China's Interests and the Global Order

By EO Editorial Board
Published: 2009-10-26

Cover Editorial - EO print edition no. 441
Translated by Paul Pennay

Original article: [Chinese]

The recent hijacking of a freighter by pirates in the Indian Ocean, has aroused deep concern among many Chinese people.

Since the end of last year, China has been sending a small fleet of warships to carry out international patrols in the Gulf of Aden. The move has attracted a variety of interpretations.

The Chinese government has presented the move as a sign of China's "peaceful rise" and a counter to accusations of any kind of "China threat."

In the minds of many others, the move marks the return of Chinese Navy's to the high seas almost 600 years after famous Ming Admiral Zheng He's led his fleet across the globe and is a sign of the re-emergence of the country's military power.

Perhaps because of such an attitude, China's media and online discussions are full of arguments pushing for a hardline response to the hostage crisis in order to project the country's "national prestige."

However, specific responses to the incident is not a topic we want to explore here.

In the face of such difficult problems, policy makers need to remind themselves that public sentiment should not interfere with their decisions.

We can consider looking at this incident from another angle, an interpretation that takes into account China's role in a globalizing world. From this perspective, we believe that China should choose a global response.

Somali pirates can serve as a metaphor.

Throughout history, fighting against piracy and protecting shipping lines have been a sign of a country's status as a world power. This is as true today for America as it was for the ancient Roman Empire.

The current problems with Somali pirates are a symbol of the chaotic element that exists in our globalized world.

In the 20th century, the international arena was dominated by conflicts between sovereign states. The various parties had clearly defined national interests and their behavioral tendencies were also predictable.

But the emergence of the power of pirates, terrorist organizations and other forces show that non-government forces have obtained the destructive power that once only belonged to nation states.

The behavior of these forces is unpredictable and they have no clear target or goal. We could also say that their goal is to simply disrupt the existing system in order to take advantage of the ensuing chaos.

As a result, the conflict between nation-states and these forces has evolved into a battle between forces aiming to maintain and those hoping to destroy the existing world order.

At this time, the maintenance of international order is especially dependent on the ability of large powers to provide and guarantee stability. This includes, among other things, mediating in relation to conflicts and wars between small countries, combating terrorism and safeguarding the security of international shipping routes.

While this kind of action on the part of great powers forces them to bear the cost of maintaining stability and allows small countries to take a "free ride," this kind of "free rider" behavior also determines a country's role as a minor player in the international arena.

Today, China is beginning to bring it's forces into play in dealing with the financial crisis, climate change, the energy crisis, development challenges and other issues.

Although the country is still working hard to adapt to its new role, the world has already placed great expectations upon China.

At the end of September, Chinese President Hu Jintao won widespread praise after he called for debt relief for developing countries when addressing the 64th session of the UN General Assembly.

Imperceptibly, China is rapidly changing from being a recipient of aid to a provider of aid, this move is not only a matter of friendship and moral duty, but it can also help to avoid the emergence of more "bankrupt states" like Somalia that upset the global order, therefore benefitting both the recipients and the common good.

In the past two or three decades, no country has benefitted more than China from the existence of the international order. With a flow of funds from the outside world and the existence of a huge global market helping to awaken the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people.

Of course, many of the rules that govern this international system still leave Chinese people dissatisfied, but only deeper integration into the system offers any hope of changing them.

For a while, China took a proud attitude of refusing to engage in overseas affairs, and ridiculed the United States when it attempted to play the role of "world policeman," but the situation has now already forced China to occasionally play a similar role.

It would be unwise to approach the Gulf of Aden incident from the perspective of playing to a domestic audience or of showing off national prestige.
A more correct understanding would be to see it as an opportunity for China to maintain the global order and thus act in China's national interests.

One sign of a country's peaceful emergence as a global power is that it does more than simply stress that its policies are not subverting the existing global system, but makes an effort to contribute to the maintanence of that world order.