Argument

Beijing, Global Free-Rider

Beijing, Global Free-Rider

When U.S. President Barack Obama starts his first-ever visit to China on Sunday, he will ask Beijing to take more responsibility for solving key global issues in troubled countries such as North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

But while Washington needs Beijing more than ever, China’s own interests in those hot spots make it deeply conflicted about playing a larger role on the world stage. While the United States frames China in terms of its growing responsibilities as a major power, China continues to think primarily in terms of its own interests.

Recently, China has contributed resources to multilateral anti-piracy operations in Somalia and provided substantial personnel to U.N. peacekeeping missions — both welcome steps. But the number and variety of requests now deluging Beijing has made it increasingly selective in accommodating them. To address the situation in problem countries, Washington needs to take into account that China will always be more assertive about pursuing its own interests, which often differ substantially from those of Washington.

Take North Korea and Iran. In the last eight months, Pyongyang has launched a long-range missile, withdrawn from the six-party-talks, tested its second nuclear device, and provoked a naval clash with a South Korean warship. It has abetted the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the spread of nuclear capability to other problem states, increasing the danger that terrorists may eventually acquire these lethal weapons.

These events caused significant concern when they happened, in China as well as in the United States, but their proximity to China’s border makes Beijing’s strategic calculations very different from those of Washington. While rhetorically committed to a nuclear-free North Korea, China’s overriding interest is peace and stability on the peninsula. Beijing worries about the North Korean regime perhaps imploding, as well as the possibility that the flight of hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees, or rapid reunification with the South, could bring more U.S. troops to the region. Beijing therefore continues to act in ways that shield North Korea from more punitive measures, such as stronger economic sanctions.

Beijing now deliberately separates its bilateral relationship with North Korea from the nuclear issue, placing the responsibility for nuclear questions on the United States. In Beijing’s eyes, the recent visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Pyongyang was evidence of the success of this dual-track approach. The China-North Korea bilateral relationship was strengthened significantly, with the announcement of Chinese aid and economic cooperation packages worth more than $200 million. Far from fearing being marginalized in nuclear talks, China is pushing for a bilateral meeting between the United States and North Korea. Should the United States not pursue this option, it will be harder to convince Beijing to take a tough line with Pyongyang in the future.

With regard to Iran, China’s calculations diverge even more significantly from those of the West. Although China does not wish to see regional instability or nuclear proliferation, it does not consider Iran an urgent security threat. Iran is, however, integral to China’s quest for energy — necessary for fueling China’s continued economic growth, which is central to maintaining the Communist Party’s legitimacy. Domestic energy shortages and skyrocketing international oil prices pushed energy security to the top of China’s agenda, and Iran’s strategic location gives it influence over shipments of oil from the Middle East. Fundamentally, China sees the nuclear issue as another U.S. security problem, one best resolved by talks between Iran and the West. It sees no reason to push for tougher sanctions, which it fears may be counterproductive, or to take a bolder stance than Moscow, which it is confident will remain opposed to sanctions for the foreseeable future.

The United States also has hopes that China will provide nonmilitary support to its efforts in Afghanistan, but this is equally unlikely. Although China shares U.S. aspirations for a secure and stable region, it sees the U.S. presence as part of an American strategy to secure a long-term role in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf. China worries that the United States aims to "encircle" China. Beijing therefore sees no reason to lend support to "NATO’s war," a war it considers unwinnable. Furthermore, Beijing is unlikely to place itself on the front lines against the terrorist threat because of fear of a backlash in Xinjiang or in the wider Muslim world, or indeed that China could become a first-order target for transnational terrorist groups.

While threats to international peace and security increase, China is still not stepping up on its own. It believes that it is in a stronger position to assert its bilateral interests. For now, Beijing remains highly reluctant to take on more burdens — whether economic, political, or military — preferring to free-ride.

The United States and the international community therefore need to carefully consider their strategy. Fights must be chosen carefully within the U.S.-China bilateral track. But the United States must work to shape the environment in which China makes its choices.  It could fruitfully strengthen cooperation with regional organizations (whose positions China seldom refutes), work with other countries in the U.N. Security Council in order to bring China along, and continue to broaden engagement across the board to increase global pressure on Beijing to accept that it has global responsibilities as well as interests.