Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Sensing U.S. weakness, China casts itself as fixer of global problems

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gestures during a press conference held on the sideline of the National People's Congress at the media center in Beijing, Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press

China has no ambition to take over the mantle of leadership from the United States, its Foreign Minister says.

But Beijing is boldly positioning itself as mediator and problem-solver to the world's most insoluble problems, abandoning the decades it spent protesting its lack of desire to intervene in the quagmires outside its gates.

Sensing weakness in the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, China is stepping forward with detailed plans to defuse tensions on the Korean peninsula, bring wealth to Africa, create new pathways to peace in the Middle East and rekindle international trade. It has cast itself as an honest broker and reliable partner, with better ideas for achieving results than Washington.

Story continues below advertisement

It's an image of a new China, unapologetic, interventionist, statesmanlike and streamed live from Beijing on YouTube, one of the broadcast outlets for an annual news conference Wednesday with Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Over the course of nearly two hours, he put new flesh to the vision of the world as China hopes to see it – and the ways it hopes to overcome the mistakes of others.

Globe editorial: If America retreats, China will advance

Mr. Wang directed some of his sharpest comments at the United States, South Korea and North Korea, who have been caught up in increasing hostilities over Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear missile technology.

Mr. Wang likened the situation to two trains hurtling at each other on the same track, "with neither side willing to give way. The question is, are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains."

He called on North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile activities, and Washington and Seoul, in turn, to abandon joint military exercises now under way. Such a mutual "suspension for suspension" move could ease tension and allow the countries involved to seek a more permanent solution, one China itself believes it should help craft.

"We are indispensable to the resolution of the nuclear issue," Mr. Wang said, before offering a stirring defence of diplomacy that could easily have come from the White House.

"Nuclear weapons will not bring security," he said. "The use of force is no solution. Talks deserve another chance. And peace is still within our grasp."

Story continues below advertisement

For decades, China hewed to the words of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who urged keeping an international low profile, saying China should "patiently wait for our time, build our own abilities."

That time, Beijing has decided, has now come.

China is "attempting to provide an ideological and moral alternative to the United States, the West and liberalism," said Dan Garrett, a former Pentagon intelligence analyst who has studied the political dynamics of Hong Kong, one of the places Beijing has most actively exerted its influence in recent years.

The idea is to "sharply contrast their benevolent and more harmonious world view with that of allegedly chaotic, destabilizing and violent free market capitalism, democracy and liberalism," he said.

Implicit in Beijing's desire for "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," is a desire "to return China to its formal (imperial) glory as the centre of the world," he said.

Asked about China's ambitions, Mr. Wang on Wednesday denied harbouring a wish to displace the United States.

Story continues below advertisement

"We don't believe some countries should lead other countries," he said, pointing to the United Nations as the organization best placed to co-ordinate international affairs.

But Mr. Wang has himself become among the most vocal champions for a China that is as tired of watching the United States dictate its will to the world as it is eager to do the same.

It was Mr. Wang who snarled at a Canadian reporter in Ottawa last year, telling her she had "no right to speak" about his country's human-rights record. And it was Mr. Wang who on Wednesday confidently offered prescriptions for global political impasses and offers of Chinese help to hot spots around the world.

In Europe, fractious forces and rising nationalism "may turn out to be an opportunity for the European Union to become more mature," he said, going so far as to offer China's partnership to "energize the world economy [and] improve global governance."

In the Middle East, "China firmly supports the two-state solution and will continue to do what we can to restart the peace talks," he said.

With Saudi Arabia and Iran, China is "a mutual friend" and ready to help settle differences.

In Africa, he said, China will back market-driven solutions to "provide new momentum and opportunities" for sustainable development.

On the United Nations, Mr. Wang described the postwar international system as an aging building that has grown tattered – but one that should be renovated rather than replaced.

"The international structure cannot stay unchanged. It must be reformed," he said.

He cast China as the stalwart in the face of "a growing backlash against globalization and a rising protectionism," pointing to its Belt and Road concept, an immensely ambitious project to rewire Asia, Europe and Africa with new roads, railways and bridges.

"The idea came from China, but the benefits will flow to all countries," he said. He called the concept "an important attempt at building a community of shared future for all humankind."

Still, if Mr. Wang's words were meant to show China at its most attractive, they also underscored the degree to which it frequently falls short of the standard it is now setting for others.

A heavily protectionist country whose domestic priorities frequently contradict its foreign agenda, China is also far from a disinterested party in many of the international disputes it now purports to solve. Nowhere is this more obvious than with North Korea, whose regime Beijing has carefully sought to keep in place lest it collapse and flood China with refugees.

"They're trying very hard to come off as the adult in the room. Whether or not they actually are is a very different takeaway," said Tony Nash, chief economist and managing partner at Complete Intelligence in Singapore.

And Beijing must still confront skepticism that its rising influence comes at a price – that other countries let it do as it wishes.

Indeed, some of Mr. Wang's most pointed comments were directed at those China accuses of interfering in its internal affairs and questioning its authoritarian model. After China successfully pushed the Trump administration to recognize the one-China principle, Mr. Wang went a step further with a harsh message about Beijing's willingness to tolerate Taiwan's continued autonomy.

"The Taiwan region establishing or maintaining so-called diplomatic ties with any country lacks a basis in international law, has no legitimacy and inevitably has no future," he said.

"The Taiwan authority should be clear about this trend of events. No person and no force can stop China from finally achieving total national unification."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.