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China, A Responsible Global Power?

Published 17 Dec 2018
Ciara Morris

China’s rise is perceived in the international community as a challenge to the US and to the existing – yet dying – US-led economic and world order. Understandably countries such as the US, Japan, the Philippines and even Australia have expressed concern for the stability of the system that we have grown accustomed to since the end of the Second World War. A change to the existing international structure is intrinsically challenging, however, this doesn’t preclude China from acting as a responsible great power or from acting to strengthen existing norms and institutions. And it is imperative that Australia and the international community accept this new reality.

China’s foreign policy, much like any other, is dictated by domestic concerns for state stability and economic growth and development. However, it is also increasingly concerned with global power relations. China has a right today to call itself a responsible great power given their stable relationship with the global powers and increasing awareness and respect for regional multilateral diplomacy, proving a serious consideration of its relative power.

The stability of China-US cooperation is a logical liberal conclusion and a responsible power consideration in a multipolar global economy. The US is economically essential to China as the global leader in advanced technology and the largest world economy in terms of GDP. China has a rational interest to cooperate. Trump’s threat of a trade war has not faltered the Chinese commitment to a working relationship between the two great powers, as China prepares to increase its imports from the US.

Cooperation is also a security decision. Post-9/11, China partnered with the US in the war against terrorism, diminishing the possibility of China-US conflict. China supported US efforts at the UN Security Council inviting discussions with Syria over conflict resolution, an example of China’s increasing diplomatic involvement in the Middle East. As well as the continuous nonexistence of conflict over Taiwan, even considering China’s modernized armed forces, denotes China’s responsible consideration of the relative power of the US.

China began actively participating in regional multilateral diplomacy from 1995, strengthening its claim as a responsible global power. Chinese membership in key international institutions, although aiding domestic interests, also transcends them. The establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, focusing on cooperative security in Central Asia, has seen China negotiate with neighbouring states, push for its domestic interests in Xinjiang through a multilateral platform, extract natural resources in the region, and maintain working relations with Russia. China knowingly accepts constraints on its national-interest agenda by committing to international norms, evidence of its claim as a responsible great power. For example, China began contributing personnel to UN peacekeeping, entered the World Trade Organisation and signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, all of which impose restrictions on domestic policy.

While territorial concessions may be made in Central Asia in negotiation with weaker states, China remains authoritative in its relations with the US over the South China Sea, proving once more China’s consideration of relative power. China’s responsible power efforts continue to be tested by its assertive behaviour in the South China Sea. In 2002 China announced that issues of the South China Sea could be discussed collectively with ASEAN declaring a Sino-ASEAN code of conduct. This is a point of Chinese forbearance where China is making it more costly for itself to resort to the use of force, a function of a responsible great power.

Scepticism and fear surrounding China’s rise is inescapable because of its rapid acceleration, sheer size, lack of political transparency, domestic human rights concerns and confronting political ideology, lying outside the norm of Western democratic values. However, it cannot be denied that China has accepted constraints to its national agenda, considered relative power with the US and acted responsibly on issues of global importance. Whatever may come, today China can call itself a responsible great power and other global powers should treat it as such.

Ciara Morris is in her fourth year of a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the University of Sydney. After majoring in Government & International Relations and Chinese Studies, she is now writing a thesis on Australia’s diplomatic approach to China. Having spent her high school years volunteering with UN Youth Australia, Ciara has always been passionate about foreign cultures and international affairs. Ciara is currently a National Executive Director of the Australia-China Youth Association, and has been on exchange to Peking University, Beijing and Fudan University, Shanghai. Ciara is interested in Australia’s place in the world and our relationship with neighbouring countries in the Indo-Pacific, including China, as a re-emerging global power.

Ciara is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.