Is China a Responsible Stakeholder?- Revisiting Zoellick’s Idea under COVID-19 Crisis

 By Dr. Amrita Jash
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In September 2005, then United States Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, in his address to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations titled “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?” categorically stated: “China is big, it is growing, and it will influence the world in the years ahead. For the United States and the world, the essential question is – how will China use its influence?”.[1] This proposition came at a time when the international community was debating the ‘rise of China’ by crystal gazing its expanding military muscle and power projection-which Zheng Bijian strongly posited that China will exhibit a “peaceful rise” (heping jueqi) to great-power status for it “does not seek hegemony or predominance in world affairs”.[2]

Being the architect of the China’s “Peaceful Rise”, Zheng ideated this concept in November 2003, in his speech on “A New Path for China’s Peaceful Rise and the Future of Asia” at the BoAo Forum. Wherein, pledging that China will rise to the status of a great power without destabilising the international order, Zheng posited:

“The rise of a major power often results in drastic change in international configuration and world order, even triggers a world war. An important reason behind this is [that] these major powers followed a path of aggressive war and external expansion. Such a path is doomed to failure. In today’s world, how can we follow such a totally erroneous path that is injurious to all, China included? China’s only choice is to strive for rise, more importantly strive for a peaceful rise”.[3]

In this context, contrarian to Zheng’s idea of China as a responsible and benign global power, Zoellick’s proposition posited the need to urge China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the system. To note, even after 15 years, the proposition remains pertinent and valid. Especially, the current destabilisation of the international system caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has made the debate more timely than ever. Although the context has changed, but the question remains the same: Can become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system?

It remains undisputed that China since its Reform and Opening Up in 1978 till now has experienced an exponential growth as noted in its rise in ranks to become- world’s second largest economy in 2010 and world’s largest net importer of oil in 2013. This led to China becoming the world’s factory, a global market for consumers’ and one of the most attractive destination for foreign direct investment (FDI). Beijing’s economic prowess has manifested its strong military profile with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ranking as the world’s largest military force and constituting the world’s second largest defence budget. This only suggests that China is no more reticent in claiming its status- highlighting a departure from Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time”. With such dynamics at play, the current debate on China’s rise no more anticipates a ‘rising China’ but argues of a ‘risen China’.

However, such a predisposition comes with a binary. To argue so, on one end, China’s rise enhanced its status, but on the other end, its rise raised speculations over ‘China Threat’. Beijing’s constant battle has been to draw its image as a responsible actor. For its attempts have been tarnished by its policies and actions in terms of: Hong Kong, detention policy against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, policy towards Taiwan, unilateral actions in South China Sea, extending a blanket cover to Masood Azhar, and most importantly, the trade war with United States. Despite these odds at play, arguably, the most pressing challenge to China’s image has been posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s handling of the Wuhan epidemic has put it under scrutiny. Wherein, on one end, China’s stringent measures in terms of lockdown, travel restrictions, testing through no-contact measures through robotics, 5G, drones, health codes, AI and others has been applauded in China’s fight against the virus. On the other end, Beijing’s lack of transparency in dealing with the virus as well as reluctance in raising early alarms over the epidemic is argued to cause the spillover effect- making COVID-19 the ‘new’ tragedy of the global commons. With the health care system facing a systemic collapse and the global economy running into distress equated with increasing rate of fatality has brought the international system to a standstill.

Juxtaposing the viral challenge against Zoellick’s China query, the new analogy calls for enquiring: Will China take responsibility of the COVID-19 pandemic? In this context, ‘responsibility’ can be argued under two perspectives. First, China’s responsibility to accept the voids in its handling of the virus outbreak. Second, the responsibility to become a provider of global public goods. In this case, providing for medical equipment mainly personal protective equipment (PPE), medical staff and most importantly, technology sharing of ‘no-contact’ measures given rapid testing and contact tracing is the only way to break the chain of the viral growth. In this process, what significantly adds to China’s responsibility is the collaborated effort towards development of a vaccine. For China, the latter provides an opportunity to become a “responsible stakeholder” which will help undo the ‘blame game’ that puts the onus of the virus on China. However, China’s medical aid to help is faced with criticism over faulty test kits and defective PPEs. This very fact then raises red alarms for China of the challenging times to repaint its troubled responsible image.

China’s inevitable rise has opened concerns over its handling of the rise. Wherein, COVID-19 provides a ‘make or break’ moment for China. If acted with responsibility, China surely will make its mark, which Robert Zoellick calls a “responsible stakeholder”.

End Notes

[1] U.S. Department of State (2005), “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?”, 21 September 2005, https://2001-2009.state.gov/s/d/former/zoellick/rem/53682.htm, accessed online 14 April 2020.

[2] Zheng Bijian (2005), “China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, September-October 2005, Vol 84, No. 5, p. 24, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2005-09-01/chinas-peaceful-rise-great-power-status, accessed online 14 April 2020.

[3] Quoted in Robert L. Suettinger (2004), China Leadership Monitor, Fall 2004, Issue 12, p. 2, https://www.hoover.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/clm12_rs.pdf, accessed online 14 April 2020.

Featured Image Courtesy: Law of the Sea Illustration by Greg Groesch/The Washington Time