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Can China Lead?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
October 5, 2012

Protesters march down a street during an anti-Japan protest in Shenzhen on August 19, 2012. Protesters march down a street during an anti-Japan protest in Shenzhen on August 19, 2012. (Keita Van / Courtesy Reuters)


Yesterday, I participated in a BBC/Carnegie Endowment debate on the U.S. presidential campaign and policy toward China with the eminent and estimable Ambassadors Chas W. Freeman, Jr. and J. Stapleton Roy, and Tsinghua University scholar Yan Xuetong.  The full debate is available here.

The discussion was wide-ranging, but what struck me most was an assertion by one of the panelists that the next U.S. president will have to deal with the fact that China has surpassed the United States as the number one power (based on the size of its economy). As a result, in his opinion, China will no longer feel the need to defer to the United States and the current arrangement of international institutions.

On the face of it, it is not an unreasonable assertion. After all, there has long been a view espoused in and outside Beijing that China has somehow suffered under the yoke of institutions that it did not help create. On closer examination, however, it’s not clear when China ever has deferred to the United States and the current global system. True, China has joined a number of multilateral institutions and treaties, but it did so not out of deference to the United States but because it believed it would benefit from participating. When China has determined that its interests are not served by following Washington’s lead—witness our lagging, flagging, or non-existent cooperation on Libya, Iran, North Korea, climate change,  cyber-security, etc.—it goes its own way.

The larger issue of what it would mean for China to be both the world’s biggest economic power and its most significant political power is also unclear. What would be the foreign policy principles that China’s leaders would espouse? “Not mixing business with politics” doesn’t seem a commanding value for a global leader, and preaching sovereignty and non-intervention in the face of human atrocity will likely not earn points for leadership. That is not to say that the United States gets it right when it acts first and thinks later; but China’s predilection for inaction appears equally, if not more, problematic.

In addition, the events of the past few weeks suggest that at this moment China is not yet ready to be a leader in its own neighborhood. In response to an undeniably provocative move by the Japanese government to purchase several of the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, Beijing acted not with measured words and deeds but rashly by: allowing Chinese citizens to trash Japanese stores and factories and attack people who own Japanese products; condemning Japan at the UN General Assembly; sending marine surveillance ships to continue patrolling in the waters off of the islands; cancelling diplomatic functions with Japanese counterparts; and barring Chinese banks and other officials from participating in the annual World Bank IMF conference, which is being held in Tokyo this year.  In the face of such actions, it is hard to see how, as eminent Chinese scholar Wang Jisi has argued: “China deserves a larger say in the IMF and World Bank,” and “Because China is so successful, it deserves more respect.”

China Reform editor Zhang Jianjing offers a slightly different perspective. In a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece in Caixin, he asserts that in the face of Japanese provocation, “It’s time for China to reciprocate in a calm manner, and to maintain the balance of power within the region. …taking this position means the eventual support of the international community… China’s greatest challenge is a growing group of people that are stalling domestic reforms. By comparison, managing the geostrategic realm is a low stakes game.”  I don’t have the answer to the question of whether and how China will lead, but I hope at least part of the answer may rest with Chinese thinkers and leaders like Zhang.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Seems Fair

    China’s main doctrine is not to interfere with other nations’ internal affairs. The doctrine has its merits. Due to culture differences, each nation has to choose her own path to her own destiny. That destiny may be the same as those claimed to be universal by western nations. However, each nation has to progress on her own pace. If you look at the results of the nation building by the US and her allies, it clearly shows that the Arab Spring turned into Arab Winter. If the western countries used the money to build infrastructure, schools and hospitals instead of supplying weapons to arm the so-called freedom fighters, those countries may be in a better state.

  • Posted by Mimi Wonder

    Just as the U.S. did not allow blacks to trash and loot stores and attack residents in the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, China did not allow citizens to “trash Japanese stores and factories and attack people who own Japanese products.” Both the U.S. and China had not approved such extrajudicial violence. Please refrain in the future from making false accusations unless you provide to the public incontrovertible evidence.

  • Posted by Thangleader

    Can China lead? This open question is the same answer. Who is China? China here is China PRC or larger China (Great China) around the world when the observer noted its peaceful rising over 3 decades.

    Where is our positioning and what’s characters of a leader in the world? Tell us who is your friend, we will let you know who you are.

    We need to observe some Chinese friends from North Korea, Myanmar … to some African countries where China is in process of pouring the money and humankind in order to make up their faces.

    The most important mentalities of a Leader or pioneer is the moral. Imagine, the “partners” or “allies” China is working with although the China is trying to hide its capacities or advantages in some “Chinese chess” games, but it’s too far to become a responsible partner in the world.

    Some numbers like GDP, income per capita … from China was improved over recent years but a range of social problem, pollution, demography, … are creating big troubles and affect in next generation of Chinese people.

    China can lead the world or change the shoulder from America/Euro-centrism into China-centrism? Question means replies.

  • Posted by Df41

    China already leads in counterbalancing American imperialism.
    China is now more important economically than the US to many countries.
    China is now the largest trade partner for many countries.
    China lends more money to developing world than world bank.
    Chinese investment is growing and helping countries grow.

    The most important thing is that china is going to replace the most despotic regime in human history…..the USA.

    The Americans have used depleted uranium in Iraq and Afghanistan, uses torture prisons to humiliate prisoners, lies about going to war, threatens to bomb countries back to the Stone Age, drops nukes on civilian populations, used agent orange in Vietnam, used drones to kill children, etc.

    China is not perfect, but ANYTHING is better than the mass murdering fascist tyrants in the United States of America!

  • Posted by Df41

    Oh by the way, my previous comment won’t be published because free speech in America is a myth.

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