When a US delegate once confronted a Chinese diplomat about Beijing’s uncompromising support for Pakistan, the Chinese reportedly responded with a heavily-loaded sarcastic remark: “Pakistan is our Israel”.
But judging by China’s unrelenting support for some of its allies, including North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan, its protective arm around these countries is no different from the US and Western political embrace of Israel – right or wrong.
While China is battling the West over exchange rates, import tariffs and its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing is also lobbying furiously to stall a Western- inspired proposal for a Commission of Inquiry on possible war crimes by the military junta in Burma (Myanmar).
“Such a commission should not be seen as a way to punish the government, but to prevent impunity and help prevent further abuse,” says the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana.
But China, which in January 2007 exercised its veto, along with Russia, to prevent Security Council sanctions against Burma, has not shown any willingness to back the proposal – even for a watered-down commission.
“Clearly,” says one Asian diplomat, “China is trying to reassert its political clout at the United Nations as a counterweight to its defensive stand on currency and trade issues.”
The New York Times newspaper said on Tuesday that the US administration is facing a “confrontational relationship” with an assertive China and is trying to respond to “a surge of Chinese triumphalism” by strengthening Washington’s relationship with Japan and South Korea.
US President Barack Obama is planning to visit four Asian countries next month – Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea – while bypassing China.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who needs China’s support in the Security Council if he decides to run for a second term next year, is currently on his fourth trip to China, having visited the country in May and July 2008, and in July 2009.
In recent months, China has prevented a Security Council resolution against North Korea over the sinking of a South Korean ship and also tried to suppress a UN report alleging the use of Chinese-made bullets in attacks on UN peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan.
“China sees value in promoting its image as the Security Council member defending the rights of the developing world, and China sees value in relying on the UN to counter US power,” said Linda Jakobson, director of the programme on China and Global Security at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
Jakobson, an in-house China expert at SIPRI, points out that Beijing also sees value in participating in UN peacekeeping operations “both because this enhances the image of China as a responsible power but also because it gives Chinese military experience”.
Still, China relented to US and Western pressure in supporting four Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions against Iran, one of Beijing’s staunchest political, economic and military allies.
The fourth round of sanctions, all of them aimed primarily at Iran’s nuclear programme, was imposed in June this year.
Justifying his country’s support for the resolution, Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong was quoted as saying that Beijing wanted to make sure that sanctions would not affect the Iranian people or its normal overseas trade.
Jakobson said that China agreed to these sanctions after much deliberation and on the condition that the energy sector was excluded.
“This can be seen as a compromise solution on China’s part,” she said. “The exclusion of the energy sector was crucial.”
Jakobson also pointed out that China wants to protect the massive investments by Chinese energy companies already in Iran or under negotiation with Tehran, and China wants to ensure that its long-term strategic plans for energy security are not threatened.
In a detailed policy paper released last month, and titled “New Foreign Policy Actors in China”, SIPRI said the increasing sway of large state-owned energy companies have an increasing influence on foreign policy deliberations in China.
Jakobson, who co-authored the report with Dean Knox, said this is one example of that sway though it is noteworthy that there are other foreign policy actors who presumably were not inclined to advocate China’s support of the resolution.
On the other hand, she said, there were presumably actors who advocated China’s support for the resolution because China supports non-proliferation and does not want to see Iran go nuclear.
“If China had not supported the resolution, it would reflect badly on China’s image and undermine its efforts to portray itself as a responsible global power,” Jakobson said.
She said China attaches great importance to the United Nations and would like to see the role of the UN strengthened – though Beijing is wary of many proposals that want to expand Security Council membership and/or give power to members other than the present five permanent members, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
The SIPRI report argues that actors outside the traditional power structure are increasingly shaping China’s foreign policy.
Influential new actors on the margins include Chinese state- owned enterprises, especially energy companies, which, due to their widespread international outreach, affect China’s bilateral relationships and diplomacy at large.
The others include local governments, especially in border and coastal provinces, which seek more lucrative trade and foreign investment opportunities.
At the same time, there is growing importance of researchers, who serve as advisors to officials and media, and netizens, who constitute a new pressure group that China’s leaders at times feel compelled to take into account, not least during international crises.
The findings also point to a fracturing of authority in foreign policy formulation.
Diversification outside China’s official decision making apparatus – along with changes within it – means that foreigners can no longer expect to only deal with one government agency or Party organ but must take into account multiple actors that have both a stake and say in the decision-making processes.