China and the world: What a difference a decade makes

Published on The Economist, February 28, 2012.

… China had just joined the World Trade Organisation two months earlier, and was already on its way to a new and increasingly prominent role in the international community. It also imported 69m tonnes of oil that year. Mr Jiang delivered his reply to that reporter with a straight face in February 2002, but it was already stretching credulity to suggest that because of Beijing’s distance from Baghdad, he need not think too much about the looming crisis.   

Today China cannot even make such a pretence. For one thing, its oil imports have risen dramatically; they are projected to reach 266m tonnes this year. With such a dependency on foreign supplies, China cannot help but concern itself with the fate of the world’s oil-producing regions and the security of its own shipping routes.

But oil is only one factor. As the world’s second-largest economy, China has seen its profile rise and its interests multiply. Growing engagement leaves China’s economy exposed to the winds buffeting other regions. Its people as more exposed too. There are now huge numbers of Chinese nationals living and working in hot spots around the world. The government had to evacuate more than 35,000 from Libya when that country slipped into turmoil last year.

Together with China’s new and extensive involvement with the rest of the world comes a desire to exercise a greater degree of soft power, including the stronger assertion of Chinese interests in multilateral bodies. But there also comes the need to weigh in on issues that, in the past, China would have been able to keep comfortably at arm’s length. The controversy over Iran’s nuclear programme is a case in point. Countries including America, Israel and Saudi Arabia are urging China to adopt their hard line on Iran, which would be to the detriment of its considerable energy and commercial interests there.

China is feeling similar pressure to take a firm stand on the increasingly chaotic situation in Syria. It is another sticky foreign-policy problem of the sort that China used to be able to sidestep. It no longer can, it seems, no matter how far away the trouble is. (full text).


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The crisis wears on, on International Socialism.

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