China’s steady ascent on the world stage over the past four decades has drawn considerable questions about its ambitions and motives. In the last few years, the United States has seen China’s growing influence as an opportunity. Washington has sought China’s cooperation on regional security challenges such as North Korea and on broader diplomatic initiatives like the battle against climate change. Hopes of a greater Chinese role in addressing global challenges are likely to lead to disappointment, however. China is consumed by domestic priorities and economic development concerns, and Beijing is neither prepared nor willing to bear the burden of an activist foreign policy.
In a trip to China last month as part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s U.S.-China Study Group, I traveled to Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, meeting with ministry officials, provincial representatives, and think tanks. The conversations suggested that China still views itself as a regional power with a long way to go to catch up to the West, and that Beijing therefore does not want to pay the cost of providing global public goods, whether in the humanitarian, climate, or security arenas.
Despite sustained double-digit growth for the past few decades, China is still a middle-income country per capita (gross domestic product per capita is approximately $8,000 in China versus $56,000 in the United States). Chinese leadership believes itself to be far behind the developed world in addressing its population’s needs. Beijing therefore favors a relatively low-cost foreign policy that delivers economic benefits to its citizenry and does not divert resources from domestic priorities.
The still-pressing goal of moving hundreds of millions of rural citizens out of poverty was a persistent topic of conversation in all of our meetings. Dr. Yang Jiemian, president emeritus of the Shanghai Institute for International Studies (SIIS), explained, “We have a lot of backward poor areas. Downtown Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu are not the real China. No matter how much Chinese have, divide it by 1.4 billion, it becomes very small. No matter how small problems are, multiplied by 1.4 billion, they become huge.”
As a result, China has invested heavily in domestic initiatives -- infrastructure to connect its dispersed provinces to each other, housing for its population, and R&D to move its economy up the value chain. In a visit to Southwest Jiaotong University, we observed the testing facilities for high-speed trains, in which China has become a world leader. Similarly, in the western provincial capital of Chengdu, massive investment is underway to expand the city’s infrastructure, with new roads, rail, parks, and a major airport under continuous construction.
With modernization and quality of life objectives consuming so many resources and drawing attention from the leadership, China sees no reason to take up what it believes to be the responsibilities of richer nations. Nowhere is this more evident than on climate change. While China is taking significant measures to curb pollution domestically, including draconian restrictions on driver’s license issuance in major cities, our speakers unanimously concurred that China will not be leading in global climate change forums.
According to Dr. Yu Hai, a director at the Policy Research Center for Environment and the Economy, “China doesn’t play a leadership role on climate change and doesn’t discuss it during negotiations and multilateral talks in the environmental area … In climate change negotiations, China believes developed countries should lead, not developing countries.” Dr. Yang noted, “China has neither the intention nor capability to lead the world … Our GDP might be more or less the same, but as to real strength, we need up to 100 years or more to catch up to the U.S.” Shen Yamei, Deputy Director at the China Institute of International Studies, puts it thus: “China is still a regional country in our assessment.”
This sense that China still has much growing to do has led to a careful and risk-averse foreign policy that hesitates to take on external burdens.
When asked whether China would consider intervening outside its region to address a major crisis, Cong Song, deputy director-general for North America at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that it would consider such a step only if the intervention was approved by the U.N. Security Council and was joined and led by other powers. Even China’s foreign aid, which famously comes with no political obligations for recipient governments, is run through the Ministry of Commerce rather than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This subordinates political objectives to economic considerations in selecting projects to receive funding.
China certainly aspires to have a greater role in the world, commensurate with its size, economy, and the fact that, as Cong said, “China used to be the great country in the world for most of civilized history.” However, for the moment, it is content to prioritize its own needs, much as an ascending United States did during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Turning its focus inward on domestic growth, development, and poverty relief, China has left others to address wider global challenges. So far at least, it is a strategy that seems to be working.