#30 event report: China’s Global Role 2.0 – Keeping a High Profile

November 6th, 2013, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Prof. WANG Yizhou, Deputy Dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University



Three main themes underlined all other issues in Professor Wang’s speech. The first was his own concept of ‘creative involvement’. This entails looking beyond traditional options to find new ways to engage with and lead on the world stage. The second was his opinion that China no longer has the option to remain withdrawn from international politics. Finally, and most importantly, he explained why in order for China, or indeed for any country, to change its international behaviour, it must first change its domestic framework.

To begin, Professor Wang briefly outlined the direction China’s foreign policy should take in future, as it matches its actions on the global stage to its great power status and financial clout. He pointed out that Xi Jinping and his colleagues are, significantly, the first of the post-’49 generation of leaders – coming of age in the era of ‘reform and opening up’, they are likely to have greater global ambitions. As such, he posed a question: What is the major goal of the new generation of Chinese leaders? Professor Wang took his answer to this question as a structure for the next portion of his talk.

The first goal he described was to guarantee China’s continued sustainable development. He referred to Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’, which includes the idea that by 2021, one hundred years since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s capital will have doubled. Professor Wang made it clear that for Chinese leaders today, this goal is of fundamental importance. All other foreign policy concerns may be considered valuable only insofar as they contribute to China’s development. However, Professor Wang was clear that this is no excuse to be oblivious to the rest of the world, but rather a reason to continue to engage more fully in global affairs – as he put it, peace is a precondition for development. Unless China is confidently dealing with its foreign policy challenges, its development is at risk.

As such, the second goal the professor outlined for Chinese leaders was to make China more secure and unified. This would entail solving disputes with foreign leaders and rectifying border issues. As Professor Wang pointed out, China has border disputes with ten of its neighbours, an issue clearly in need of resolution. Deng Xiaoping’s legacy remains a strong influence on the leaders of today: making no enemies, he rather normalised relations with a large number of countries, including the USA. While striving to emulate his record of success, Chinese leaders are aware that their quest for the resolution of border issues, such as the impetus to speed up the creation of defensive capabilities in response to the question of Taiwan, poses a contradiction. Balancing these goals in order to maximise China’s security is a key question for China today.

Third was the goal of protecting China’s interests and taking responsibility in global governance. As for the former, Professor Wang pointed out the vast number of Chinese citizens (nearly one hundred million) who now travel abroad per year, and the trillions of yuan now invested overseas, for example building African infrastructure. How can the Chinese government ensure that both people and funds return safely? In Professor Wang’s opinion, better than increasing defence is to have good relations with other countries and with bodies such as the African Union. As for the latter, Professor Wang contrasted today’s situation with the days of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. In Mao’s era, both domestically and abroad the worker’s revolution was of primary importance – the newly independent China remained economically weak. China under Deng Xiaoping saw huge economic growth, but still kept a low profile on the global stage. The professor believes that China now cannot avoid finally shouldering the burden of its global and regional role.

He gave examples of how this process has begun, and areas in which it needs to continue. One good example of playing a role in both global and regional leadership is China’s hosting the Six Party Talks and operating as a negotiator in the North Korean situation. However, Professor Wang pointed out several examples of potential sources of tensions in the future. He suggested that China will have to deal with its neighbours to the west, in Central Asia and Russia, to ensure stability in China’s west and surrounding areas. He also mentioned rising tensions between China and Japan, as well as with other neighbours to the South and East. Though some countries in China’s immediate vicinity fear China’s growth as a potentially oppressive force, the professor’s belief is that China no longer has the option of a low profile policy. The onus is on China’s leaders to provide a new roadmap that can express its leadership role, while allowing its neighbours to understand and work with its new policy goals. However, this will inevitably involve having a complex balance of strategies within the region, with policies tailored to each country.

Professor Wang then spoke of China’s traditional approach to its global role, versus the approach he advocates. China’s traditional approach had three pillars: non-intervention, non-alliance, and non-leadership. Professor Wang’s concept of ‘creative involvement’ calls for greater flexibility, finding new ways to interact on the global stage. Where previously there was ‘non-intervention’, Professor Wang suggests respecting other countries’ sovereignty, but engaging via trade links and cultural and academic exchanges, for example. As for ‘non-alliance’, while he sees the logic behind traditional wariness of permanent alignments, he notes that recent examples of strategic alliance, for example with ASEAN and African and South American nations, have been stories of success. As for ‘non-leadership’, he clarified that a higher profile does not necessarily mean more force. For example, in Africa, China has provided infrastructure, peacekeeping operations, diplomatic mediation, agricultural experts and youth volunteers. China’s engagement with Africa is not only at the governmental level, but also from youth groups and NGOs. 80% of Chinese people now in Africa have private interests there. A far greater proportion of Chinese foreign aid is now coming from local government, though ‘grand international aid’ remains centralised. This double-pronged approach of central government providing high profile engagement with local government and social groups pursuing a related agenda of activities on their level recurred throughout the question and answer session.

To conclude, Professor Wang expressed optimism about China’s global future, with the caveat that to make a success of its international relations, China must first achieve success in reform and opening up.


In his responses to questions from the floor, Professor Wang reiterated the point that while central government responses to international affairs are important, societal and private responses must not be overlooked. He provided examples of other countries that had elevated their global status through creative uses of their capacities. One such example was that of South Korea, which, despite having a smaller economy than China, has been able to increase its global influence by donating large sums to the UN and hosting international events. Another was that of India, a country whose fiscal ability is much less than China’s, yet whose scholars and think tanks promote more international cooperation at the sub-governmental level. The professor praised recent Chinese participation in such global issues as the North Pole, space. He also restated his support for recent person-to-person exchanges and involvement by societal groups in Africa, making it clear that while the government’s large-scale international interactions are very necessary, they should be supported by initiatives on the societal level.

In Professor Wang’s view, matters of international relations are never one sided. For example, asked if he thought China could be more welcoming to foreign visitors, particularly in terms of visas, the professor identified the need to reform China’s mechanism for dealing with visa requests. With only 6,400 employees, China’s foreign office is woefully overburdened, so that even if the political will exists, speeding up the system may not be practically possible. However, he also pointed out the need for other countries in turn to be more welcoming to Chinese visitors. Similarly, in response to a later question about potential conflicts accompanying China’s rising global status, Professor Wang reiterated his conviction that reform of both global and domestic institutions is necessary, and that each country, China included, would succeed or fail not due to power games among nations, but due to their domestic systems. He identified challenges for China, such as corruption and regional unrest; equally for the U.S., he highlighted as problematic the current unwillingness to welcome China as a rising power with a different cultural tradition and political arrangement.

These cultural and political differences underwent further exploration. As many questions concerned possible conflicts within East Asia, Professor Wang reminded the audience that peace in East Asia is not like the peace of Europe, based on the legal system. It is rather a zone of pragmatic, commercial peace, based around financial infrastructure. (Specifically asked about current Sino-Japanese tensions, the professor expressed cautious optimism, noting that the current situation is far from the lowest point in recent relations between the two nations, but strongly recommending that Abe Shinzo and Xi Jinping should begin dialogue as soon as possible). Later, asked about the values and norms China will promote in the world under its new leadership, Professor Wang outlined the debate in China about universal versus culture-specific values, and restated his support for opening up and appreciating other values.

Professor Wang identified the main currents of thought which Chinese thinkers must navigate to determine China’s future course, and the conflicts that arise between scholars on the subject – is Chinese tradition Confucian or Marxist? What about the Western scientific and management traditions, which have been so influential in modern China? Or influence from neighbouring Eastern countries, with whom China has had cultural exchanges for centuries? On top of all this, the professor reminded the audience that China’s geographical and political structure give rise to further contradictions. Priorities in foreign policy differ from region to region, and between governmental and private interests. The professor advocated learning from the Spring and Autumn period, and China’s greatest period of intellectual flourishing – the hundred schools of thought. His recommendation is for a nuanced and creative approach which bears in mind China’s size and complexity.

(Report by Coirle Magee)