China Hasn’t Yet Grown Into Its Role

By Raffaello Pantucci & Alexandros Petersen.

First published in the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s The Interpreter on 7 November 2011.

It was a grim, grey Beijing morning as we fought with our taxi driver and traffic to make it to a meeting at one of China’s many official think tanks. We had set up the meeting with the intention of discussing Chinese foreign policy in her western periphery, Central Asia, but were instead asked to present on the pending Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Trying to shift things back in our direction, we offered a brief presentation on the view increasingly shared in Western capitals that regional powers and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the Chinese-instigated regional grouping encompassing nearby Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia) could take on a greater role in ensuring post-withdrawal Afghan stability.

In response, we were told that our perspective was exclusively Western; we needed to see things from an Asian point of view.

According to the analysts and diplomats at the table, China’s influence is based on cooperation, development and mutual interests. China’s ‘soft power’ (a term that is not popular in Beijing) is its ability to let countries develop at their own rate. When China looks to the region, it sees nations that are beset with problems, but ones that China cannot and should not address. Instead, Beijing has constructed the SCO.

The purpose of the SCO is not to supplant the EU, US or Russia, but rather to create a mechanism. We were told our tendency to view the SCO as a ‘NATO of the East’ — a view we pointedly said we did not concur with — was merely a product of a Western bias built on the assumption that some sort of China threat lurks behind every corner. The SCO is young and regionally focused. Afghanistan, they reassured us, was something the SCO had always been concerned about and would address in the future.

So far, it has done very little. In fact, at the last summit the SCO member states were unable to agree on giving Afghanistan observer status. Instead the country continues to languish on the sidelines of an organisation nominally established with a view to stabilising a region that was menaced by trouble spilling over from Afghanistan.

This paradoxical approach seemed evident in other statements we heard about Chinese influence in Central Asia.

China is interested in countering the SCO’s stated ‘three evils’ of separatism, terrorism and extremism in Central Asia, yet it is not interested in interfering in anyone’s internal affairs. The SCO is not an economic organisation, and yet we were repeatedly told that it was focused on economics and development.

The paradox was made most clearly when someone announced to us something along the lines that ‘in the past the SCO has done nothing and in the future it will do nothing as well’.

But the reality of China’s sheer size means this approach is unsustainable. China is the world’s foremost rising power and her influence will be felt wherever she pops up. As we sat down to a sumptuous meal around a large garlanded table after our discussion, our new Chinese friends gave us no sense of having really thought through the implications of what their newfound accidental influence means.

The impression was rather that China is stumbling onto power it does not want, and with which it doesn’t know what to do.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Alexandros Petersen is an adviser at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

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