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China Faces the Challenges of International Leadership

China’s rapid transition from participant to international leader is a challenge both for China itself and for the world.

President Hu Jintao’s decision to attend the nuclear summit in Washington this week is a welcome indication of China’s recognition of the need for it to participate in global leadership. China has traditionally been quite reluctant to expose its leaders to uncontrolled international events. In the past year, however, that has begun to change; seven months ago, for instance, President Hu became the first Chinese leader ever to address the United Nations General Assembly.

Just showing up is the first requirement for participation in global leadership. But much more is necessary. China still has a difficult path to navigate, and thus it should not be surprising if it is cautious and often defensive as it explores a new role.

After December’s contentious Copenhagen climate meeting, China was criticized heavily by some for failure to exercise leadership. But it’s important to consider the speed at which China is evolving into a global leader, and the implications for both China and the world. Just six months earlier in L’Aquila, Italy, China attended the summit of the G-8 group of leading economies that traditionally coordinated global economic policy. It was not one of the main group of eight, but was relegated to a second tier unglamorously called the “Plus Five” countries (along with India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico). The Plus five were treated in every way as additional and not key decision-makers.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, international relations are changing more rapidly than at any time since the end of World War II. L’Aquila marked the G8’s swan song, and by September it was effectively eclipsed by a more inclusive and relevant G20. Both continue to meet but the shift from G8 to G20 in global importance is clear.

And within this larger grouping, there is an expectation that certain countries will step forward to lead. The United States has long assumed this role, as have a number of European countries. But the pressure is now inexorably on China to participate not just as part of a larger group of twenty, but to be one of the very few nations that actually moves the world community forward.

This is a difficult transition for China, which has traditionally viewed international relations defensively and cautiously. As with its World Trade Organization (WTO) accession a decade ago, or its assumption of its United Nations seat in 1971, the international institutions with which China has engaged were already well established. Since it had no influence over the origins or governance of those institutions, China generally assumed the role of an outsider.

Now China is expected to quickly transition to the ultimate insider.

The Chinese are comfortable with their conventional role in diplomatic negotiations, which typically involves expert-level editing of lengthy text and incremental progress. This role mirrors China’s domestic political processes quite well. A leadership role is something quite different, as we saw in Copenhagen, and are likely to see again in the future. Chinese decision-making is collective and bureaucratic, which makes it very difficult for even a Chinese leader to make rapid-fire decisions during negotiations. Absent elective government, this collective, bureaucratic form of government is an essential check on absolute power by an individual, but it can make the Chinese government appear frozen as leaders cannot move from predetermined positions during negotiations.

Moreover, Chinese leaders emerge from a bureaucratic system, rather than the political rough and tumble of electoral politics that typifies not just the developed world but other key developing countries like India and Brazil. Politicians are used to public criticism, often from the domestic press as well as opposition parties, and they are used to cutting deals in the moment and leaving it to bureaucrats to work out the details. Bureaucrats, even in Western democracies, are more cautious and averse to criticism. A system that throws bureaucrats into leadership positions can thus appear far more defensive and inflexible. Others need be aware of this as they establish their relations with this emerging power.

These are challenges that the Chinese will need to deal with. Leadership is unavoidable for the world’s second-largest economy, particularly a nation whose very dynamism means that it will have a dramatic influence on critical issues. But others should be aware of how fast China has been thrust into a leadership role and what a challenge this is for China. There is an opportunity for China’s key interlocutors to engage China as it grapples with its new position in ways that support its interest in embracing responsibility and global leadership.

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