Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Xi Jinping’

Climate Change: Merci

French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy, but French diplomats have not lost their touch.

The Paris climate deal reached at the weekend is a testament to their skill and endurance.

Many environmental activists and experts, among them the British climate economist Lord Stern, have been effusive in their praise for the French delegation led by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

According to Lord Stern “they have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

What Fabius, his colleague, Environment Minister Ségolène Royale, and their team have pulled off is the first ever agreement that all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – will take action to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and reversing the deforestation and environmental degradation that is depriving the planet of its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere naturally.

Of course, France did not do it alone.

At a time when the international system – and the United Nations in particular – has been written off by many as incapable of achieving the consensus needed for decisive action over conflicts like Syria and Ukraine, the success in Paris is a welcome reminder that the international community is capable of coming together for the common good.

The deal has allowed a rare moment of optimism over the climate change, which has been reinforced by research just published suggesting carbon emissions could have stalled this year despite the global economy growing.

The climate accord also builds on the momentum of September’s agreement by all UN members to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

It’s a far cry from six years ago in Copenhagen when the last attempt to get all countries on board in the fight against climate change fell apart amongst rancour and recrimination between the world’s major powers – particularly China and the United States.

So it’s no coincidence that another of the contributors to success in Paris was the growing climate cooperation between Washington and Beijing which became public last year during President Obama’s visit to China and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago during President Xi’s visit to the US where the two leaders announced a shared vision for the Paris talks as well as how their countries would cut carbon emissions.

In the US, President Obama has broken with his predecessor’s skepticism – some might say cynicism – over climate change action and made it a signature issue of his second term. But given the Republican Party’s control of Congress, Obama has had to use executive powers, not legislation, to take action.

One of the key features of the Paris deal is how the French and UN negotiators were willing to work around the American President’s political obstacles and produce an agreement that would not have to be ratified by the US Senate.

That’s why the Paris accord avoids a legal commitment by countries to actually cut emissions. Instead countries have submitted voluntary plans of how they will reduce emissions and fight climate change called – in UN-speak – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

The voluntary nature of these central commitments has been criticized as a major weakness of the deal, so in order to try to ensure countries keep their promises, the agreement legally requires all states to monitor their emissions performance and to come together every five years to review their progress.

The idea being that global peer pressure will encourage countries to do their bit.

Another obvious weakness of the deal is that, as things stand, when you total up all the INDCs it does not add up to preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius, which most climate scientists agree is the tipping point where global warming will produce catastrophic climate change.

There is an aspiration in the preamble to the agreement to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and the hope is the five-year review process and peer pressure will lead to countries committing to ever-deeper emissions cuts as they go along.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – another leader who has made climate change a signature issue – described Paris as “a truly historic moment”.

It could be – if countries follow through.

What we can say for sure is that Paris has given humanity a fighting chance in the battle against climate change and for that a lot of the credit should go to France.

 

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Britain’s China Debate: Does It Have To Be So Binary?

It was hard to miss that President Xi Jinping of China was in Britain this week being given the full red carpet treatment including dinner at Buckingham Palace and addressing parliament at Westminster.

Of course the visit was accompanied by a lot of discussion and analysis of the relationship between the two countries. It’s a debate that is welcome and necessary, but does it have to be so binary?

Rather than coming to us in glorious 3D, it’s been in limited 2D: in one corner it’s business and in the other human rights.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne – who recently toured China himself – clearly have a business agenda. They gave Xi the pomp of a sate visit, which will help his image back home, because they want cash-rich Beijing to invest in modernising Britain’s infrastructure.

The need to raise money means they are even prepared to brave American disapproval and put security concerns to one side (even if the technology is actually French) and sign a deal for a Chinese state firm to invest in new nuclear power stations.

They also want to boost trade and get China to use the City as the main centre for the growing international trade in its Renminbi currency.

The government’s critics, including one of Cameron’s former advisers, had a field day with accusations that it had gone soft on human rights and was kowtowing to China.

Human rights groups understandably were critical on this front. It’s their raison d’etre after all.

But in the extensive press and online commentary a more nuanced approach has been relatively hard to find, although as you might expect, the leading think tank, Chatham House, produced some of the more sophisticated analysis.

No doubt, President Xi could be forgiven quiet satisfaction that the country that started what the Chinese call the century of humiliation of foreign invasion by forcing its way into China in the 1839-42 Opium War, is now coming to them cap in hand.

Xi also dealt comfortably with human rights issues when they were raised, for instance in his meeting with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. In a press conference, the Chinese leader gave what is now Beijing’s boilerplate response that human rights in his country are in need of improvement but this will be done in line with “Chinese conditions”.

China’s human rights record is undoubtedly poor, but then no country’s, including Britain’s, is pristine.

Reading much of the commentary calling on London to be more forceful on human rights brought to mind the biblical quote “he that is without sin … let him first cast a stone …”

Western criticism of China’s record is also often selective, failing to encompass the full panoply of rights, which include economic and social rights, as well as the individual political and civil rights emphasised in the West. This leads to China’s success in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty being discounted.

An alternative approach would be to frame pressure on China – or any country for that matter – to improve its record by trying to hold its leaders to their commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which they themselves are signed up to.

But the relationship between Britain and China should be about more than either business or human rights.

There are a host of issues Britain and China need to engage on.

The two countries are permanent members of the UN Security Council and the World is in dire need of more international cooperation to try to end conflicts and prevent others breaking out.

Britain was right to defy American pressure and be the first western country to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. The West has long been telling China its new-found wealth and power mean it has to do more for the international community and shunning the AIIB would have sent the message that Beijing is only really welcome as a follower rather than a leader.

Climate change is another pressing concern where the two countries play a crucial international role. Despite the recent backsliding by London, Britain is a centre of research, technology and advocacy for cutting carbon emissions and China has invested billions in clean energy and is now committed to reducing the greenhouse gases it produces.

Where the critics of Cameron and Osborne have a point is in the naiveté of their approach.

On his recent trip to China, Osborne chose to visit the western region of Xinjiang – a controversial choice given the China’s ongoing crackdown on protest and violence by the local Uighur population. The Chancellor ended up being praised by the official press for his pragmatism and criticised by Uighur groups.

So why is London willing to risk offending its main ally in Washington and appear craven in its attempt to win favour in Beijing? After all, both the US and Germany have strong economic links and broad diplomatic engagement with China, including on human rights.

The answer lies in the failure to establish a stable and consistent relationship with Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to China, Britain has had a fitful approach and the present government seems to believe London has lost out to Berlin and others in capturing a share of the Chinese market.

In their very haste to catch up and the urgency they attach to attracting investment, Cameron and Osborne are prepared to ignore criticism – and I suspect the advice of their diplomats – and downplay human rights and wider foreign policy considerations to put their emphasis on the purely pecuniary dimension of relations with the Chinese.

China’s big parade: evidence of expansionist threat or a normal great power?

For the first time ever, China has held a military parade, complete with its most modern missiles and watched over by 30 visiting Heads of State, to mark the defeat of Japan in 1945.

The decision to mount this display in the first place, and the way it was staged, tell us quite a bit about what Beijing intends to do with the new kit it showed off.

Many headlines in the West – whose leaders largely stayed away – framed the parade as an aggressive show of force. And there are loud voices among US military officials, commentators and politicians accusing Beijing of modernising its armed forces for nefarious purposes – namely territorial expansion.

Some of China’s neighbours, especially Japan and the Philippines which both dispute ownership of islands and atolls with China also level this charge.

They point to China’s rapidly increasing spending on its military and its more assertive approach to territorial disputes in the past five years as evidence.

In the past few months, they have focused criticism on Beijing’s island building programme in the South China Sea where small islands and atolls have been expanded and some equipped with airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.

But is this evidence of expansionism?

President Xi Jinping used his speech at the parade to try to reassure onlookers, announcing a 300,000 cut in the number of troops and insisting his is a peace-loving country.

While it’s true China’s defence spending has been rising at unprecedented rates, Beijing’s budget is still dwarfed by Washington’s, both in dollar terms and as a proportion of GDP.

Also, Beijing is not the first country to indulge in “island building” in the South China Sea, other claimants were at it before the Chinese, even if the scale of what Beijing has been doing is much larger.

At a recent conference dinner, I was at the same table as a well-known hawkish American commentator. The conversation turned to the South China Sea and the assumption behind most of the talk was China is an old-fashioned expansionist power which the US and its allies have to put in its place.

When I ventured the opinion that perhaps Beijing did not fit that mould, I was literally scoffed at.

But if you compare American and Chinese history there is a big difference – in both motivation and approach.

One of the messages President Xi is sending with the September 3rd parade is that China will stand up for itself and never again allow itself to be invaded and intimidated.

It’s easy for non-Chinese to forget how the country was invaded, first by the British who seized Hong Kong in the Opium war of 1839-42 and culminating in the full-scale Japanese assault of 1937 with its accompanying atrocities and the death of up to 20 million Chinese. What is called “the century of humiliation” in China.

The territorial claims Beijing makes today are also based on its interpretation of history, rather than a future scheme to conquer its neighbours.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands it disputes with Japan in the East China Sea are nearer Taiwan than Japan and were taken by force by Tokyo during war with China in the 1890s. China argues they should have been returned after 1945 under the Potsdam Declaration.

Instead the US kept them, using the islands as firing ranges until 1972 when it returned them to Japan which by that time had become a close American ally.

The Chinese also argue their claims in the South China Sea are historical, although these are a lot vaguer than those in the East China Sea.

Compare that with the United States.

It grew from the original thirteen colonies on the East Coast to include Hawaii, 2,400 miles from the West Coast.

The justification for this expansion – much of which was achieved by military conquest – wasn’t history. It was the nineteenth century idea of Manifest Destiny – that despite the presence of indigenous peoples, Americans had a God-given right to take the land they wanted.

It was a powerful, unequivocally expansionist ideology.

Washington has never really looked back and today its military bases have spread to at least 74 countries and its navy patrols the world’s seaways unhindered.

It routinely sends spy planes and ships right up to the territorial waters of other countries, including of course China. When others do the same to the US – and Chinese ships were sighted off Alaska at the same time it was parading military hardware through Tiananmen Square – the Americans don’t exactly welcome it.

The modernisation of China’s armed forces and its assertion of its maritime claims can be seen as normal business for a large country with an economy dependent on oil imports which have to pass through the South China Sea.

To its east, there’s no doubt Beijing is also trying to develop the military capability to prevent US forces from intervening to stop it retaking Taiwan – if it ever judges its attempt at gradual, peaceful reunification has failed. Although, Beijing sees this as completing its historic mission to win back all the territory lost in the recent past.

This doesn’t mean a rising China isn’t capable of aggression.

It does mean its territorial ambitions are probably much more limited than some seem to fear and Washington’s ever were.

US set to escalate tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea

If reports this week are anything to go by, the US is sending strong signals it is about to take a more aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea – and if it does send its warships and aircraft to challenge China’s maritime claims, it can only mean at best a deterioration in relations and at worst a dangerous escalation of tension with Beijing.

It is probably no coincidence these media reports came just before US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in China for talks with his team promising a tough line over Beijing’s actions in the Sea, though Kerry can also expect intense questioning over his country’s intentions there.

In the past few years, China has upped the assertion of its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea – defined by the “nine-dash line” first established by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist state in 1947.

Beijing has historical claims to some of the islands and with the growth of the Chinese economy it needs to guarantee the security of its energy imports from the Middle East through the Sea and also has the means to do so as it can afford to build up its navy, coast guard and air force.

This has led to confrontation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which lay claim to some of the same islands and coral reefs.

Since President Obama initiated his pivot – or rebalancing – to Asia in 2011, the focus has seemed to be on ensuring strengthened US economic integration in the world’s most dynamic region with Washington concentrating on expanding and sealing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

So far the pivot has had a relatively modest military component with plans to establish a base for marines in Australia and the recent agreement to deepen defence cooperation with Japan.

But we have also seen opportunistic diplomatic and military support for Manila and Hanoi who – in what is something of a diplomatic setback to China – have looked to Washington for help in their disputes with Beijing.

These American moves, added to the exclusion of China from the proposed TPP, have led many in China to suspect the US of trying to contain Beijing – much as the US had confronted the Soviet Union with its containment policy during the Cold War.

So if the US does now adopt a more aggressive policy by using its own ships and aircraft to directly challenge Beijing’s claims by sailing or flying right up to the twelve mile nautical limit around Chinese controlled islands, this will confirm those suspicions and strengthen the hand of those Chinese policy-makers who advocate a tougher approach to Washington.

The reports that the US is “considering” using its own military to challenge China’s claims follows a plethora of reports in the media that Beijing is building artificial islands on coral reefs to support airfields and docks in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

Importantly, under international maritime law territorial claims can be based on the area around islands but not coral reefs, which are submerged much of the time.

The apparent leaking by the Pentagon of its strategic thinking may in itself be intended to deter China, but if it is, then judging by Beijing’s reaction so far it has been counterproductive.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday: “China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, (and) avoid taking any risky and provocative actions…”

So how will China respond if US does more than say it is considering taking action?

If Beijing’s approach to its dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a guide, you can expect to see Chinese ships and aircraft intercepting their American counterparts which will increase the chances of an accidental clash – it has happened before when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan in 2001 killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to land in China where it was dismantled for its secrets before being returned in boxes.

But this is 14 years later and Beijing’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping is much more prepared to assert what they see as China’s key interests – added to which China’s military capabilities are much greater than they were then.

So the Americans would be playing a dangerous game. It is also a puzzling one given the recent US push to improve military to military communication and understanding with Beijing.

With the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine pulling the US back into the regions it was hoping to disengage from, the Obama Administration has struggled to maintain its focus on Asia and how to engage with China. But it now seems the hawks may be winning the argument in Washington, in which case the legacy of Obama’s Asia Pivot may end up being escalating confrontation with Beijing.

China’s choice: push reunification or build soft power

China’s parliament, the National Peoples’ Congress, has begun its annual session in Beijing and there has been inevitable western press coverage of plans for next year’s defence budget – which is expected to increase by 10%.

Now, depending on what you read this is either a commitment to maintaining high defence spending despite slower economic growth or a cut in the increase in defence spending because of that slowdown.

The headlines and attention now paid to China’s military budget fit into a western narrative, increasingly reflected among China’s neighbours, that its rapidly modernising armed forces are a threat increasingly capable of challenging US military dominance in East Asia.

In order to counter this narrative and reassure its neighbours – and the rest of the world – China describes itself as a rising, but peaceful power, arguing its military modernisation is partly catch-up after years of underspending on the military and partly natural for a country dependent on energy imports and foreign trade for its prosperity.

And to get its peaceful message across, Beijing has invested heavily in soft power tools, spending billions expanding China Central TV’s broadcasts in English and other languages and opening 450 Confucius Institutes around the world teaching Chinese language and culture – it is even trying to create a global pop star, Jia Ruhan, to project a softer image.

Although asserting its maritime claims against the Philippines and Vietnam has undermined these efforts with those countries, Beijing’s global soft power push has continued and involves more than public diplomacy tools.

Soon after taking over the leadership in Beijing two years ago, President Xi Jinping – understanding he needed a national story to tell his own people and the world about what China stands for – articulated what he called The Chinese Dream.

When it comes to constructing an attractive narrative about your country language is crucial and President Xi’s formulation is almost certainly a deliberate echo of The American Dream – a concept which is seen as central to the attractiveness and soft power of the US.

Loosely defined, The Chinese Dream is not only about increasing prosperity for the Chinese people, it is also about national rejuvenation – and an important part of that rejuvenation is to reunify the lands lost to foreign powers during China’s decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It is here that Beijing faces a dilemma.

The main remaining candidate for reunification is Taiwan and it shows no sign of wanting to return to the fold while the Communist Party continues to run things in China, and Beijing has made it clear that if the island were to declare formal – as opposed to de facto – independence, it would use force to stop it.

And as the delegates to the NPC were gathering in Beijing last week, President Xi returned to this theme with a veiled warning to Taiwanese who want independence .

The problem for Beijing is China’s soft power projection requires the world to see it as benign, so any use of force against Taiwan would have the opposite effect.

It would be widely seen outside China as an act of aggression and probably lead to conflict with the US which has given the island security guarantees.

To avoid this Beijing has been trying to woo Taiwan back into the fold since the 1990s using a combination of trade, investment, diplomacy and tourism, encouraging ordinary Taiwanese to visit their ancestral homes on the mainland.

Beijing has also hoped that the way it handled reunification with Hong Kong and Macao, which were returned to China by Britain and Portugal in the late 1990s, would help its case with Taiwan.

Both former colonies were given special administrative status within the Peoples’ Republic, including a high level of autonomy and the retention of their own legal systems.

But the student-led pro-democracy protests last autumn in Hong Kong show how complicated a balancing act this is for Beijing and the risks to its soft power.

The demonstrations were sparked by plans to extend the franchise for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive so voters would be able to directly elect their leader for the first time. But the catch was that a Beijing-appointed committee would vet the candidates first.

The protests attracted large crowds and lasted weeks, bringing parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill. The Beijing appointed administration stood firm and there were violent clashes between police and protesters which were shown on news broadcasts all over the world.

So a reform which would actually extended democracy in Hong Kong ended up in a setback to China’s image – especially in Taiwan which had seen its own student protests against closer ties with Beijing earlier last year.

De facto, the world has been living with two Chinas since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 with the defeated forces of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT fleeing to the island, where it continued to be recognised by the US and the UN as the rightful government of China throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Since losing most international recognition after the 1970s when Washington decided to open up to the Peoples’ Republic, Taiwan – or the Republic of China to give it its official name – has become a democracy with one of its major parties, the Democratic Progressive Party, flirting with the idea of de jure independence.

The DPP looks set to win next year’s elections and Mr Xi’s comments last week show how a DPP victory could raise tensions over Taiwan.

But unless Beijing finds a way to resolve the apparent contradiction between projecting a peaceful message towards its neighbours and the world with the threat of force to prevent Taiwanese independence, it will undermine its soft power efforts and find the huge sums it has spent on public diplomacy have been wasted.

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