Premier Wen Jiabao’s just-completed weeklong tour to South Korea, Japan, Mongolia and Burma (Myanmar) provides a good opportunity for evaluating the extent to which China is playing a “responsible leadership role” in world affairs. In President Barack Obama’s National Security Strategy report released in late May, the U.S. President expressed the hope that Beijing would “make choices that contribute to peace, security and prosperity” in the global arena. In light of the Cheonan incident and alleged Burmese nuclear ambitions, Premier Wen’s tour may appear to indicate a willingness on the part of Beijing to play that role.
On this tour, the avuncular Wen practiced “close-to-the-people diplomacy” by practicing tai-chi and playing baseball with students and retirees in South Korea and Japan. In Rangoon, he watched a display of Chinese kung-fu by Burmese school kids. The premier also vowed that China “will never become a threat to any countries.” Yet, misgivings abound over whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration is making the kind of contribution to the global commonwealth that is commensurate with the country’s quasi-superpower status.
Given that the Korean Peninsula has again become Asia’s hottest flashpoint, Wen’s stance on Pyongyang’s alleged involvement in the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan has elicited the most attention. The Korean crisis dominated the trilateral summit that Wen held with the leaders of South Korea and Japan in the South Korean resort of Jeju Island. Very much in the spirit of a peacemaker, the premier indicated that “China is a country that upholds justice and [global] responsibility.” Regarding the Cheonan Incident, Wen told international reporters that “we do not have any self-interest in this issue – and we will not display favoritism to any party” (China News Service, June 2; Reuters, June 2). Like other Chinese officials, however, Wen repeatedly ducked the question of whether, in Beijing’s opinion, the Kim Jong-Il regime was responsible for torpedoing the Cheonan. This is despite widely held views that the Chinese should have been the first to know about the truth behind the naval mishap. A sizeable number of Chinese – diplomats, businessmen and academics – visit Pyongyang regularly; and senior Chinese cadres apparently discussed the incident with Kim Jong-Il during the Dear Leader’s visit to Beijing early last month.
In his Seoul press conference, Wen attempted to shift the focus from the culpability issue to ways to contain the crisis. “The pressing task for the moment is to properly handle the serious impact caused by the Cheonan incident, gradually defuse tension, and avoid possible conflicts,” he said. “China will actively communicate with relevant parties and… help promote peace and stability in the region, which fits our common and long-term interests best” (Korea Times, May 30; AFP, May 30).
Beijing’s refusal to condemn North Korean despite compelling evidence of Pyongyang’s complicity has weakened the CCP administration’s ability to function as peacemaker in the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, Wen made a rare acknowledgement that China was hardly a disinterested party in the unfolding crisis. Wen admitted in his interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK that his country would suffer gravely in the event of full-fledged warfare between North and South Korea. “If there is a clash, the people of North and South Korea will suffer the most serious harm, but it would be difficult for China to escape [damage],” Wen said. He cited the well-known Chinese proverb – “If the city gate catches fire, the disaster even affects the fish in the moat” – to illustrate his point about China’s vulnerability to instability in the Hermit kingdom (NHK News, June 1; China News Service, June 1).
While it is true that Beijing garnered much international goodwill by chairing the Six-Party Talks on the Korean nuclear issue from 2003 to 2007. Yet, the CCP administration’s acquiescence in Kim’s roguish behavior – apparently to prevent the influx of refugees that may result from the collapse of the Stalinist regime – may undercut the moral authority that China claims is a prerequisite for playing a greater international leadership role.
Wen’s two-day visit to Burma aroused much media interest for two reasons: He was the first Chinese head of government to have visited the pariah state in 16 years; and his tour was on the eve of Burma’s first elections in 20 years. There was speculation over whether Wen, who is the only Politburo member to have publicly supported the introduction of pushi jiazhi, or “global values,” into China, would at least indirectly prod the military junta toward speeding up democratic reforms . On the eve of his arrival in Burma, Wen told the Japanese media that the CCP administration was pushing forward with political reform in China. “We guarantee that citizens have election rights, the right to know, the right to participate [in politics] and the right to supervise [the government],” Wen said (Global Times [Beijing], June 2; China News Service, June 2). It is clear, however, that as in the case of North Korea, Beijing has stuck to a “see no evil” stance regarding the military authorities’ systemic suppression of the human rights of their own people.
Immediately upon landing in Rangoon on June 2, Wen highlighted Beijing’s concern for ordinary Burmese by visiting the Rangoon No. 1 High School. There, he told secondary students there that while this was his first visit to the country, he wanted to get across the message that “China and Burma are friendly neighbors that share the same mountains and rivers.” It seems evident, however, that Beijing’s primary interest was exploiting natural resources in the isolated regime. The Chinese Foreign Ministry pointed out after Wen’s meeting with military strongman Than Shwe that both sides had “reached consensus on many issues and signed a lot of major deals” in areas including trade, finance, energy, science and technology. Wen and his hosts also discussed ways to improve border security. Bilateral relations were frayed last August, when fighting between the Burmese army and rebel ethnic groups drove tens of thousands of refugees into China’s southwestern provinces. That the Chinese leader did not make things difficult for the junta on either the human rights or the nuclear fronts was evidenced by Wen’s statement that Beijing respected the Burmese government and people’s “choice of a development path in line with [Burma’s] conditions” (Reuters, June 3; AFP, June 3; Xinhua News Agency, June 4).
A major concern of Wen’s Burmese tour was putting the finishing touches to an agreement on the construction of an oil pipeline linking Burma’s Indian Ocean port of Kyaukphyu to China’s Yunnan Province. This would enable China-bound oil tankers from the Middle East to bypass the Malacca Strait by offloading their crude at Kyaukphyu. Chinese strategists have repeatedly warned that given China’s dependence on the Malacca Strait, the country’s “petroleum security” could be jeopardized if its enemies were to choke off the Strait in times of crisis (Straits Times [Singapore] June 1; Irrawaddy.org [Thailand], June 2).
The centerpiece of Wen’s trip to Mongolia was enhanced Chinese investments in mines and infrastructure in the land-locked country. Beijing is eager to import more copper, uranium and oil from its resource-rich neighbor. Better ties with Mongolia will also help Beijing promote “national cohesiveness” among the 4 million-odd ethnic Mongols resident in China’s Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region (Xinhua News Agency, June 2; Reuters, June 1).
As for as world affairs are concerned, China has been most successful in economics-related undertakings. Trading agreements, including the formation of free trade areas (FTA) – where China’s 1.3 billion-people market has become Beijing’s diplomatic trump card – have the past decade played a pivotal role in the prevention of conflict in the Asia-Pacific Region. Moreover, joint development of areas with sovereignty disputes is seen as a win-win formula for the resolution of the Sino-Japanese row over the East China Sea. During his visit to Tokyo, Wen and then-prime minister Yukio Hatoyama agreed to speed up talks to substantiate a two-year-old theoretical agreement reached between the two countries over the joint exploitation of gas under the East China Sea (AFP, May 31; Xinhua News Agency, May 31).
Indeed, the most lasting result of Wen’s four-nation trip could be laying the groundwork for the establishment of a China-Japan-South Korea FTA. At the trilateral summit in Jeju Island, the three heads of government agreed that a detailed feasibility study on the subject would be ready before the end of next year. The FTA will promote stronger links between the 1.5 billion people living in the three countries, whose collective GDP accounts for the bulk of Asia’s (Xinhua News Agency, May 30; People’s Daily, May 31).
Premier Wen’s Asian foray has coincided with a rethink on China’s global role within the country’s foreign-policy elite. While a good number of strategists have continued to trumpet the no-holds-barred expansion of the quasi-superpower’s international influence, others have counseled a more measured approach. In a late May article in the Global Times entitled “Don’t always think that we have to change the world.” China Foreign Affairs University Professor Wang Fan cautioned that “we [Chinese] must recognize the limits of China’s strength and capacity.” “China cannot change everything, nor can China change within a short time-frame things which it wants to change badly,” he said. The international relations expert noted that regarding a host of issues including nuclear non-proliferation, anti-terrorism and carbon emission, “China doesn’t possess the power to initiate [changes] because it only has the capacity to play the role of a coordinator or an assistant.” “Beijing can’t even do anything about the misunderstanding, bias and discrimination that the international community has held via-a-vis China for a long time,” Wang added (Global Times, May 25; Tianya.cn [Beijing], May 30).
What should be highlighted, however, is that it is well within China’s capacity to stop exacerbating negative developments that could threaten global peace and stability. Take, for example, nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. Despite Beijing’s well-known pledge to help the global community rein in their programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, China has continued to boost investment, trading and strategic ties with the two pariah nations. There is strong evidence that the CCP administration has failed to enforce anti-North Korean sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council in June last year (See China Brief, “Kim Jong-Il’s secret visit to Beijing,” May 13). During his four-nation Asian tour, Wen skirted questions of whether Beijing would support a new series of Security Council sanctions on the DPRK. Yet as U.S. Secretary of State Robert Gates said in Singapore last week regarding Beijing’s relations with the Kim regime, “to do nothing would set the wrong precedent” (Associated Press, June 6; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], June 6).
Despite speculation about China running world affairs with America within a “Group of Two” framework – and despite the global appeal of the “China model” – Beijing’s problematic ties with North Korea, Burma and a host of rogue states shows that China doesn’t have what it takes to become either a world cop or an international reconciliator. While the administration under President Hu Jintao is devoting unprecedented resources to worldwide power projection, the focus of much of China’s diplomacy remains domestic, in the sense of ensuring a benign international environment for economic growth. The onus is on the Chinese leadership to demonstrate that, short of playing a “responsible leadership role” in augmenting world peace, Beijing will at least do its utmost to contain the forces that undermine global stability.
1. For a discussion of Premier Wen’s advocacy of China adopting “universal values,” see Sean Ding and Jingjing Wu, “Universal values in China: A domestic debate,” Chinaelections.net, June 28, 2008,