Sitting in the auditorium of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, listening to German Chancellor Merkel's speech on February 2, I had the feeling that the purpose of her China trip was threefold: To promote Germany's economic and political relations with China, explain her position on the European debt crisis and persuade China's leaders to support the West on the Iranian and Syrian issues.
China's new fitness regime [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]
Sitting in the classroom of an American university 22 years ago, listening to a professor's lesson on China, I got the impression that China was either a basket case or a typical third world nation, with poverty, backwardness and an inferior position on the world stage.
Who at that time could have imagined the great changes that would take place in only two decades?
Any nation's economic strength certainly goes hand in hand with its international position on the world stage. China has now become the second-largest economy in the world, and, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has turned itself into an emerging world power. The question, then, for China is: What role should it play on the world stage?
For the final exam of a recent international studies course, I asked the students to answer the following question:
"The general principle guiding China's foreign policy is to 'keep a low profile' (韬光养晦) and 'do something' (有所作为) at the same time. While some say that China has already become very assertive and self-confident on the world stage, others tend to argue that China still refrains from playing an active role in many areas of international affairs. These different perceptions of the reality of China's foreign diplomacy result from the failure to determine the nature of China's policy actions. Please offer one specific example showing that China's foreign policy is "to keep a low profile" and another indicating that it wants to "do something".
The students offered twenty to thirty examples to prove that China still "keeps a low profile", and as many examples were cited to show that China has started to "do something".
The interesting point was not the large number of examples given by the 200-plus students, almost half of whom were Ph.D. candidates, but the different perceptions of the examples.
For instance, some cited the Diaoyu Island incident, in which a Chinese fishing boat was seized by Japan, as an example of China's efforts to "keep a low profile". Their reasoning was that China did not overreact to the measures taken against the Chinese fisherman by the Japanese. Others, however, stated that China "did something" by protesting strongly against Japan's actions.
Another example given by students related to the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. While some pointed out that China "kept a low profile", others said that China "did something" by hosting several rounds of the so-called six-party talks in Beijing.
Students also expressed a range of different opinions on China's foreign policy stance at the Doha Round negotiations and climate change conference in Copenhagen, among others. Some believed that China "kept a low profile" on these global platforms as it did not lead other developing countries to express their opposition to the position taken by developed countries. Others, though, wrote that China did a good job by confronting them forcefully.
In the process of reading the students' exam papers, I could not help asking myself why one specific policy action was perceived differently. It seems that whether China today is still "keeping a low profile" or starting to "do something" is anybody's guess.
On February 4, 2012, China vetoed the UN resolution against Syria's President Assad. What does this veto signify? Some might say that this action qualifies as "keeping a low profile" as China never interferes with the internal affairs of other countries. But others would argue that it simply reflects China's goal to "do something" on the world stage.
As a matter of fact, the basic principle guiding China's foreign policy actions is its national interest rather than a choice between "keeping a low profile" and "doing something". Paraphrasing Deng Xiaoping's famous "cat theory", we can say that as long as it serves China's national interest, never care about the possibility that a certain policy action is either "keeping a low profile" or "doing something".
Chancellor Merkel, as well as other Western leaders, has complained that China has yet to assume greater responsibility in dealing with global issues. However, they fail to understand that China is still a developing country with its own independent foreign policy stance based on its own national interest.
It is my view that scholars can discuss the issues of "keeping a low profile" or "doing something" in a theoretical way; in reality, however, decision-makers at the top would not simply choose between these two options.
If I were to answer the question of what China should do now on the global stage, I would say that, with its rapidly rising position on the international stage, China needs to do something more assertive and self-confident to advance the process of establishing a multilateral world as well as defending its national interest. The recent veto at the UN Security Council and the recent busy round of reciprocal high-level foreign visits seem to indicate that China is doing exactly this. Indeed, "doing something" does not necessarily mean that China will lead developing countries in their opposition to Western policies, nor does it mean that it will "do everything" for the world. Rather, China needs to assume more responsibility for either making the rules which govern the game of global affairs, or dealing with global issues such as stimulating development and reducing poverty.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/jiangshixue.htm
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.