NPR logo Foreign Policy: Is China Acting Like A Great Power?


Foreign Policy: Is China Acting Like A Great Power?

Chinese paramilitary policemen escort a Chinese national flag during a swear-in ceremony for the security of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. AP hide caption

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Chinese paramilitary policemen escort a Chinese national flag during a swear-in ceremony for the security of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.


The Economist magazine is often a source of clear-eyed, trenchant, and moderately conservative analysis, usually written with a wit and verve that puts most of the content in Time and Newsweek to shame. But nobody's perfect, and the latest issue offers a remarkably obtuse leader on the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. The author complains that "China does not always act like a great power," and concludes that we ought to be especially worried by a rising power whose government "is so insecure."

If you read the piece carefully, however, it's clear that their real complaint is that China actually is acting like a great power, which means that some of its policies aren't to the liking of the Economist's editors. They point out that China is not a "status quo power" — which is correct — but neither are most great powers most of the time. The European great powers of a bygone era competed more-or-less constantly, punctuating their rivalries with sometimes long and bloody wars. The United States spent the Cold War trying to both contain and bring down the Soviet regime (and Moscow hoped to do the same to the United States), and while neither side wanted to fight a nuclear war to do it, neither side was interested in "preserving the status quo" either. After the USSR collapsed, George Bush Sr. spoke of "standing alone at the pinnacle of power, with the rarest opportunity to remake the world," which is not exactly a "status quo" sentiment. And has the Economist forgotten that Bush's son subsequently decided it was a good idea to "transform" much of the Middle East at the point of a rifle barrel? By those standards, Chinese revisionism looks mild indeed.

Similarly, the magazine is worried because China put on a big military display as part of its 60th anniversary celebration, is gradually modernizing its armed forces, and isn't telling us everything about its plans to build aircraft carriers and the like. Again, is there anything very surprising about this behavior? All great powers like to brandish their military hardware (e.g., there are over 150 military airshows in the United States this year, and the Air Force does a fly-over at the Super Bowl), and one would expect any rising economic power to translate some of its growing wealth into greater military strength.

They also charge that China "still seems to pick and choose the issues where it is willing to help." Shocking, isn't it? No, I guess not, because other states do that too. They are on safer ground criticizing China for overreacting when others criticize its human rights conduct or when foreign governments allow a visit from the Dalai Lama, but China is hardly unique in reacting harshly to outside criticism.

Lastly, China is said to "put its perceived economic self-interest ahead of strategic common sense," most notably in its response to Iran's nuclear program. Once again, what great power doesn't think first and foremost about "self-interest?" Not only did the United States turn a blind eye when the UK, France, and Israel acquired nuclear weapons (the latter outside the confines of the NPT), but it responded to India and Pakistan's nuclear tests in 1998 by imposing some meaningless and short-lived economic sanctions and then returning to business as usual. In fact, India eventually got rewarded with a strategic cooperation agreement and a forgiving nuclear deal. According to a recent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, "intensive lobbying by corporate sectors in both the United States and India helped overrule the concerns of the arms control community." I guess other great powers worry about "economic self-interest" too.

In short, what's bugging the Economist is not that China isn't "acting like a great power"; it is that China isn't defining its interests the way some conservative Englishmen would like them to. Sorry, folks, that's just not how great powers act. As China's power grows, it will press its own perceived self-interests vigorously, just as other great powers do. It will continue to join and participate in a wide array of existing institutions, but it will use them to advance its own interests and will also try to shape those institutions according to its own preferences and values. Expecting them to conform their behavior to someone else's idea of what is right and proper is ... well ... not very realistic.