News Overview 2014

Engaging with China: China’s New Foreign Policy

The crisis in Ukraine, conflicts with neighboring Asian countries, and China’s appearance on the world’s political stage. The Chinese ambassador to Germany, Shi Mingde, and the former German ambassador to China, Michael Schaefer, spoke about China’s new foreign policy role in front of an audience of approximately one hundred guests at the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s Berlin Representative Office.

This week Russian president Vladimir Putin sealed a lucrative gas deal with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping – for 400 billion US dollars, the Chinese will receive natural gas from its neighbor for 30 years. "Are sellers specifically turning to China because they are having problems in the West?" asked Dr. Ingrid Hamm, executive director of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, to kick off the event. To what extent are closer economic ties between Russia and China affecting the geopolitical balance in general? And do other neighboring countries need to be worried about China’s might?

The former German ambassador to China, Dr. Michael Schaefer, is certain that the recent gas deal was influenced by the situation in Ukraine. The Russians and Chinese had been negotiating for ten years, yet were never able to reach an agreement on price. "Putin needed to prove that he had geopolitical options and acquiesced," he said. Moderator Matthias Naß from the weekly paper Die Zeit wanted to find out from the Chinese ambassador, Shi Mingde, whether the gas deal was proof of a new strategic alliance between China and Russia. He downplayed the issue and emphasized that the deal was not in conflict with Russian–European agreements. He pointed to the long-standing strategic partnership between the two countries, for example in terms of business and finance, in their activities supporting a multipolar world order, and in combating terrorism.

Dr. Schaefer described the Chinese-Russian relationship as much less harmonious: As a matter of principal, China is critical of countries getting involved in other nations’ internal affairs and, as a result, completely disagrees with Russia’s behavior in the Crimean crisis. "That’s why China abstained from the UN Security Council vote, similar to the vote on the conflict in Libya. This can be viewed as clear criticism," said Dr. Schaefer. The relationship between the two neighbors is divided and asymmetrical – Russia is a key supplier of raw materials to China, but is much less important from a geopolitical standpoint. In fact, China has thus far been the only emerging nation that – by means of its political and economic strength – could form the axis of a multipolar world order. As such, China must play a role in reforming the current, Western-centric system. "But the Chinese will demand to have a say and play a part in decision making during these advancements," said Dr. Schaefer.

Is a New Bipolar World Order in the Cards?

"And what about Europe?" asked Matthias Naß. Is the world in danger of seeing a new bipolar escalation, this time between China and the United States? Shi Mingde answered this question metaphorically: "A chair with four legs is more stable than a chair with two legs." One thing is certain – in the age of globalization, all nations are dependent on one another. "No one country is in a position to solve global and regional conflicts. That can only be achieved by working together," said the Chinese ambassador. Incidentally, according to Shi, the global balance of power in fact changed long ago: emerging markets already account for more than 50 percent of global economic growth and play a major role in global politics.

But if the country soon becomes the world’s strongest economic power – as is to be assumed – doesn’t China need to become more involved in international affairs? Both participants put this assessment into perspective. Dr. Schaefer pointed to China’s huge population of 1.4 billion people who, together, have enormous economic potential, but also reminded the audience of the widespread poverty and need for social advancements. Shi Mingde criticized how his country is viewed by foreigners – at times an economic power, at times on the verge of collapse – and admonished the audience to view the country from a more nuanced perspective. China wants to assume more international responsibility in the future but, as is the case in Germany, the expectations from the outside are much too high. Dr. Schaefer attested to the fact that the Chinese are already extremely active abroad, yet not in the way that many would like their activities to be portrayed: "China is uncompromisingly pursuing interest-driven politics – in Africa, with regard to shipping routes through the China Seas, in Central Asia, and in its relations with North Korea."

Conflicts with Neighbors

"Is China flexing its muscles a bit too much?" moderator Matthias Naß asked ambassador Shi. The country’s relationship with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam is ultimately critical and unstable from a security policy perspective. The ambassador pointed to China’s driving force in the region, which Asia as a whole is benefiting from: "After a long time, China is once again the strongest power. Our neighbors need time to understand that." At the same time, he called on China’s neighbors, and particularly Japan, to do more for peace. "They cannot be allowed to negate the war crimes committed during World War II." Dr. Schaefer agreed with him on this point, but simultaneously urged China to take more active steps toward reconciliation: the relatively stronger China needs to extend an olive branch to Japan in much the same way as France approached defeated Germany from a position of strength.

(David Weyand, May 2014)

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