The Limits of China’s Charm Offensive

BRUSSELS – To many people in the West, China seems to have gone from a country that “keeps a cool head and maintains a low profile,” in Deng Xiaoping’s formulation, to one that loves a good international bust-up. Putting an Australian mining executive behind bars for ten years, squeezing out Google, keeping the European Union at bay for an important dialogue, and letting a mid-level official wag his finger at US President Barack Obama at the Copenhagen Climate summit is not, after all, the best way to convince partners of your constructive intentions.

Nor is it reassuring to recall that China, up to now, has been stubbornly watering down sanctions on Iran, investing in major offensive military systems, and pillorying Western leaders for irresponsible financial policies and protectionism. But the point in reciting this litany is not so much to highlight China’s wayward behavior as it is to demonstrate the dilemma in which the country finds itself: if it behaves like a “normal” power, the world will forget the many hundreds of millions of people that it still needs to pull out of poverty.

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The Chinese leadership seems to be aware of this dilemma and is not, in fact, eager to be dragged into fierce competition with the West or its neighbors. During the recent National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stressed that China should not punch above its weight, and that the People’s Republic still needs stability if it is to become a society that offers a decent life to all of its citizens.

In recognition of this, China has stepped up its efforts to mend fences. President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington was a clear attempt to de-escalate tensions with the US over American arms sales to Taiwan, the renminbi’s exchange rate, and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. China will likely go to great lengths to foster a more positive attitude among the dozens of European leaders visiting this year’s World Expo in Shanghai.

At a lower level, too, China has unleashed an impressive charm offensive. State broadcaster CCTV will launch a worldwide program to explain the Chinese position on international affairs. In Brussels and Washington, one gets the impression that the mission of China’s diplomats nowadays is to meet and charm everyone. Hardly a week passes without the Chinese ambassador giving eloquent speeches for different audiences.

Indeed, in Brussels, events are organized for members of the European Parliament, the business community, and even high school students. Chinese diplomats now maintain closer relations with think tanks than their European counterparts do, and are praised for their constructive contribution to the public debate.

But charm will not make up for lack of progress at the official level. It is unlikely that cajoling Western elites will mitigate the deep-seated uncertainty in the US and Europe about China’s rise. And economic stagnation in the West will inevitably exacerbate distrust vis-à-vis the rising power as the relative gains from trade diminish and defensive and even protectionist policies likely follow – no matter how much China smiles at the world.

China needs a mature strategic dialogue, particularly with the EU. This will not rescue the partnership, but at least it could help define common interests, identify policy options, and create the conditions to achieve results.

Interests, not comradeship, should guide policies. One can have the most visible business summits possible, but if Western companies do not gain greater access to the Chinese market, or if they feel threatened by heavily subsidized state-owned enterprises, relations will continue to sour. We can stage round-table after round-table to discuss the importance of our relations with China, but if issues like Iran, Africa, or other trouble spots are not managed better, the West will inevitably consider China a security threat.

Cultivating high expectations without progress could even be dangerous. In the short term, it would reduce the sense of urgency among decision makers to get serious about translating ambitions into deeds. In the long run, the growing expectation gap would aggravate the inevitable setbacks, and political leaders who championed closer relations could even be replaced by hard-liners.

“The crash will come if things go on like this,” Otto von Bismarck wrote in the nineteenth century. “We ought to do all we can to weaken the bad feeling, which has been called out through our growth to the position of a real great power. In order to produce this confidence, it is above all necessary that we are honorable, open, and easily reconciled in case of frictions.” But even Germany’s Iron Chancellor had to watch as distrust, economic nationalism, and populism pulled the European powers into a downward spiral of trade wars and diplomatic rivalry.

History offers too many examples of once-promising partnerships collapsing in a climate of uncertainty for China and the West to take their relations for granted. For China, it will be hard to build confidence if Europe and the US doubt their own future. And China will remain prickly as long as it fears protectionism or a new containment strategy.

Neither side can talk its way out of this predicament. If Beijing is serious about building strategic partnerships with the West, it should back up its charm offensive with deeds and take the initiative in fostering more effective cooperation.