Will China be a responsible stakeholder in the Asian Century?
26 Oct 2012|

"mao money, mao problems." Flickr user: super.heavy

Cam Hawker’s recent post about the ‘Asian Century’ moniker got me thinking about the power of words to shape our analysis and perceptions—perhaps, most dangerously, in ways of which we are never aware.

Watching the third US Presidential debate, it was easy to discern the influence of another common phrase: China as a ‘responsible stakeholder’. This term, made popular by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick in 2005 (PDF), has become an oft-used expression. But are we aware of the extent to which it subtly influences our considerations of China? Consider the following passage from Mitt Romney during the debate and listen for the thoughts of Zoellick, an adviser to Romney:

China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism…they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open. And so we can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them. We can collaborate with them if they’re willing to be responsible.

Although Romney refrains from using the ‘responsible stakeholder’ term, it’s easy to discern Zoellick’s influence. But is this notion of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ useful? In a strange way, it actually has a very soothing quality—it implies that China will adapt to play the geopolitical game, accepting Western norms as the route to global responsibility. But what have the last seven years taught us about China’s disposition towards the US-led international system? Is Zoellick’s term still useful, or could it in fact be detrimental to our understanding of China?

On the strategic front, while China may not want war, in the last seven years it has shown little inclination to ‘play the game’ by any rules other than its own. China’s conduct in the South China Sea has even managed to rouse ASEAN from its consensus-obsessed slumber, with a meeting earlier this year almost managing to mention a naval Code of Conduct in the closing communiqué. However, Cambodia blocked these efforts and—for the first time in ASEAN’s history—the meeting closed without the issue of a joint communiqué. Seemingly immune from international opprobrium, China is apparently content to firmly insist on its own way—notwithstanding the demands of the international system.

Economically, the same trend can be observed. In his 2005 speech, Zoellick noted several issues of concern to US businesses: ‘rampant piracy, counterfeiting, and currency manipulation. Even larger US businesses…are concerned that mercantilist Chinese policies will try to direct controlled markets instead of opening competitive markets.’ Fast forward again to the third Presidential debate and listen to Romney:

…on day one I will label them a currency manipulator which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods. They have to understand, we want to trade with them, we want a world that’s stable, we like free enterprise, but you got to play by the rules.

Seven years later, the list of economic grievances is more than suspiciously familiar—it is near identical. Prima facie, this tells us something about China’s rise and its willingness to conform to Western norms. Given that China shows no signs of adapting to our system, perhaps the time has come to jettison not only the ‘responsible stakeholder’ term, but also this idea that China’s rise would be on our terms.

What then should we think of China’s rise and the challenges it poses? The answer to this lies in a famous quote (or misquote) from Zhou Enlai, China’s first Premier. So the story goes, in the 1970s Zhou was asked for his thoughts on the 1789 French Revolution. His adroit reply—that it was ‘too soon to say’—seems about right.

Iain Henry is an academic tutor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user super.heavy.