You think you've had a busy week? In the course of six days, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has penned a Financial Times op-ed, secured billion-dollar trade deals and offered Europe a "helping hand" with its debt crisis in visits to Hungary, Britain, and Germany, and capped it all off with another op-ed in The Telegraph. How should we interpret China's diplomatic maneuverings in Europe?
Background First, some context. Thanassis Cambanis wrote recently in The Boston Globe that China's foreign policy hasn't really crystallized yet. Instead, he contends there's a "tug of war" between dominant "hard-liners who favor a nationalist, even chauvinist stance"--a sentiment widely held among Chinese citizens--and "more globally minded thinkers who want China to tread lightly and integrate more smoothly into international regimes." Those in the middle, meanwhile, recommend that China act more assertively but only focus on key relationships like Russia and the U.S. or its Asian neighbors and the developing world.
What's Wen Jiabao's vision for China's role in the world? In his two op-eds this week, China's premier, who has recently expressed more support for political reform than his fellow Communist Party leaders, appears to take a middle ground--characterizing China as an emerging superpower but also endorsing international cooperation. In his Financial Times column, Wen brags about the economic policies that enabled China to grow steadily in the face of a global financial crisis that felled the West but also recommends that China "strengthen the co-ordination of macroeconomic policies, fight protectionism, improve the international monetary system and tackle climate change." In The Telegraph, Wen again casts China as an "engine driving global economic growth" and argues that his country's "peaceful development" into an "economically advanced" and fully "democratic" country represents an "opportunity" for the world, not a "threat."
European Tour How should we interpret Wen's charm offensive in Europe, coming as it does even as China antagonizes the West by hosting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for a state visit and moving aggressively against Vietnamese and Philippine ships in the South China Sea?
Essentially, as the Financial Times puts it, both Europe and China recognize that the future of international politics and economics hinges "on whether a rising China can sustain a co-operative relationship with the western world." The economic incentives for cooperation are there, as The New York Times points out, even though tensions remain over China's trade policies, state subsidies, and currency manipulation, and European protectionism is palpable (one European think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, will soon issue a paper on China's economic presence on the continent entitled, "The Scramble for Europe"). China, for example, wants to modernize its economy while Germany and Britain, still reeling from the financial crisis, want to boost exports.
Human Rights One of the major obstacles to cooperation between China and the West, however, remains China's recent arrests of dissidents and human rights lawyers, even after the release of artist Ai Weiwei and AIDS activist Hu Jia shortly before Wen's swing through Europe. In fact, on Monday, the Danish daily Information published what it claims are leaked internal Communist documents that appear to undermine the arguments made by Wen in his op-eds (the paper quotes the memos but hasn't made them publicly available). "The communist regime's propaganda apparatus is instructed to introduce China to other countries as peaceful, increasingly democratic and open to the outside world," Information writes (sound familiar?). "But behind the facade, its grip on Chinese people and society"--accomplished primarily through censorship--"should be tightened to new levels of harshness." What do commentators back in Beijing think of Wen's promise of democracy? Reuters notes that some view it as "a pre-retirement vanity project" (he'll step down in 2012) while others believe he's "defending a liberalizing agenda" that the leaders who replace him and President Hu Jintao next year might implement.