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China’s Evolving Engagement

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China’s conduct on the world stage “has grown vastly more sophisticated,” said Center for American Progress President and CEO John Podesta at an event last Friday where CAP released a new report on China’s capacity and willingness to act responsibly in its new position as a global power. The event and report come in advance of President Barack Obama’s first state visit to China and focus on exploring the challenges inherent in securing consistent and “forward-thinking” Chinese cooperation in combating global threats.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg spoke at the event, stressing that China is showing progress in its recognition of the roles that the world’s powerful nations must play. He drew a comparison between the China of the 1990s and the China of today. China no longer sees itself as the most influential member of the G-77 group of developing nations, but rather as a nation that is increasingly accepting of its place at the forefront of global leadership. The Chinese government no longer believes that it can stand apart from the international community.

Steinberg and Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Nina Hachigian each made clear that there are still many areas where China must prove itself as a responsible partner to the United States and other nations. The global community was upbeat in the wake of President Hu Jintao’s declaration that China would commit to fighting global warming, for example, but China has rejected progressive stances in other areas of criticism, notably in human rights.

Steinberg said that the key to getting China to grasp its newfound responsibilities was to “engage China in a way that enhances the prospects of cooperating, understanding that the two of us can’t do it alone either, but if we can find common ground—that can be a powerful impetus to getting greater cooperation.” This would mean giving China a larger voice on the global stage—such as in the WTO—while convincing its leaders to act with, as opposed to acting at the expense of, other nations.

The U.S.-China bilateral relationship has the potential to define the course of the 21st century. Indeed, Steinberg noted, one of the greatest challenges the Obama administration faces is that “on most of the big problems that we face, the United States—no matter how much effort we bring—we simply cannot solve these problems by ourselves. The inherent nature of these transnational problems requires enhanced global cooperation.”

Perhaps the long-term global dilemma that most jointly ties the two nations together is climate change. China and the United States are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases, and Steinberg was quick to reiterate that China was vital to “top-down and bottom-up solutions.”

Part of establishing such bilateral cooperation may force the United States to be more patient with China than it would like to in certain areas. One of the most prominent points of conflict is in discussions of the Chinese government’s reduced but still prevalent human rights abuses. Steinberg said the two pillars of current U.S. policy in this area are to recognize the sovereign integrity of China, while stressing to the Chinese government that they have an obligation to allow space for freedom of expression. The United States wants to impart upon China the need to be responsive to its pluralism, whether in regard to Tibetans, Muslims in western China, or any other of the myriad groups struggling for the right to express themselves. “If it wants the rest of the world to be respectful of its legitimate claims to sovereignty and independence, [China has] to be responsive to legitimate claims of its own people for dialogue,” Steinberg said.

The evidence points to a general theme, one which the Obama administration must address and the Chinese government must rectify. It is a theme that Hachigian described in a recent publication, saying, “Though [China] has come a very long way to its now deep engagement in the international system, when it comes to problem solving and leadership, China is still taking a back seat.” If China is meeting its obligations as a participant, it is simply not meeting its capacity for leadership. China has made rapid progress, but it must continue that progress if the world’s challenges are to be met and overcome. “We see progress,” Steinberg said, just “not as much as we would like to see.”

For more on this event, please click here

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