China’s under-reported positive behaviour

By Jonathan Power

China is a sitting duck. Not that long ago, as far as most of the rest of the world was concerned, it was almost a closed, mysterious, society. Now it is wide open. The bad is there for all to see. Last year the New York Times published an in-depth investigative series of long articles on the secret wealth of the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. It proved that it is possible to peel off the layers and look beneath.

China’s new found relative openness has allowed an open season on the shooting range. The targets are legion – corruption, nepotism, nationalism, maladministration, growing inequality, environmental degradation, over assertive foreign policy and the military build up. Western critics enjoy popping off at them.

Much of what the critics say is true. But much is exaggerated. And much is ignored, in particular what is positive.

China’s attitude to global governance – the collective management of common problems at the international level – is a good place to start. In the time of Mao Tse-tung, excluded from the UN by the US veto, it had nothing to lose by playing the wild card.

After President Richard Nixon’s opening to China including the admission of China to the UN in 1971, China moved from opponent of global governance to playing a passive position while it learnt the rules of the road. Since 2000 it has become more activist, confident and outspoken.

Global finance is a good example. In 2009 China began to push for a major reform of the international monetary system and suggested that the US dollar be phased out as the world’s principal reserve currency in favour of a basket of currencies including its own – perhaps a sensible idea. Meanwhile, it won approval for an increase in its voting rights in the International Monetary Fund. In its role as a responsible influence on international financial affairs it won the appointment of a Chinese as the World Bank’s chief economist and another as deputy head of the IMF.

Over the last thirty years China has signed up as a member of most inter-governmental organisations as well as over a thousand of the big NGOs.

China has become a “socialized” member of the international community. It is now a signatory of over 300 multilateral treaties with a reputation for its diplomats’ knowledge, preparedness and sophistication.

These days China is one of the world’s strongest advocates of the UN. It is the least frequent user of the veto among the “Big Five” on the Security Council. It makes an effort not to appear out of step with the consensus and would rather abstain than vote against a resolution. In 2011 China joined the rest of the Security Council in imposing an arms embargo on Libya. (However, it felt it had its fingers burnt when the West interpreted votes in the Security Council as authorizing the use of force – hence its reticence on voting for an arms embargo against Syria.) It has gone on to be tough on Iran, voting to restrict the international activities of Iranian banks and it has increasingly loudly condemned the confrontational behaviour of the North Korean regime.

China has affixed its signature to all the international treaties concerned with nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which the US, once its great proponent, has not ratified. Breaking ranks with both the US and Russia, it has proclaimed a nuclear weapons No First Use pledge. It is firmly committed to opposing the enlargement of the nuclear weapons’ club, most importantly to North Korea. It is also, along with the Europeans but not the US, a proponent of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty which, if it came into being, would have a big influence in capping the growth of nuclear weapons.

According to David Shambaugh in his fine new book, “China goes Global”, China in the Security Council has voted identically with the US 93% of the time.

He notes that China has become a significant contributor to UN peacekeeping. Over the last 20 years with very little publicity in the world’s press it has contributed 20,000 soldiers. At present China is the largest contributor of the “Big Five”. Publicly it has also accepted the controversial “Responsibility to Protect” principle passed by the Security Council in 2006 which can be used to override the precious state sovereignty that China has earnestly protected, if there is genocide or other crimes against humanity. With the conflicting claims for the South China Sea it has forwarded the issue to the UN for arbitration.

China still has a propensity on occasion to behave in the old way – it has dealt extensively with some of the world’s more unsavoury regimes and has been caught violating the UN sanctions it has voted for – as with the Iranian banks. But overall it is moving forward into positive territory, an understated story in the world outside China.

© Jonathan Power 2013

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