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Hu's Foreign Visits: Emerging "Beijing Consensus"

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • May 11, 2006

    Hu Jintao's recent foreign visits are integral to China's foreign policy strategy of building partnerships around the world. As part of this strategy the Chinese President visited the United States, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya last month. The official Chinese position hailed these visits as an important part of the PRC's diplomatic policies. It said that China attaches considerable importance to relations with developed countries such as the United States, while at the same time giving equal importance to building up traditional friendly ties with developing countries thus injecting a new energy into South-South co-operation. This overarching strategy of building partnerships is motivated by the principal goal of maintaining a peaceful environment to support China's internal growth and domestic stability. While China's foreign policy objectives are indeed driven by domestic considerations, its proactive policies indicate a fundamental shift in its foreign policy, which is intended to create an international system favourable to itself and in which the United States would no longer be the sole super power.

    Most analyses on Hu Jintao's visit to the US have portrayed it as inconclusive. On the three thorny issues from the US point of view - the North Korea nuclear impasse, the Iran nuclear programme and the US-China trade deficit - China does not seem to have relented on any. On North Korea, China seems happy with the status quo since any change in that country would affect China's domestic stability. On Iran, China does not want Tehran to go nuclear but it is opposed to any use of sanctions, which would impinge on its energy co-operation with Tehran. On the issue of trade deficit, China thinks it is "unscientific" to blame it alone and that its policies are mainly driven by the objective of peace at home.

    Besides these, China maintains its own stand on other contentious issues as well - Taiwan, human rights and democracy. It staunchly vows to oppose Taiwan's secession from the mainland. For the first time on October 19, 2005, China came out with a White Paper that clarified its position on democracy by stating that democracy should evolve out of local conditions, should have local characteristics, and should cater to local needs. On human rights, China retorts back with its own criticisms of the US human rights position. China thus firmly opposes Western or US intervention and is unwilling to toe the Bush line. Instead, its foreign policy pronouncements on most contentious issues indicate that it has emerged as a confident power intent on setting its own rules in the international system.

    Indeed, instead of calling itself a mere "stakeholder," as the US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick did while described China's role in the international system, the Chinese President prefers to describe his country as a "partner" in constructive co-operation. Hu Jintao stated that China and the US "shared extensive and important strategic interests in safeguarding world peace and promoting mutual development." The Chinese Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, hailed Hu's visit to the US as "carrying the constructive and cooperative relations between the two countries to a new stage." This new stage is marked by China's partnership with the US in promoting peace and stability in the world. China's April 2006 six-point proposal on bilateral ties with the United States underlined that "the two sides should maintain close consultation, take up challenges and strengthen communication and coordination on major international and regional issues." Hu's US visit should therefore be viewed not as aimed at achieving a breakthrough on any contentious issue but as a "crisis coping" strategy whereby China intends to play its leadership role in guiding global developments.

    The elevation of China to the status of a global player is similarly evident in Hu's Afro-Asian tour to Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya right after his US visit. China is seeking to build a "strategic partnership" with Africa, which has added a new dimension to the emerging Sino-African ties. In fact, some scholars are talking about a "great game" being enacted in Africa between China and the US for access to natural resources. As opposed to the "Washington Consensus" typified by political liberalisation and economic reforms, China is seeking to create a kind of "Beijing Consensus" based on common development, strong belief in sovereignty, multilateralism and the principle of non-interference. Joshua Cooper Ramo, a former Foreign Editor of Time magazine who coined the term 'Beijing Consensus', sees its emergence in new attitudes to politics, development and the global balance of power.

    Based on this consensus, Beijing unveiled an African Policy Paper on January 12, 2006 entitled 'China's African Policy,' which states that "China will do its best to provide and gradually increase assistance to African nations with no political strings attached." On the issue of military co-operation, the policy paper outlined that China "will continue to help train African military personnel and support defence and army building of African countries for their own security." Hu's visits to the African nations were thus intended to advance "strategic partnerships" formulated in April 2005, broadly based on mutual political trust, mutual economic benefit and mutual assistance in international affairs. China signed twenty-eight accords with the four countries, covering politics, security, economy and trade, energy, education, health system, culture and tourism. Given that China does not dictate terms for political or economic reforms and only expects affirmation of the 'one China' policy, it is all the more welcome to African countries.

    An assessment of Hu's recently concluded foreign tour suggests that China's foreign policy is essentially guided by the notion of harmonious development. It was in fact Hu Jintao who first put forward this notion at the United Nations 60th Anniversary Summit on September 15, 2005. It may be recalled that this notion has a striking similarity to the basic concepts of the controversial term - 'peaceful rise'. Chinese sources have enumerated some reasons behind the formulation of this new notion. First, it mainly germinated as a result of hegemony, which challenged peace and development of the contemporary world. Second, the idea of harmonious development is intrinsic to China's internal growth and domestic stability. Third, with this ideology in perspective, China seeks to promote its national interests. China has realised that economic strength alone would not propel it into the category of a major world power, for which purpose it should also be able to formulate rules for the international community. By formulating this notion of harmonious development, China seeks to portray itself as a responsible, confident and constructive power. Embedded in this notion are China's aspirations for a leadership role in international affairs.

    China's proactive foreign policy strategy is thus aimed at not only protecting its security interests, but also at shaping its security environment conducive to its national interests and growth. This strategy seeks to build up an alternative international order, which would distinctly pose a formidable challenge to US unilateralism and global hegemony. It also provides a new vision to developing countries, which wish to move away from the US-dominated world order to an alternative international order characterised by the "Beijing Consensus". Chinese foreign policy seems to be determinedly moving towards creating such a consensus. It is to be seen how the future unravels and whether China really emerges as an alternative power centre.