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POLITICS: China Not Too Keen to Assume Global Leadership Role?

Analysis by Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Apr 26 2010 (IPS) - The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was believed to have said that China should “hide our capacities, bide our time, and never be in the limelight.”

It is a mantra China has espoused for decades, but one that the world’s fastest-growing major economy is finding increasingly difficult to maintain. As the dust settles in the post-financial crisis world, China has found itself in a unique position: The dominant force among a group of developing nations that are collectively demanding a greater voice in global affairs.

Chinese leaders have historically viewed the developing nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America as a major force in international affairs and a counter- balance to U.S. unilateralism, and they have considered China an integral part of this group. But it has also shied away from an overt leadership role, often deferring to neighbouring Russia.

Today, however, China’s role among groups of developing nations is growing increasingly active.

Through organisations such as BRIC (an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India and China – the world’s top four emerging markets), which wrapped up a meeting last week in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, China has largely embraced the opportunity to enhance the bargaining power and overall clout of developing countries, as well as to contain the influence of the United States and other Western nations.

“BRIC is useful in the sense that, from China’s point of view, it’s able talk to these countries, emphasise their common interests, and to bring them to China’s side in any competition with Western countries, especially with the United States,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at City University of Hong Kong.

“China is certainly interested in forming groups among developing countries so as to enhance the bargaining power of developing countries in general. And China certainly doesn’t want to be seen as to be standing alone in fighting the developing countries on issues like climate change and others,” Cheng said.

At the Brasilia summit, Chinese President Hu Jintao urged closer cooperation among BRIC nations and said that China is ready to host the third BRIC summit in order to advance dialogue and cooperation, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese media gave Hu’s trip prominent, and largely fawning, coverage. In its Apr. 21 editorial titled, “Fruitful presidential diplomacy,” Xinhua said China’s participation at the BRIC meeting, which followed the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., has “further showcased China’s positive political position as a responsible power with increasing international influence.”

The article said that a deeper cooperation between BRIC countries based on mutual trust and benefit is of growing importance when “a new international economic order has yet to be framed.”

China has taken an increasingly active economic role in developing countries in recent years. Africa is a key example. During the first half of 2009, China’s investment in Africa’s non-financial sectors – including mining, manufacturing, agriculture and infrastructure – grew 78.6 percent to 875 million U.S. dollars, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce.

“China’s voice is getting louder and is valued by more and more people in the world,” said Yang Baoyun, professor and vice-chairman at Peking University’s Institute of Oriental and African Studies. “In the post-crisis era, [developing countries] have the same mission: To reform the unfair and imbalanced international regime. This is the mutual challenge of developing countries. Whenever possible, China is willing to speak for them.”

In a communiqué released at the end of the Brazil summit, BRIC called for an urgent reform of the world financial system. This would require a major shift in voting power in favour of emerging market economies and developing countries. BRIC leaders said that emerging market economies and developing countries have the potential to be leaders of economic growth and prosperity while at the same time work together to reduce imbalances in the global economic order.

In total, the four BRIC nations produce 14.6 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, and take up 12.8 percent of the global trade volume. Their contribution to the world’s economic growth amounts to 50 percent in terms of purchasing power parity.

Developing countries have accepted China’s growing role among them cautiously. China’s relationship with India, also a growing global power, continues to be thorny and there is debate within IBSA – India, Brazil and South Africa – about whether to welcome China. IBSA’s members are all functioning democracies, whereas China maintains a one-party state.

China, too, has accepted its role among developing nations cautiously. Even today, it is loath to call itself a leader of this emerging Third World force.

“China normally would avoid seeking a leadership role of these groups. While it tries to promote the influence of these groups, it tends to avoid the limelight,” City University’s Cheng said.

Jin Canrong, professor and associate dean of Renmin University of China’s School of International Studies, said that China’s rightful place is as a balance between the United States and the developing world, and not as the latter group’s leader.

“There are many developing countries who want China to be the leader and to act as a counterweight to the United States, but this kind of action will violate the interests of our country,” Jin said. “Our place is in between the developing countries and the United States, not too close with either one. We value the existing international regime and have no intention of breaking it.”

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