to co-host a meeting of the China-Vietnam Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation. China has also agreed to hold talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, despite having dragged its heels for more than a year.

Beijing is also sending conciliatory signals to Japan, and a meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now seems likely, despite years of public dueling over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

The 69th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations this month provides another occasion for China to proclaim its peaceful nature. Normally, China observes major anniversaries every five years, or every decade, but a 69th anniversary is not marked in a major way.

In 2010, to commemorate the 65th United Nations Day, a human rights forum was held in Beijing. But no event was held to commemorate the 66th, 67th or 68th anniversaries.

This year, however, to mark the 69th anniversary, Foreign Minister Wang Yi published a major article describing China as a “staunch defender” of rule of law both domestically and internationally and calling on the international community to “reject the law of the jungle”.

This sentiment is admirable, coming as it does from a country that is growing stronger by the day, admired by some and feared by others.

Foreign Minister Wang asserts that “China has consistently upheld international rule of law in its diplomatic practice”. This is odd since it is common knowledge that when Mao Zedong was in power, his top priorities were class struggle and world revolution. This constituted the background to Mao’s famous saying, “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent.”

Wang surely knows that, at least in the 1970s, China practiced a duplicitous policy under which the Chinese government would proclaim friendship with a foreign government while the Chinese Communist Party worked hand in glove with insurgent groups seeking that government’s overthrow.

One such example was Malaysia. When China and Malaysia established diplomatic relations in 1974, Beijing solemnly declared in a joint communiqué that “China recognizes the Government of Malaysia and respects the independence and sovereignty of Malaysia”.

And yet, this pledge was clearly violated since China continued to support the illegal Communist Party in that country, whose goal was the overthrow of the government of Tun Abdul Razak, who had signed the communiqué with China’s premier, Zhou Enlai.

This has been documented by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who told Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to stop such practices, which included the setting up of radio stations within China claiming to be the voice of the Malayan or Thai communist party.

Such actions clearly constituted interference in the internal affairs of those countries. True, this all happened a long time ago, but to claim that China had “consistently” upheld international law and had never interfered in the internal affairs of other countries seems to be stretching the truth a bit.

It is true that China’s international performance has improved greatly since Maoist times. Since Deng instituted reforms 36 years ago, China has become much more amenable to abiding by international rules.

Still, China seems to want to pick and choose. On the nine-dash line in the South China Sea, China says that it is simply continuing the territorial claim made by the former Republic of China government in the 1940s.

And yet, China became a founding member of the United Nations before the People’s Republic existed. The Republic of China voted for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but China today rejects the idea of universal values, saying that they are really only western values.

China really shouldn’t try to have it both ways.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.