Angel or Dragon?

September 1, 2006 Regions: Asia Tags: Diplomacy

Angel or Dragon?

Mini Teaser:  Despite the focus on Beijing, few have taken notice of a key forum for its evolving excellence: diplomacy at the United Nations.

by Author(s): Michael Fullilove

China's rising confidence, diplomatic dexterity and military capability would, if plotted on a chart, produce a growth curve every bit as impressive as the country's recent economic performance. Analysts rightfully focus on China's expanding clout in Southeast Asia and its thickening ties with U.S. treaty allies, such as South Korea and Australia. Watchful types report on China's emerging influence in resource-rich countries in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Some observers note with alarm the role Beijing is playing in the new Asian institutions such as the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

But for all the talk of China's growing sway, there is one arena for the exercise of Chinese influence that has attracted less attention than it deserves. China has quickened the pace of its interactions with the United Nations, and in recent times it has outperformed the United States as a player in New York. Now China faces a new test: to step up and assume the responsibilities that are incumbent upon a global power.

Since Beijing acquired China's seat at the UN from Taipei in 1971, it has steadily joined specialist organs and acceded to treaties. To the leaders in Zhongnanhai, the world began to look less like "two camps" and more like one big tent--and they wanted to be inside rather than outside of it. This process accelerated from the mid-1990s, as the country shed the garb of a historical victim and began to don the robes of a great power.

There is plenty of debate among China watchers about Beijing's ultimate strategic ends; however, deeper engagement with the United Nations is plainly one of the means it is employing. The UN provides a forum in which China can promote its security and economic interests--one that Washington cannot dominate. Its structural design tends to mitigate unipolarity: the United States is one of a multitude in the General Assembly, and even in the Security Council chamber it is, at best, first among equals.

China's new approach can be discerned in its behavior on the Council, where it is the only permanent Asian member. Historically, China was a passive, even defensive, Council member, rarely seeking to shape the agenda or draft resolutions. China used its veto much less frequently than any other permanent member (registering about one-twentieth of the number of American vetoes since 1971, for instance) and generally did not participate in or abstained from voting on sensitive issues unless the Taiwan question was involved. The votes China did cast were often preceded by a pro forma statement that no precedent was thereby established.

In the past decade, however, China's representatives have behaved more confidently in the Council chamber and more volubly before the media. China is increasingly willing to take the lead on issues and behave more like a normal great power--and it is being treated as such by other Council members, including the United States. Traditionally, China is wary of being isolated, finding security in numbers on issues such as Kosovo, Iraq and Iran, but this may be gradually changing. On Darfur, for example, China led the forces opposed to sanctions against Khartoum. In the past fifteen years, China has partly overcome its allergy to resolutions passed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, joining with the rest of the Council on September 12, 2001, for instance, to condemn the 9/11 attacks as a threat to international peace and security and to recognize the right of self-defense against such attacks.

Beijing has voted for the establishment of important UN peacebuilding missions, including the transitional administrations in Cambodia (despite its links with the Khmer Rouge) and East Timor. As well as supporting certain peace missions, it helps staff them. In fact, far from denouncing interventions as U.S.-led imperialist endeavors, Beijing today deploys more military and civilian police personnel to UN peacekeeping operations than any other member of the Permanent Five. It is ranked twelfth out of one hundred-odd contributors, with personnel operating in most UN missions. The absolute numbers are still low but the trend is clear. For example, after years of quibbling over UN operations in Haiti because of Port-au-Prince's diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, Beijing decided in 2004 to send some of its own riot police to the mission in the troubled Western Hemisphere country. The geographic spread of Chinese peacekeeping was illustrated by the fact that one of the UN military observers killed in July by Israeli artillery fire in southern Lebanon was Chinese.

The quality of the people China sends to New York, both as diplomats and officials, has improved noticeably. According to one UN insider, the Chinese used to take a "prophylactic" approach to placing people in the UN, seeking to shield them from outside influence. Now, by contrast, "they want to spread their influence." There are a number of senior and well-respected Chinese officials in the Secretariat, and the current permanent representative, Wang Guangya, is regarded as open and effective. This boom in human resources is consistent with the general professionalization of Chinese foreign policy but it also illustrates the importance attached to success at the UN.

China's new diplomatic assurance can be seen in the way it opposed Japan's push last year for permanent membership of the Security Council. Its diplomatic flexibility can be seen in its recent indications that, notwithstanding its longstanding rivalry with India, it may support New Delhi's candidacy for permanent membership (although without the veto). Beijing is beginning to involve itself in the activities of good international citizenship, such as the donation of funds to tsunami relief efforts and emergency aid to Lebanon. China even had the chutzpah to challenge Washington's 2004 push to renew the immunity of its troops from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

China is making nice at a time when the historical distance between the international organization and the Asian region is closing a little. In the past, Asia has been largely impervious to internationalist sensibilities, but developments in recent years have included strong Asian interest in the UN reform process; two major UN peace operations in the region; the escalation of non-traditional regional security threats, such as pandemics, which are best met by international cooperation; and the likely election later this year of an Asian as secretary-general.

The key decision-makers in the contest for the big office on the 38th floor of UN headquarters are the Permanent Five, which tend to regard the secretary-generalship as being within their gift and have proved willing to veto candidates who are not to their liking. According to the rotation principle, the next secretary-general should be an Asian. Some observers have disputed the notion that it's "Asia's turn" or even put forward the heresy that taking turns is not the best way to decide such a weighty appointment. Nevertheless, the momentum for an Asian secretary-general seems unstoppable, and China will want to show it can help deliver this for the region.

The election of Kofi Annan's replacement may be the first to be decided by a China-U.S. condominium. That would be a dramatic illustration of the changing power relativities in New York--and it would not be unrelated to the strange way the United States has approached the UN of late.

As China has stepped up its engagement with the world body, the United States has stood down. For most of his first term, President George W. Bush pursued a muscular grand strategy to impose America's will on the world. His administration largely eschewed the twentieth-century tradition of projecting influence not only via hard power but also through allied nations and multilateral institutions. Instead, U.S. policy was marked by unilateralism, pre-emption and regime change through the use of force. The president lectured the General Assembly while his defense secretary dissed "Old Europe." Multilateral agreements were shelved. Iraq was invaded and occupied despite the failure to obtain the Council's support. The administration's boosters glowered that other UN member states, such as Syria and North Korea, were next.

In the past two and a half years, there has been a welcome recalibration of U.S. grand strategy. Diplomacy has become the comeback concept, given the failure of foreign-policy adventurism. Washington has cooperated with Paris to get the Syrians out of Lebanon; worked with regional partners, in particular China, in the six party talks on the North Korean nuclear program; and indicated a willingness to join the Europeans' negotiations with Tehran. The Pentagon no longer trespasses openly on the State Department's turf. Many of the administration's formerly dominant neoconservatives and nationalists have been stripped out of the foreign policy process and now find themselves in the private sector, in international organizations--or in court.

Unfortunately, John Bolton's recess appointment to the position of ambassador to the UN was more consistent with the first approach than the second: the man who said: "there is no such thing as the United Nations", is now accredited to it. Whereas China talks the talk on the UN, describing it as "indispensable" and "the most universal, representative, authoritative intergovernmental international organization", the United States is represented by someone who believes that if the UN headquarters building "lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Essay Types: Essay