COMMENT West provokes China's 'hardened' stance
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - Outsiders believe that China is hardening its foreign policy, citing
a number of recent events. But from China's viewpoint, the United States and
Europe have provoked it into taking a tougher position.
Looking at China's rejection of US demands at the Copenhagen climate change
summit, the Google incident and Beijing's strong opposition to US President
Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, Western observers say China is
clearly hardening its stance.
They also point to China's strong reaction to US arms sales to
Taiwan, the trial of four former employees from the Anglo-Australian mining
giant Rio Tinto and Beijing's rejection of new sanctions on Iran over the
latter's nuclear program.
Likewise, China's execution of a British criminal, Akmal Shaikh, was seen as a
milestone of China's new toughened diplomacy.
However, "one hand cannot clap alone". Beijing believes it was the reaction of
American and European leaders to the above issues that was tough, since China
was reacting to challenges to its core interests.
The intensifying conflict between China and the West over foreign policy is
partly due to a geographical widening of China's core interests as well as a
strengthening of its will to protect these interests.
With China's growing economic clout, its interests now extend beyond its
borders. Its economic and political interests are global. Chinese investment in
Africa has risen so much that it has had to dispatch a naval fleet to the
Indian Ocean to protect its cargo ships from piracy.
China's world rise has led to a concurrent rise in nationalism, and the
government now must take this into account when deciding on foreign policy.
Foreign countries encroaching on China's "core interests" still provokes public
anger - something that has simmered since China's colonial "humiliation" in the
If the government in Beijing fails to protect the country's core interests -
especially national security - it will not be tolerated by the people. Acting
tough is key to the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy of rule. It does not
want to be accused of betraying the nation like governments during the late
Qing Dynasty and the Northern Warlords period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President Barack Obama came into
power, both made friendly gestures toward China, leading Beijing to expect
better ties. However, not long after, both leaders' attitudes towards China
changed. The gap between Chinese leaders' expectations for these leaders and
today's realities is now huge, and this has cost Beijing face.
While tensions between the West and China seem at a peak, it can also be argued
that the latest clashes are just an extension of China protecting its national
security interests. This is nothing new. The country has not budged on issues
concerning national security since the founding of the People's Republic of
China (PRC) in 1949.
The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, has always been considered
in Beijing a separatist, not a religious leader. Arms sales to Taiwan are
viewed as antagonistic. In Copenhagen, the US wanted to impose a strict carbon
emissions regimen that would have frustrated China's economic progress.
Supporting Google's position on China's censorship would be like supporting an
invasion of China's domestic and local laws.
The Chinese government has always been "tough" towards the US and European
countries on issues like these, because it was safeguarding national security.
Since the founding of the PRC, each generation of communist leaders has reacted
in this manner.
To protect national security, Chairman Mao Zedong and his colleagues sent the
People's Volunteer Army into North Korea fight against US-led forces, costing
the lives of thousands of Chinese soldiers. To protect its national
sovereignty, China did not hesitate to break off its fraternal relationship
with the Soviet Union.
Several times over the past three decades, to protect its national security,
China put a halt to political or military dialogue with the West. On this,
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently said that even when China was poor and
backward, "We stood firm with our backs straightened."
Viewed from this perspective, China's foreign policy is no tougher than before.
Another consistent factor is that China has taken a defensive rather than
If there is a change in China's foreign policy toward the US and European
countries, it's not in principle but rather in style, and the fact that China
is now being criticized for "toughening" its foreign policy is actually
evidence that the West is listening more to China's voice. China's reactions in
the past were as harsh as today, but when the nation was poorer, few took
China's reaction is neither as tough nor as new as Western observers suggest,
but it is still struggling to get its message across to the US and Europe. If
the disconnect continues or gets worse, it could result in a Cold-War-like
Neither China nor the West wishes to see this outcome. The US and Europe must
remember that China is like an adolescent who wants to be admitted to an
adult's world, hoping for more independence and respect. If the West imposes
unjust criticism or responsibility on China, it could be pushed it into a
corner from which it would need to fight its way out.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.