Skip Navigation
Scholars Debate: Is China Becoming a Responsible World Leader?
Richard Baum, (second from the left) one of UCLA's top China experts, shares his views on whether China is willing to engage in international affairs as a responsible world leader. (Photo by Todd Cheney)

Scholars Debate: Is China Becoming a Responsible World Leader?

The fundamental question of whether China is on the path to becoming a responsible stakeholder in world affairs or acting as a revisionist superpower was put to a prestigious group of China scholars from universities and think tanks across the country. Watch video of the keynote address by John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

By Cynthia Lee for UCLA Today

With tensions rising between North Korea and South Korea over the torpedoing of a South Korean ship, the U.S. is urging China to condemn North Korea’s actions. Will China act as it did last year when it took a stand and criticized North Korea for testing a nuclear weapon? Or will it do nothing?
 
The fundamental question of whether China is on the path to becoming a responsible stakeholder in world affairs or acting as a revisionist superpower was put to a prestigious group of China scholars from universities and think tanks across the country. They gathered Monday, May 24, at the James West Alumni Center for an all-day conference that focused on China’s engagement on key international issues.
 
The conference was hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for American Progress and, from UCLA, the Burkle Center for International Relations, the Center for Chinese Studies and the International Institute.
 
In trying to ascertain what path China is taking, participants took into consideration a wide range of factors, among them, that country’s reaction when the Dalai Lama visited the White House, China’s efforts to build up its navy and its rising economic stature perhaps most clearly evidenced by being the first nation to emerge from the global financial crisis.
 
“The problem, of course, is we can’t infer anything just from what they say,” said David Lake, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at UC San Diego, who moderated a panel on China’s role in regional and global security challenges. “You can say anything — it’s cheap talk. The question is, what do you do? Can you demonstrate what kind of superpower China is going to be through actions and not just words?”
 
Panelist Jing-dong Yuan, associate professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said that the main question that China’s leadership is grappling with is whether China should continue to follow the instructions of late Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping “to keep a low profile and develop overall national strength, but not to take the lead in international affairs.”
 
“Or has China now become powerful enough that it should take a leading role?” Yuan asked. “I think the jury is still out on that regard.”
 
Deng Xiaoping’s admonishments in the ’80s to his colleagues to observe developments soberly, meet challenges calmly, conceal China’s capacities and never claim leadership has been an imperative that China has followed, more or less, for two decades, said Richard Baum, one of UCLA’s foremost scholars on China and a professor of political science.
 
“There’s a big debate in China today about whether this is the time to start revising that,” Baum said. “China has been seeking safety in multilateralism for well over a decade now, and not taking the lead. The question of whether a rising China has the same need to conceal capacity … that’s a big issue for the next generation of leaders.”
 
Baum added that the polarization that has been pulling China in opposite directions on this question was palpable at a Beijing forum he attended in 2005, along with China’s top international theorists and strategic thinkers.
 
Participants “were buzzing about this term, ‘responsible stakeholder,” and how seriously to take it,” Baum said. Some of the Chinese at the forum felt it was an extension of American neocolonialism and “an affront to Chinese national pride and dignity to be told they should be carrying the water for the international community by having a responsible stake in somebody else’s game.”
 
Others took the term very seriously as a “new opening for a possible convergence of U.S. and Chinese strategic thinking,” Baum said. In the end, he recalled, the dominant view among the Chinese was to give the concept a try and see what the Americans really have in mind. “It was, ‘If they (the Americans) just want us to be a spear carrier for them, no, thank you. But let’s look and see what the stakes in the system are.’”
 
China has shown that it is willing to engage responsibly in international issues, Baum noted. In its criticism of North Korea’s nuclear weapons testing, China “certainly acted as if they have a stake in the denuclearization of Korea. They may not have acted as strongly or decisively as we would have liked them to act, but they certainly were on the right side of that issue — tentatively, meekly to be sure —  but on the right side.”
 
Similarly with their membership in the World Trade Organization, China has pledged to live by its rules, Baum said. And with respect to President Hu Jintao’s presence at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., in April, “they had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the talks with Washington,” Baum said. “But they showed up and at least in principle supported the United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
 
“I would give them good marks on being a responsible stakeholder so far,” said Baum, “although with an asterisk: There are some issues that are not amenable to shared stakeholding at this point.”
 
The current conflict over North Korea’s attack on a South Korean ship may fall in that category. So far, Baum said, China has basically ducked and hedged.
 
“China probably will condemn North Korea,” said Yuan, by going along with a UN Security Council statement of condemnation. But China will weigh heavily the possibility that taking action could further worsen the situation and destabilize the Korean peninsula.
 
Richard Rosecrance, a former director of the UCLA Burkle Center who now teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, maintained that this is a clear case where North Korea’s actions should be condemned. But China, in the past, has “dropped the ball,” he said, in not playing a very important role as the host of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue and in not facilitating bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea.

Another panel that included retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and is currently a senior fellow at the Burkle Center, pondered the question of what the U.S. can do to shape China’s engagement.
 
In dealing with China, Clark said the U.S. must recognize that there has been a shift in the balance of power between the two governments. “When an American leader goes to Beijing and says, ‘Let’s talk,’ it’s a different Beijing and a different balance than existed even two or three years ago,” he said. “I think President Obama knows it, and I’m certain the Chinese know it. I think we have a new relationship with China, whether it’s advertised as such or not.”
 
If we ask China, for example, “Are you a responsible stakeholder?” then you have to ask whether the U.S. is behaving likewise, Clark said. “You have to ask how is it we allowed [in the case of the global financial crisis] the perpetuation of fraudulent contracts, peddled them to the rest of the world, used leverage, destabilized currencies, almost brought down banks and ended up with our major export in debt? … Was that a position for a responsible stakeholder?”
 
The public’s perception of a shift in the balance of power, the scholars noted, was picked up last year by a Pew Research Center survey that showed that 41 percent of the American public believes the U.S. plays a less important, less powerful role as a world leader than it did a decade ago, while 44 percent believe China is now the top global economic power. In reality, however, scholars at the conference predicted that it will take two or three decades, or more, for China to catch up with Americans economically.
 
In the end, the U.S. only has itself to blame for this shift of balance, Clark said. “If our economy is relying on Chinese demand to stimulate it and relying on Chinese purchases of American debt to keep it going, then we’ve put ourselves in a position where we don’t have the same degree of bargaining power” that a comparison of economic standards and military might suggests.

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.