May 23, 2011 8:08 pm

China struts larger on world stage

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Rise to superpower status must be managed with care

Hitherto, the default position for Asian nations has been to draw closer to China economically, but huddle under the US defence umbrella. Pakistan shows that China’s rise – as a military as well as an economic power – is making that calculation more complex. Within days of Pakistan’s humiliation over the killing of Osama bin Laden, Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, travelled to Beijing. He came back with a Chinese commitment to take over the operation of Gwadar port, close to the Iranian border. Islamabad has asked Beijing to upgrade the facility to a naval base. The message is clear. If Washington scales back its support for Pakistan, there is more than one game in town.

In one sense, this is a dangerous ploy. Islamabad is using anxiety about China to keep US military aid flowing. Washington does not generally react well to blackmail. Indeed, it should judge continuing support for the Pakistani military on its own merits, not by what China might do in its absence. New Delhi, too, is nervous about closeness between Pakistan and China. It regards Gwadar port as part of China’s so-called string of pearls, a chain of ports in Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka and Pakistan that New Delhi thinks is designed to encircle India.

Yet it would be equally dangerous to overreact to Beijing’s tighter links with Islamabad. As China’s trade and investment ties with the outside world deepen, it will inevitably seek to protect its interests. Officially, China’s policy is non-interventionist. But that stance is being tested by its ever-closer integration in the global economy. Witness Libya, where Beijing was obliged to rescue more than 30,000 Chinese workers.

In some ways, China’s greater international involvement is to be welcomed. China, too, has an interest in stable and open trade. As such, it is playing a constructive role in anti-piracy operations. That is not to say that China’s rise is without danger. The world has a sorry record of accommodating rising powers. It is in China’s interests to be more transparent about its intentions, and to assure the international community – in deeds as well as words – that its rise is benign. By the same token, the world needs to draw China into dialogue and international commitments. Robert Zoellick, former US deputy secretary of state, articulated the idea of making China a “responsible stakeholder”. The term has a patronising ring. But it remains the best framework for dealing with the rising Chinese superpower.

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