Will China Lead?

NEW YORK – China’s willingness to join negotiations on potential sanctions against Iran and to send President Hu Jintao to a nuclear security summit in Washington this month are important preliminary steps towards taking more responsibility in managing international affairs. But merely joining conversations or showing up for meetings is not enough. Given its growing profile, China must do far more to demonstrate its bona fides as a responsible global leader or risk undermining the system that has enabled its own miraculous rise.

China has emerged as a world power far more quickly than most observers – and China’s own leaders – might have predicted as little as a decade ago. China’s rapid economic growth, juxtaposed against America’s problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, monumental debt, and role in sparking the global financial crisis, have changed global power realities – and global perceptions of those realities even more. China’s current international influence likely outstrips its desire or capacity.

This puts China in a difficult position in relation to the so-called international system – the structures and rules created by the United States and others after the Second World War to check national sovereignty through a system of overlapping jurisdictions, transnational obligations, and fundamental rights. China has been an enormous beneficiary of this system, and its rise would have been unthinkable without the US-led free-trade system and globalization process, access to US markets, and global shipping lanes secured by the US Navy. But China’s history of humiliation at the hands of European colonial powers has made its leaders ardent supporters of inviolable national rights and suspicious of any sacrifice of sovereignty.

Because China’s leaders are not popularly elected, their legitimacy stems largely from two sources – their connection to the Chinese revolution and their ability to deliver national security and economic growth. Although Mao Zedong is widely implicated in the unnecessary death of millions and is officially designated by the current regime as having been 30% wrong, his photograph still adorns Tiananmen Square, because the regime’s legitimacy depends in part on its connection to the restoration of national sovereignty that Mao represents.