In the first speech by a Chinese head of state to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2017, President Xi Jinping proclaimed his country the champion of an open global economy and that there is 'no point' in blaming economic globalization for the world's problems. China seeks to play a greater role in world trade amid rising protectionism in the US and Europe. Photo: AFP / Fabrice Coffrini
In the first speech by a Chinese head of state to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2017, President Xi Jinping proclaimed his country the champion of an open global economy. Photo: AFP / Fabrice Coffrini

Reading pronouncements by Chinese leaders and officials in recent days, one may have the impression that it is not the United States or any other powers, but rather China that is becoming the main global force for stability, security, and prosperity.

In his Report on the Work of the Government March 5 to the National People’s Congress (NPC), the one-party country’s parliament, Li Keqiang stated twice that China is a “responsible country.” It was apparently the first time such a statement was included in the communist country’s annual government work report, often considered China’s version of the US State of the Union address.

“As a responsible major country,” the Chinese premier contended, “China has been playing a constructive role in international and regional issues and has made significant contributions to world peace and development.”

Because “China is a responsible country,” Li pledged, it will also “always stand on the side of peace and stability … forever be committed to equity and justice … always work for world peace [and] contribute to global development.” It will likewise “firmly uphold the authority of the multilateral architecture … oppose protectionism in its different forms, become more involved in global governance, and [make economic globalization] more inclusive, mutually beneficial, and equitable,” the report read.

Judging by their content, these messages were not aimed at the nearly 3,000 legislators in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People or the Chinese domestic audience but rather the world at large and America in particular.

In fact, during the last few months, Chinese leaders and officials have unanimously stepped up to portray their country as a responsible global citizen that is committed to free trade, multilateralism and the rule of law, while implicitly suggesting that US president Donald Trump is destabilizing the global economy and international security.

In a keynote speech at the World Economic Forum – the first ever by a Chinese president at the Davos conference — and an address at the United Nations in Geneva in January, Xi Jinping called for — and presented his country as the champion of — an open global economy and a rule-based international order.

Talking to the Munich Security Conference in February, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi denounced unilateralism and emphasized that China is a defender of multilateralism as he regarded it as “an effective way to safeguard peace, advance development and resolve global issues.”

Though in their statements, Li, Xi and Wang did not mention Trump or the US by name, they covertly criticized the Trump administration’s protectionist, isolationist and unilateralist posture and signaled that China will take a leading role in shaping a multilateral, free-trading and rules-based world order.

During a national security seminar in Beijing last month, Xi went even further, proposing a new and brave approach, known as the “two-guides” policy, under which China should now “guide the international community” to jointly “maintain international security” and “build a more just and reasonable world order.”

As he is now officially the “core” of the ruling Communist Party, Xi’s proposal must be studied and become a guideline for China in the years to come.

A Chinese scholar hailed his call on “China to take leadership in improving the world order,” saying “it occurred at the historic moment when leaders of the existing unjust and unreasonable, thus consequentially bankrupt, world order such as the US and UK have begun to retreat from or resist against globalization.”

In his view, Xi’s call “should not only be interpreted as a call for both China and the world to study and creatively apply the uniquely cosmopolitan Chinese model in their practice.” It “also should be understood as an invitation for [China’s Political Consultative Conference and NPC] to more deeply ponder this model and create related policy tools … to make the world more just, more secure and more win-win.”

All of these clearly indicate that, for Chinese leaders, officials and experts, their country now possesses not only new-found material power but also new moral authority, enabling it to play a greater role in shaping, guiding and improving the world.

At a time when the world is facing numerous challenges, the fact that its most populous country and largest standing army pledges to be a responsible citizen, committed to building a safer and better world, is a welcome move.

Nevertheless, there still seems to be a big gap between Chinese leaders’ words and deeds. Much of their promises and pronouncements remain either self-interested or rhetorical or at odds with its regional and international behavior.

China is now establishing itself as the standard-bearer for free trade because, as the world’s largest trading power and arguably the biggest beneficiary of globalization, it would be the biggest loser from a major pullback from globalization, or a trade war.

Moreover, though they decry protectionism, with Xi Jinping liking it to “locking oneself in a dark room,” Chinese leaders are still pursuing a relatively protectionist policy on foreign investment and trade. Some even argue that protectionism in the communist country is not decreasing, but increasing.

China’s foreign minister argued that “the practice of unilateralism of seeking benefits for itself at the expense of others and acting as a hegemon will only exacerbate tensions and conflicts” while President Xi emphasized that countries “should adhere to multilateralism, … honor promises and abide by rules.” Xi added, “one should not select or bend rules as he sees fit.”

But, Beijing strongly opposes any multilateral approach to the South China Sea disputes. For some, the Asian juggernaut uses its economic leverage to buy off or coerce other countries, prompting them to accept its maritime position.

As evidenced by its vehement objection to the South China Sea arbitration case brought by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and its stringent rejection of the arbitral tribunal’s ruling, instead of choosing to “abide by rules,” China seeks to “bend [them as it] sees fit.”

In his Davos speech, Xi Jinping pointed out that “the refugee waves from the Middle East and North Africa in recent years have become a global concern. Several million people have been displaced, and some small children lost their lives while crossing the rough sea.” He described the situation as “heartbreaking.”

However, while many Western countries have received a great number of these refugees, with Germany welcoming more than one million, the second largest economy still chooses to sit on the sidelines of the crisis.

A key reason why China remains passive is its view that Western countries caused the turmoil and they have now to bear the consequences. While there is some truth in this view, its unresponsiveness to what is regarded as the world’s worst refugee crisis in decades shows China is not such a responsible global citizen as it professes to be. This is emphasized even more when taking into account the fact that non-Western neighboring countries, with few resources, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are taking the brunt of the refugee waves.

China’s indifference to the current refugee crisis is also reflected by its parsimonious contribution to the UN High Commission for Refugees. In 2016, the second largest economy on earth was ranked 39th among the donors to the UN’s refugee organization, giving only US$2.8 million, which is a tiny fraction of the contribution by the US ($1.5 billion), Germany ($283.9 million) or Japan ($164.7 million).

Its posture vis-à-vis these prominent regional and international issues shows that, to be a responsible global power, let alone the creator of a new, more open and equitable world order, the communist leadership in Beijing still has a lot to do.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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