Editor’s note: Kerry brown is executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney. The views expressed are his own.
Reports suggesting that India withdrew
from a planned naval exercise with the United States last month out of
fears it might upset Beijing are only the latest reason to grapple with
an increasingly pertinent question: What are the costs these days of
hurting the feelings of the Chinese people?
Finding the answer to this question – and a way to overcome
associated potential problems – has become ever more urgent as China’s
perceived assertiveness has grown. And two recent diplomatic spats in
particular are worth paying attention to: the fights China has picked
with Britain and Norway. Both involved differences over values and human
rights. Both saw a stiff political response from Beijing. And both say
much about China’s changing role in the international system. For the U.K., the trigger was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s
meeting with the Dalai Lama in London last May. Almost immediately, high
level visits from China were pulled. The former head of the National
People’s Congress and second ranking member of the Politburo Standing
Committee at the time, Wu Bangguo, cancelled a visit. Over the ensuing
months, there were no further high level visits. Last month, it was
reported that Cameron had dropped a planned trip to Beijing because
there were no promises he would be met at the right level. In view of
the warm reception accorded earlier in the month to President Francois
Hollande, this would have been a bitter pill to swallow. Strangely, though, trade during this
rocky period has carried on just fine. China's exports to Britain rose
by 4.9 percent to $46.3 billion, according to a report in the China Daily,
while “imports from Britain jumped 15.5 percent year on year to $16.8
billion, with growth ranking first among major trade partners in the
European Union.” China may be upset, but has still been willing to
engage – just not with the prime minister. More from CNN: Big picture lost This point was underscored in Beijing’s dealings with Norway, which
found itself in the dog house after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo
in late 2010. This was despite patient explanations by the Norwegian
government that the award was nothing to do with them. Ministerial and
official visits effectively came to a halt until early this year. Yet
similar to the British case, trade rose by 19 percent between 2011 and
These two cases raise a number of questions, not least how we should
interpret the freezing of top level political links even as most other
areas – business, educational exchanges, and cultural activities – have
seemed to continue largely as normal.
One interpretation is that Beijing’s approach reflects a realization
that China simply does not value official visits the way it once did.
For years after China really started opening up in the 1980s, there was a
belief that government involvement in trade and other matters was
essential. Ministers from across the globe swarmed to Beijing, and a
diplomatic industry grew up looking after them.
But the treatment of
Norway and the U.K. suggests that we may now have entered an age of the
withering away of the official visit, where business people, academics
and others are just allowed to get on with it. Yes, there will always be
a need for some official involvement and high level engagement, but
nothing like as intense as in the past.
A more pressing question for other governments, though, is how to
respond to China’s displeasure. The U.K., for a start, might well now
want to see questions about the acceptability of its treatment raised
more aggressively through the European Union. After all, it is clear
from so much of China’s own diplomatic behavior that there is safety in
numbers. This is precisely why on contentious issues that it is best for
a bloc like the EU to stick together and speak as one on the issues
that matter most to it.
For all the internal differences over how to handle China on tough
values and political issues, the EU should use its various high level
political dialogues to argue that picking on one is unacceptable to all.
(And, though Norway isn’t a member, it wouldn’t do the EU any harm to
show a little support for the country). This sort of solidarity might
even convert a few of the skeptics in the EU to the value of being a
part of the Union.
But there is a final lesson from these two cases – it is clear that
other governments have yet to find a constructive way of engaging on
sensitive issues that really irritate Beijing, whether it be minority
border areas, the treatment of certain dissidents or the whole
discussion of human rights.
It’s true that upsetting China might not always have an impact on
trade, but perhaps we can think of smarter and better ways of getting
our point across to key groups within China on the political and social
value issues that matter most to us. That, after all, is one of the main
points of diplomacy, isn’t it?