SPEAKING FREELY Mali and China's 'Western' foreign policy
By Moritz Pollath
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
This year, Chinese soldiers and engineers will serve with German soldiers for the first time since World War II, when German military advisers modernized the Kuomintang army until the alliance with Imperial Japan ended the Sino-German cooperation. Soldiers from both countries and other participating nations will meet in Mali, far away from China's heartland and in Europe's near-abroad, under the aegis of the United Nations.
Today, the circumstances have changed completely. The Chinese soldiers herald from the People's Liberation Army and serve the
Chinese Communist Party, which pursues a model of authoritarianism and state capitalism, and the Bundeswehr operates as a parliamentary army from an established liberal democracy.
Both countries will meet in the hot and sandy environment that is Mali outside to stabilize a weak but democratic government in a region that is struggling with extreme poverty, weak institutions and is confronted by well-equipped transnational Islamist groups.
The world truly has changed. China has changed. But in which direction? If Western foreign policy can be summarized as a combination of a cooperative approach towards global governance through the United Nations and other regional organizations and an adherence and promotion of human rights and freedom of speech: Does Mali serve as an indicator, that we will experience a Westernization of Chinese foreign policy?
China is not new to UN peacekeeping operations. The country has supported UN missions in Iraq and Cambodia, where it helped maintain a ceasefire between the various Cambodian factions, ensure general elections and help the country in its difficult transition period. So why is the new UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) worth our attention?
Cambodia is part of China's near abroad. Beijing directly benefited from security and stability in its Southeast Asian neighborhood. Today, the Chinese participate in the stabilization and assistance to democratic governance and national unity in Mali in a region of the world, which decades before were of no or merely peripheral interest. In addition, in Mali and other places Beijing's communist past seems to play no role. China's constructive engagement demonstrates that step by step China has been taking over Western notions of security and stability around the world in form of UN missions.
Cooperation in UN missions is just one aspect of China's modern foreign policy: Fittingly described as a reluctant internationalist by scholars, China has played a stabilizing role in international affairs throughout the financial meltdown of 2008, which Beijing judged as a Western crisis. Even with global governance at a low point since the end of the Cold War - recently demonstrated by the inability of the Group of Eight to find a solution to the war in Syria - beneath the big challenges, climate change, mass migration and weapons proliferation, Mali demonstrates that local and regional conflict management is still possible and active.
Even China's more assertive foreign policy, which accelerated the American pivot to the Pacific, finds comparisons in the rise of the West. Historians list the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904 as part of America's rise to a global power. The canal saved enormous travel time, and about 11,000 kilometers in distance, for commerce and warships. In 2013, China is founding the construction of a similar project in Nicaragua. Although it is far too soon to tell if the Nicaragua project will ever be realized, China's naval expansion and presence in the Indian Ocean to combat piracy have become reality.
Is China's engagement in Mali and its assertive posture around the globe another step towards a Westernization of Beijing's foreign policy? No. Cultural differences will remain and lead to different policy choices than Western capitals might embark upon. Even though Mali shows that China could become a policeman for international stability, strong indicators remain that it will be guided by its own cultural and political premises and not by Western values: in past major conflicts China always emphasized the importance of state sovereignty regardless of the brutal and inhumane actions of leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkan Wars, al-Baschir against Sudan's ethnicities and Bashar al-Assad against the Syrian population.
As long as stability is ensured, China is prone to subordinate human rights beneath the support of authoritarian rulers, a mindset that is all too familiar from China's own human rights and freedom of speech record. This hierarchy will remain in the near and middle future, because any change in this core hierarchy would lead to serious ramifications for China's internal political stability.
In addition, China has not displayed the strong voice Western officials often use to promote universal human rights around the world. In certain circumstances, when military feasibility and geopolitical interests converged, Western powers resorted to military intervention and sanctions in countries which were a threat to international stability and their own citizens.
China never has promoted Communism the way the Soviet Union did or the way the West promotes liberal democracy and market capitalism. During the Cold War, at the root of Beijing's support for North Korea or North Vietnam against the UN and the United States was a mixture of geopolitics and common ideology.
For the West it remains important to remember: China's foreign policy posture does not look necessarily more Western, just because it supports stability. For Beijing, stability does not necessarily mean global governance. Far from it, the communist party leader's foreign policy aims resemble more the time of Metternich, when the Concert of Europe defended the unfettered rule of monarchies and the balance of power against liberal opposition movements in the various European countries.
Although this constitutes some form of global governance, it is not the kind Western leaders aim to achieve. In Beijing's defense, even the US, EU and other major and emerging powers ignore the big issues of global governance when they run contrary to their national interests.
Western capitals can expect China to be a constructive actor in places like Mali, but cannot expect China's support to actively intervene and end horrendous human rights violations. Beijing remains very hesitant towards global governance because from the Chinese perspective it constitutes an agent against the status quo and leads to interference with national sovereignty. China will behave with restraint because of its own demographic challenges, staggering economic growth and domestic policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur and Tibet Autonomous Regions.
While China might follow a foreign policy idea from the past days in Europe, it does not place the same value on human rights and the responsibility to protect as modern Western foreign policy does.
China follows its own foreign policy based on its cultural and geographical parameters with a strong emphasis on diminishing foreign interference in its direct neighborhood. Defending the status quo is currently in China's best interests, even though Chinese leaders behave far more responsible in global affairs than they get credit for in Western opinion. Mali tells us more about the extent and limits of cooperation between China and the West than one might expect to find in the landlocked West African state.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Moritz Pollath is a foreign and security policy analyst and doctoral candidate at Jena University based in Germany.