China’s latest “white paper” is another sign of the country’s decision to play a larger role in global affairs. It comes after statements from US president-elect Donald Trump that suggest he will lead his country in retreat from internationalism. Can China fill a potential void in humanitarianism?
The received wisdom is that China’s internal dynamics limit the country’s ability to become a true humanitarian leader, but there are indications it might seek to raise its profile in certain fields, particularly peacekeeping and possibly climate change.
“The white paper focuses on development, but it does not promise anything about democracy, personal freedom and human rights,” said Xu Guoqi, a professor of history at the University of Hong Kong who is writing a book called The Idea of China.
He said China’s unwillingness to promote those ideals at home undermines its ability to take a lead role in global affairs.
“How can the Chinese government step up its role in international humanitarianism, when it does not dare to denounce non-democratic regimes which are largely responsible for global crises in humanitarianism?” he asked.
Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College in London, said that China’s moves toward increased multilateralism are “complicated”.
“For sure, China wants a stronger and more dominant regional role,” he said. “But it does not want to have huge responsibilities in the wider world foisted on it.”
However, he noted, much depends on what the new US administration does.
“The Trump presidency [position] on climate change and a number of other areas does push China towards having no choice but to take a more active role in international issues, because of the space left by a more inward looking, isolationist US,” said Brown.
Many questions remain about what Trump’s foreign policy will actually look like, although his forays into international affairs so far have not been reassuring to many.
Trump caused a diplomatic stir by speaking on the phone to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on 2 December, something no US president or president-elect has done since 1979. In that year, the US officially stopped recognising Taiwan as an independent government. It instead began recognising China’s government in Beijing, which considers Taiwan a renegade province in violation of its “one China” policy, which it has aggressively promoted worldwide.
China responded with a stern warning. The day after the call, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters: "We urge [the] relevant US side to honor the commitment to the one-China policy.”
Trump followed up with tweets accusing China of managing its currency in a way that would damage US companies, and condemning Beijing for building a military base in the South China Sea, where a handful of countries have overlapping territorial claims.
Also worrying are Trump’s statements on climate change. He referred to global warming in a 2012 Twitter post as a concept “created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”.
Trump also suggested during his campaign that he would withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, which requires countries to drastically cut down on the use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate the effects of global warming.
In its white paper, China said it has made “significant efforts in moving the Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emission mitigation toward adoption and taking effect,” according to the government news agency, Xinhua.
The white paper also included a section on peacekeeping, which is China’s most high profile humanitarian contribution. China pledged to continue scaling up its commitment of troops and funding.
“In the coming five years China will train 2,000 peacekeeping personnel for other countries, launch 10 mine sweeping aid programmes, provide 100 million US dollars of non-reimbursable military aid to the African Union, and allocate part of the China-UN Peace and Development Fund to support UN peacekeeping operations,” reported Xinhua.
Peacekeeping serves multiple purposes for China, said Brown.
“Taking part in peacekeeping missions does help to at least give China some chance to ensure that it is doing as much as it can to pacify and stabilise regions, many of which figure as trade or resource suppliers,” he said. “This is also a relatively good, and inexpensive, way of China demonstrating global citizenship and improving its international image.”
Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Washington DC-based Stimson Centre, said China contributes to peacekeeping as a way to insert itself into the global balance of power.
“Since UN is a multilateral platform, China sees it as the most legitimate, and an effective way of control over Western unilateralism or military intervention,” she said.
Peacekeeping aside, China has not so far been a major aid donor.
The white paper said that China has provided $58 billion in international assistance over the past six decades – a figure that Reuters calculated to be less than the European Union and its member states contributed in 2015 only.
The paper did not provide a breakdown of where the $58 billion went, but the figure certainly includes grants and loans for development projects, as well as any funding for humanitarian disasters.
In fact, China’s contribution to humanitarian response has been miniscule compared to its status as the world’s most populous nation and second biggest economy.
In June, IRIN reported that China contributed only $54 million in humanitarian aid in 2014, according to Development Initiatives, which analysed data from sources including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UN, and the International Monetary Fund. The UN’s Financial Tracking Service, which documents global humanitarian aid flows, shows that China’s contribution fell in 2015 to a mere $37 million.
If the next US administration does pull back significantly from providing humanitarian support, it could open the door for China to play a bigger role. But experts warned only to expect this if Beijing sees tangible benefits in doing so.
“China is not a purely altruistic player. It is a self-interested one,” said Brown. “But it does have the personnel and the resources to do a huge amount if it wants to.”
(TOP PHOTO: Chinese peacekeepers in South Sudan. CREDIT: JC Mcllwaine/UNMISS)