China's outlook remains inscrutable

A leading China specialist, Prof David Shambaugh, reflects on China's lively internal debate about its role in world affairs. Photo by Jane Dawber.
A leading China specialist, Prof David Shambaugh, reflects on China's lively internal debate about its role in world affairs. Photo by Jane Dawber.
China's "conflicted sense of international identities" is reflected in its sometimes "unpredictable behaviour" and increasingly assertive approach to the United States, a leading China specialist, Prof David Shambaugh, says.

Prof Shambaugh, of George Washington University, in the United States, was commenting in a keynote address, titled "China's Global Identities: the Schizophrenic Superpower", at the University of Otago's 45th Foreign Policy School on Saturday.

The latest school is being held at Salmond College, Dunedin, and has as its theme "China's Ascent: New Superpower or New Global System?" China remained a "hypernationalistic country", which in many ways felt "very confident of itself" and remained "very suspicious" of the US, he said.

Although debate within China was restricted on a few topics, including Tibet, there was a relatively open and intense "domestic discourse" about China's role in the world and the stance it should take on a host of issues.

Some Western commentators believed that as China became more integrated into the international arena, its outlook would become more like that of Western developed nations.

In fact, it was "becoming more like China" rather than the West.

There were many intellectual viewpoints and attitudes to the outside world within China, but, overall, the country tended to pursue "its own narrowly-defined interests".

Paraphrasing former US president John Kennedy, he said China was "still at the stage of asking what can the world do for China, not what can China do for the world."

Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had urged that China should "do a few things" on the international stage, but otherwise adopt a somewhat cautious approach.

Nevertheless, some contemporary thinkers believed China was no longer a developing country and should assume more global responsibilities.

Prof Gerald Chan, of the Auckland University political studies department, agreed yesterday that China was still had an "identity problem".

It was still "part of the Third World" of developing nations but was developing so fast that it had already become part of a more powerful group of world industrial powers.

During a talk yesterday on "China's Rise in Global Economic Governance", Prof Chan said whatever China did, it "could be criticised on some grounds", but he remained optimistic about its future.

China had traditionally not been expansionist and aggressive, and was more involved in its own internal affairs and not likely to seek to become involved in military activities elsewhere in the world.

There was "a huge gap of knowledge about China" and New Zealand needed to take more steps to increase education and wider social awareness about it.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz