It pays to be cautious rather than bold

Updated: 2013-10-25 07:04

By Tom Plate (China Daily USA)

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I used to find flying on a Chinese carrier a dreadful experience. No more. A recent non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Guangzhou on China Eastern Airlines was as smooth as silk, and the return to Los Angeles from Beijing on Air China was a delight. Okay, it was business class both ways, but friendly skies indeed!

What has happened is that in modernizing and globalizing, China is becoming increasingly competitive. The overall national upgrade applies also to the caliber of its international diplomacy. Top entrants to China's foreign service, whose schooling might well include a degree from a university like Princeton or Singapore's National University, are qualitatively competitive with their best counterparts from Japan or South Korea, or even the United States. And, generally, their level of spoken English is amazingly good.

But the Chinese historical experience is an awesome span, and one dimension not always recognized is that, notwithstanding its economic renaissance (not to mention its territorial disputes with some of its neighbors) it retains a culture that can be strikingly cautious. Even in relations with the outside world, its foreign policy tends to tack toward core national interests rather than to float big ideas or daring initiatives. Its diplomacy, day-to-day, is risk-adverse. It prefers to work with particulars rather than universals. But it is very actively involved in all manner of international organizations, sometimes contributing positive energy, practical proposals and of course funding.

China's entry into the World Trade Organization was epochal - a watershed push away from self-absorbed inwardness and into a new intensity of global entanglement. But the decision to become a member of the WTO did not come easily to China. The quick varnish of a dozen years cannot wipe away millennia.

At the United Nations, for example, on issues from Syria today to Bosnia almost two decades ago, a recurring complaint goes like this: Why doesn't China as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council exercise more leadership? But the perceived Chinese drag is less deliberate than cultural, and its oft-proclaimed doctrine of "non-interference in the internal affairs" of member states is anything but unique in Asia. India, the world's largest democracy, with a distinctive diplomatic tradition, takes a similar stance. So does Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

For all that, in recent years Chinese diplomacy has advanced from Bosnian abstention to - more recently - Syrian affirmation. The recent UN Security Council resolution requiring Damascus to offer its chemical weapons for international confiscation not only got Moscow's assent but Beijing's as well.

Beijing desires to work with the US on major issues to the extent consistent with its core national interests. It is opposed to starting a second Cold War and still views domestic economic stability as an existential goal.

The other factor at the UN is that Beijing trusts Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been working behind the scenes on the Syrian crisis far more actively than is generally known. Ban stuck to his guns in not caving in to the request of the initially eager-to-flex-military-muscle Barack Obama administration, which wanted the UN to unplug the independent investigation into the chemical weapons massacre. That act of resistance was pivotal. It demonstrated anew that the UN was a world organization with its own mind, no limp Western puppet.

In part as a result, China's 68th UN season will probably prove less predictable than in the past. The diplomatic instincts of President Xi Jinping and the rest of the new Chinese leadership have yet to reveal themselves. But the betting here is that China under Xi may be less inclined to be so fearful of the new at the UN. Yes, the times are changing.

The author is an American journalist and university lecturer, and the author of the Giants of Asia series.

(China Daily USA10/25/2013 page16)