During World War I, Britain and France suffered such appalling casualties that the ability to prosecute the fight against the Central powers seemed at risk. Desperate for the manpower to stay in the war, the Allies asked China, among other countries, for help. Although consumed by its own debilitating woes, a China frustrated by years of foreign occupation saw an opportunity to liberate the Shandong Peninsula in eastern China from German colonizers. In 1917, China declared war on Germany and offered its one formidable asset—human labor—to serve the Allied cause. More than 175,000 Chinese laborers (among them a young Deng Xiaoping) served in the Chinese Labor Corps throughout the Western front and other theaters. The laborers loaded ships, dug trenches, repaired bridges, manufactured munitions and did many other back-breaking jobs. More than 10,000 men died in service, and once the war ended, the laborers were unceremoniously packed up and sent home.
Hope that grateful Allied powers would reward China’s contributions by granting recovery of Shandong Province—a German possession subsequently seized by Allied co-belligerent Japan in 1914—turned to bitter disappointment at Versailles. The Allied powers dismissed China’s petition and instead awarded the former German possession to Japan, a powerful ally of the leading world power of its day, Great Britain. The crushing failure at Versailles in 1919 ignited a nationalist outcry that convulsed the nation and gave birth to the transformative May Fourth political movement. The traumatic upheaval also accelerated the country’s breakdown, leading to decades of civil war, chaos and, eventually, the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party.
Generations later, China’s leaders continue to mark the May Fourth movement as a turning point that set the stage for the country’s intellectual liberation and entry into the modern world. Every year, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party makes a speech commemorating the event. While Chinese remembrance of the movement underscores the imperative of modernization, May Fourth may also serve as a profound lesson on the humiliating futility of acting on global issues from a position of weakness. An enfeebled China’s attempt to help Great Britain and its allies defend an international order from the Central Powers merely resulted in the exploitation of China’s weakness by the same Allied powers once the war had ended.
Nearly a century later, the world’s superpower, the United States, and its allies, burdened by economic and political troubles and confronted by a bewildering array of global troubles, have once again turned to the Chinese for help. Since at least 2005, U.S. leaders have repeatedly called on China to “contribute its fair share” and to help maintain the global order. Western leaders have correctly pointed out how much China has enjoyed free riding on the efforts of the United States and its allies to maintain world order. With its coffers flush from decades of rapid growth, China seems well positioned to contribute more to pressing global problems; it has the world’s second-largest economy. Moreover, Western analysts have long argued that greater cooperation between China and the United States to address common threats could enhance trust and build stable relations. This is the logic underpinning the argument for China to become a “responsible stakeholder.” The argument assumes that if Beijing contributed more to combating commonly shared threats, such as nuclear proliferation, North Korean provocations, terrorism in the Middle East, and climate change, the world would benefit—and China and the United States would enjoy healthier, more cooperative relations.
For years, China resisted such demands. It argued that its priorities lay elsewhere as a developing country, citing in particular problems of poverty, inequality and an overall low level of development. Even when it became indisputable that China had benefited enormously from the economic system and global stability upheld by the United States and its allies, a wealthy and secure Beijing showed little interest in underwriting U.S. wars or supporting policies to enforce that order. Japanese “checkbook diplomacy” to help bankroll the first Gulf War may not have earned it much international influence, but Tokyo at least had the benefit of remaining allied to a global superpower that could look after its interests. China has no such option and remains diplomatically weak and isolated. Consequently, Beijing has for decades accepted the price of relying on the United States to provide the regional stability needed to enable the country’s focus on national development as the regrettable and unavoidable cost of focusing on its own national interests.
Chinese attitudes on these issues appear to be changing. At a Central Economic Work Conference on foreign affairs held in December, President Xi outlined a way for the country to assume greater global responsibilities, which he described as part of a new approach of “diplomacy as a great power.” China seems especially committed to finding new ways to contribute in developing countries, where China has growing and often highly vulnerable interests and where Beijing sees the most potential for partners to support its reform of the international order.
Chinese leaders define the assumption of greater global responsibility differently than the United States. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has explained that China intends to set itself up as the “defender of the cause of world peace” and to “safeguard the goals and principles of the UN charter, and oppose foreign interference in the internal affairs of other countries, especially small and medium countries.” This suggests a political role as an advocate for the rights of developing countries against the military interventions of Western powers. However, Beijing has also signaled its intent to be a “vigorous promoter of international development” and to contribute to UN goals related to development and poverty relief, climate change, peace and other global issues. An example of China’s new approach to a more active policy may be in South Sudan, where Beijing sent a 700-man infantry battalion to support UN peacekeeping operations and took a leading role in mediating between warring factions. Another example may be evident in China’s increased efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan.
Considering China’s long-held resistance to elevating its international profile, this represents a remarkable turnaround. A seeming shift toward greater global responsibility offers the welcome prospect of an infusion of resources at a moment when Western powers find themselves constrained by weak economic growth. It also appears to offer the hope of closer international cooperation and more stable relations between China and the West.
China’s Great Expectations
But the story of May Fourth suggests caution is in order in anticipating the consequences of the changes in China’s behavior. In today’s situation, like a century ago, Beijing has little interest in simply underwriting the efforts of Western powers. China certainly values international stability and may genuinely feel motivated to do something about the many problems afflicting the global community, but it also has its own demands of the international order. Among persistent dissatisfactions, China remains frustrated with the slow pace of progress towards unification with Taiwan and of control of disputed territories; structural obstacles to East Asia’s integration as an economic and political bloc; and the continued U.S. and Western dominance of international institutions and organizations that manage global trade and economic activity. China today may have progressed beyond the humiliations of foreign occupation and control, but it still resents the United States and its allies for resisting giving Beijing what it regards as a fair share of the power to shape the international order.
In some ways, then, Beijing finds itself in a position similar to that of a century ago. Western powers seek to leverage the Middle Kingdom’s vast resources to deal with shared threats but without accommodating the country’s demands. Western leaders appeal to China’s own expanding strategic interests as incentive enough for the country to increase its contributions on global issues. But these appeals do not appreciate Beijing’s perspective. For China, greater security for its expanding interests can best be achieved by expanding its international influence over the evolution of the regional and global order, not by merely contributing to initiatives that reaffirm and strengthen the leadership of the very countries that China finds most capable of restraining its rise and threatening its long-term interests.
Unlike the weak and faltering nation of 1919, the China of today is a powerful country with the resources and capabilities to press its demands, even as it steps up contributions on international issues. China seems determined to never again to experience the sort of humiliations embodied in the example of the Chinese Labor Corps. Indeed, the ability to rebuff demands by foreign powers is increasingly regarded as a mark of national pride. President Xi declared in last year's speech commemorating May Fourth, “Gone are the days when the Chinese nation is willfully bullied by foreigners.” China, he added, “will not accept the domineering attempts by any foreigner to tell us what to do.”
China will likely continue to evaluate invitations to contribute more on global issues based on how much such efforts contribute directly to the nation’s interests and to its credibility as a global power. When China and the United States share common concerns, such as climate change, there remains strong potential for productive cooperation. However, greater contributions by China on specific issues will do little to bridge the differences over strategic issues such as Taiwan’s status, disputes between China and U.S. allies over maritime territories, the persistence of the alliance system, and control and influence in the cyber, space, financial, and other domains. Nor will limited cooperation will do much to ease the intensifying competition underpinning U.S.-China relations. China will continue to resist involvement in global issues that it believes disproportionately benefit U.S. and Western interests and that do little to enhance China’s influence. Paradoxically, cooperation on global issues may actually sharpen, not lessen, the differences between the two countries. The more successfully China collaborates with the United States on convergent issues, the more credibility China will enjoy as a global leader. And the more credibility China gains as an international leader, the harder it will push for concessions from the United States on divergent issues. Resistance by Washington and its allies to demands from China will only convince Beijing all the more that it must strengthen its influence over the international order and weaken that of the United States.
At its core, then, China’s mulling of the risks and benefits of a more active pursuit of global leadership reveals its judgment that the country cannot entrust the protection of its interests to the goodwill of its chief competitor. Only by building the national power to back up China’s demands, Beijing appears to have concluded, can its interests be protected. The deep roots of that lesson, as illustrated by the example of May Fourth, suggests China will not be easily dissuaded from this view.
Prospects for long-term, stable Sino-American cooperation will therefore hinge in part on how the United States manages its divergent interests with an increasingly powerful China. Resolution will not be easy, as this could require concessions on highly contentious issues. Concessions carry the price of damaging the interests of U.S. allies and partners and, in some cases, the United States itself. The alternative is to resist Beijing’s demands and make China bear the higher cost to its interests. But this requires a high degree of coordination and unity between the United States, its allies, and other world powers that would be difficult to achieve, let alone sustain. Moreover, it carries the risk of escalating tensions to the point of a dangerous rivalry.
Some combination of the two approaches will likely be necessary to shape cooperation on global issues in a manner that minimizes the risk of global instability. Even so, policymakers should set expectations at a realistic level.
Greater Chinese collaboration with the United States on global issues offers hope for progress on a small number of international issues, including humanitarian assistance and climate change. Tremendous effort will be required, however, to ensure that the broader competitive dynamics do not overwhelm that cooperation.
Timothy R. Heath is a Senior International Defense Research Analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is the author of the book, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation (Ashgate, 2014).