The Buzz

China: A Responsible Stakeholder?

In a 2005 speech, then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick used the term "responsible stakeholder" to address how China should wield its growing power and influence. Zoellick stated that after a 30-year policy of integrating China into the international system, "we now need to encourage China to become a responsible stakeholder in the international system. As a responsible stakeholder, China would be more than just a member--it would work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success." In his remarks, Zoellick classified the U.S.-China relationship as one that must be built on both shared interests and values.

In light of China's increased assertiveness and challenges to U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific over the past ten years, it is necessary to assess the success of the responsible stakeholder model by examining whether China has met U.S. expectations and contributed positively to the international system. The Project 2049 Institute conference, "China as a Responsible Stakeholder? A Decade Later," brought together experts on Chinese politics and foreign policy to identify and assess areas where China challenges the existing security and economic order, and to offer recommendations regarding potential U.S. responses.

Context of the "Responsible Stakeholder" Speech:

Discussing the historical context of the responsible stakeholder speech, one presenter noted that the early 2000s were an important inflection point in China's history. From the 1960s to the 1970s, China opposed many of the international institutions that made up the liberal order in the post-war period, but it nonetheless slowly began to open and change. In 1979, the U.S. officially recognized the PRC government and normalized relations. From the 1980s to the 1990s, integrating China into the international system became a central objective of U.S. engagement with China. By the 2000s, however, China had joined many of the institutions it once opposed, essentially becoming a member of the U.S.-led world order. Zoellick's speech in 2005 thus marked a necessary transition in the focus of U.S. policy away from integration and toward shaping China's behavior within the international system in a way that aligned more closely with U.S. interests and values.

Strategic Competition between the U.S. and China:

Embedded in the responsible stakeholder concept is the expectation that China would become a status quo power. Speakers agreed that despite its increased integration into the international order, China has consistently demonstrated dissatisfaction with the status quo. One panelist discussed China's attitude toward the Asian regional security order, where Chinese assertiveness targets the United States, as an area where this has been particularly visible. While the U.S. has maintained its alliances and military presence in the region, China has expressed hope the U.S. will disengage, allowing China to become the preeminent power in the Asia Pacific. When Chinese assertiveness began to spike in 2009, China's strategy appeared to be to induce Washington to choose to opt out of engagements in the region by making U.S. operations riskier. The U.S. has since demonstrated its resolve to continue operating, and China has switched its focus to regional actors. However, China's objective appears the same: to signal that, as China rises, the U.S. will either accommodate its preferences or risk conflict.

International institutions are another area in which China does not accept the status quo. According to one speaker, even if China accepted the international order exactly as it is today, it would still want to reweight institutions and governance mechanisms to give itself a greater voice and greater influence over outcomes. China is joined in this objective by other rising powers, who are attempting to change the dynamics of international institutions in Asia. This speaker posited that as Asia becomes more interconnected, the U.S. may be unable to prevent Asian regionalism and the formation of Asian institutions that do not include the U.S.

Another panelist argued that Chinese historical memory and the narrative of victimhood further shape China's relationship to the existing international order. A central claim to CCP legitimacy is the idea that, after 150 years of humiliation by foreign powers, the CCP's role is to return China to its former stature. The CCP cherry-picks moments from the Qing and Ming dynasties when China's power had reached an apex, and presents them as the natural state from which China was toppled, promising a return to these moments. This narrative drives China's foreign policy and creates a divide between U.S. and Chinese strategic goals. While the U.S. seeks to preserve the prevailing post-WWII regional order in East Asia, China seeks to return to the order in place before WWII.

Differing Interpretations of the Responsible Stakeholder Concept: