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China’s foreign policy dilemmas

Maarten van den Berg | 02 June 2011

On Monday 18 April, a crowd of 120 or so gathered in the hall of the Free University in Amsterdam for a lecture by Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University of China. In his lecture, the seventh in a series on ‘global values’ organized by the Society for International Development (SID) Netherlands Chapter, Mr Yinhong assessed China’s adherence to ‘universal norms’ in its efforts to address global security challenges such as nuclear proliferation and transnational terrorism. 

More responsive...

According to the professor, China has made ‘remarkable progress’ on both counts, due to its rapid rise in importance as a world power, and the steady expansion and deepening of its economic and political relations with the rest of the world. As China’s impact is increasing, the stakes of its foreign policy are rising too, and the world expects China to take on international responsibilities. Chinese policy makers acknowledge this. Indeed, Mr Yinhong is happy to notice that China is increasingly responsive, and more than ever prepared to assume international responsibilities.

This is evidenced by China’s contributions to the cause of nuclear non-proliferation in its dealings with North Korea. Mr Yinhong lauds his country’s ‘protracted, arduous and partially effective efforts these past five or six years aimed at peaceful denuclearization of North Korea’.

 ...but not at all costs

However, China’s apparent willingness to take a stand against international nuclear proliferation does not make it a herald of the cause at all costs. In the case of North Korea, the universal good of non-proliferation did not outweigh China’s particular interest in maintaining a more or less favourable regime in a neighbouring country. Thus in 2009, China unilaterally stepped up economic aid to North Korea without asking even as much as a gesture from the regime to show its willingness to discuss its nuclear programme.

Domestic issues and interests

For Mr Yinhong, the case of North Korea illustrates that China’s foreign policy is still riddled with tensions and dilemmas. For one thing, at home China is facing huge economic and social bottlenecks, forcing the government to give priority to domestic needs and demands over foreign policy concerns. And there are competing foreign policy interests within the Chinese government as well, which can result in ambiguous or indeterminate policies.

And then there is that cultural thing. As Mr Yinhong explains, the Chinese ‘way of thinking’ is imbued with a particularistic disposition. This, together with a more prudent or conservative political culture, makes China more reluctant to embrace universal causes and make international commitments.

But then again, isn’t it precisely a sign of China’s rise in importance as a world power that it is in a position to pick and choose where and when to promote universal norms or pursue a more narrowly conceived, national interest?

For a recent discussion of China's foreign policy, which took place at the Oslo seminar ‘Emerging Powers in the 21st century', see the earlier post in this blog 'China: the urgency for a new foreign policy strategy.

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