China in the International System

On May 16th, the IIP held a panel discussion China in the International System. Among the speakers were Pascal Abb, senior researcher at the Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution (ASPR); Hannes Swoboda, President of the IIP and a former MEP; Waltraut Urban, economist and analyst; Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Prof., Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Vienna; and Tang Xiaomin, project manager at an NGO Saferworld China. The discussion was moderated by Prof. Heinz Gärtner, IIP, Institute for Political Sciences University of Vienna.


In her opening remarks Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik noted that China is still seen in the West in ‘black and white’ colors. On the one hand, China claims that it is a peaceful power and is interested only in economic growth. Indeed, in 2008 when the global financial crisis happened, China played a major role in the recovery process. On the other hand, however, it builds new military bases and sends its navy around the world. The perception of China as a rising global power is mainly based on the stereotypical image of China created in the 20th century. China, in fact, has always been a major global power, especially starting from the 19th century. China has never been isolated or peaceful, it never denied war as an instrument of power and went to war many times, including in the 20th century. The usual image of China is one of a developing country. It is however incorrect. China is a first, second, and third world country simultaneously. For China, its rise today is important to heal the wound opened in the mid 19th century. Reaching the center stage of the world is the aim and President Xi mentioned it frequently. In this situation the West needs to understand China, learn how to deal with it.

Tang Xiaomin focused on the outcomes of the Second Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum that took place in April 2019. The Forum reviewed the progress of the BRI and outlined future possibilities of cooperation with participating countries. It was attended by many political leaders from around the world. Some of the key messages of the Forum were: infrastructure development will remain central for BRI; broader spectrum of actors are encouraged to participate in the Initiative; there was a reference to ensuring international cooperation with high quality standards in the final joint communique issued by the leaders who attended the Forum. Also, the definition of people to people contacts that are also encouraged under the BRI was expanded to include the youth, women, people with disabilities, and exchanges of workers. It was stressed that the Initiative is a people-centered project and therefore consultations with interest groups involved are encouraged. Tang Xiaomin also noted that consultation process with civil society in partner states is very welcome by the Chinese government, as it wants to overcome challenges that it previously faced in some communities where BRI projects were met with resistance by local populations.

According to Waltraut Urban, the idea behind the BRI is to create more interconnections in Eurasia. At the current stage, infrastructure is being built that will help to realize this goal. However, the downside of it is that many countries are now in debt to China. This then leads to a power play as in the case of Sri Lanka where half of a port built by Chinese later went to them as the government could not repay the debt. Another problem with China’s infrastructure projects is that they largely disregard environmental aspects. In Kenya, for example, a railway was built through a national park. Also, the projects are often not transparent and often overpriced, while the contracts are not compliant with international standards. What is more important, the infrastructure built by China is often used for just one-way trade from China to the partner countries, as for example in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. While, these problems have been addressed by the government at the BRI Forum in April where it declared a new slogan: ‘Open, green and clean’, this still was only a political pledge. It will be seen in future whether this change in approach is really being realized in practice.

What concerns China’s aspirations in foreign policy, Pascal Abb argued that China has thus far avoided any super-power antagonism and has not shown interest in exporting its political system (as the Soviet Union aspired to export communism before) or competing with the US. On the contrary, China is interested in maintaining strong bilateral relations with the US. It has also proposed a model for such relations where China and US respect each other’s co-interest. The proposal was however rejected in Washington as it was interpreted as revision of US security presence around the world, primarily in Asia. From the US perspective, having an authoritarian global power is problematic (for this reason Russia’s global role is also not welcome). However, China’s political system is not going to change any time soon. Constraints put by the state on the civil society as well as strengthening of the one-party system are a proof of that. China’s economy will continue to expand, along with its political interests abroad that will also, among others, be facilitated by the BRI. China’s approach to the US will not change even with a different administration in the White House. There is paranoia about each other on both sides. China is afraid that the US will attempt to undermine the one-party system, while the US is concerned about Chinese growing influence. The restrictions put on Huawei in the US are a case in point. In the current situation, many states are interested in maintaining the status quo, namely increasing their economic relations with China, while staying in the security alliance with the US. Other powers, such as India or Russia will not yield to China’s power either. Therefore, a multipolar world with many actors will take shape soon. In the past, such constellation resulted in the First World War. However, today it is less likely that the poles will see one another as antagonists. Economic cooperation plays a significant role in preventing a military conflict, along with such institutions as G20 or the United Nations Security Council.

Talking about EU-China relations, Hannes Swoboda said that there was a certain imbalance between the two created by the fact that China is a strong state where the authoritarian regime keeps everything under control, while the EU is a loose confederation of democracies. China is not a true supporter of multilateralism, even though it claims to be one. It rather prefers to deal with other states on a bilateral basis. The BRI is not an exception in this respect. Its framework was not developed jointly with participating states, it was proposed by China to countries individually. The EU’s big mistake was not to invest enough in infrastructure both at home as well as in Africa – the gap that China has now filled. China builds infrastructure abroad to serve its own interests mainly. Those may coincide with the interests of the host countries and local communities but not always. If privatization of infrastructure, especially of ports, happens in Europe today, it is usually sold to Chinese. Ports are especially important for security reasons, as they would enable a direct intervention if it were necessary. European companies are also faced with unequal competition, since they do not get state support as the Chinese companies do.


·       Will there be a ‘clash of civilizations’ between China and the West?

Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik. There is no necessity for a clash. China’s civilization is inclusive. It does not aim to create a bipolar world. Chinese philosophy and history show that China would prefer to avoid a clash. The current system is inclusive towards the rest of the world unless the system itself is in danger. The danger may appear if the party perceives that other forces aim to demolish the current system. It concerns not only outside actors but also those in China. There is competition between civilian and military leadership in China. The latter might create a need for a clash in order to have a more important position.

Tang Xiaomin. There will be no clash. China supports multilateral institutions. The BRI is an example of that, although this initiative is not well understood by many, therefore China need to work more on publicity and conveying this message. Also, Xi Jinping spoke repeatedly about ‘community of common destiny’. It is not simply rhetoric.

Waltraut Urban. While nationalism might be a problem, especially when it comes to Japan and the US, it will not be a clash. Chinese culture is not that different.

Pascal Abb. There are reasons for conflict, such as strategic suspicion between two very different political systems (China’s and the US). However, Chinese thinkers, for example, do not analyze it as a clash. If a conflict were to happen it would be due to strategic interests, but not based on cultural or civilizational issues.

Hannes Swoboda. What is more pertinent are regional, rather than global clashes (for example with Vietnam). While there are hardliners in the US who would like to see a regime change in China in order to weaken it, they are aware that it would be disastrous for everyone.  

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