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China at the Munich Security Conference: Hesitant involvement

22 February 2016

via MERICS

by Moritz Rudolf

China at the Munich Security Conference: Hesitant involvement

China did not feature prominently at this year’s MSC. But the participation of Fu Ying, Chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, in a panel discussion moderated by MERICS director Sebastian Heilmann made clear: China is willing to get involved, albeit hesitantly and according to its own rules.

It took some time until the word “China” was mentioned at this year’s Security Conference. The Chinese participants preferred to keep a relatively low profile as they had done the years before. Foreign Minister Wang Yi showed up in the Bavarian capital for a meeting of the Syria crisis group, which took place before the conference. He then left the stage – and the many backstage areas – of the conference to Fu Ying.

Fu, known as the “soft face” of Chinese diplomacy, was accompanied by a tiny delegation. Not surprisingly, she didn’t publicly engage in the big debates on the conflict over Syria or the possible threat of a “New Cold War” that heated up the atmosphere in the aisles of the “Bayerischer Hof”. China’s position on these urgent global issues was not heard in Munich.

It was only on the second day of the conference that Fu herself took centre stage for the panel titled “Doubling Down? China and the International Order(s)” that was co-hosted by MERICS. In her opening remarks, Fu made it crystal-clear that China does not fully agree with a U.S.-led global order in its entirety and that China wants to play a bigger role on an international scale. ”As our capability improves, we will be able to do more to the region and the world. In the meantime, China needs to learn and also to better communicate with the world.”

However, what kind of international order China is envisioning once again remained unclear. “China must now articulate its vision for the new global order”, demanded one of the panelists, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen.

At the beginning of the discussion, the mood almost turned from constructive to hostile when Robert Corker, Republican Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused China of rampant “IT theft”– a remark that Fu called “not respectful”.

The following panel discussion centered around regional issues like the conflict over North Korea's nuclear activities. It became clear that western notions of diplomacy still differ considerably from China’s: Corker expressed the expectation that China had to take active measures to rein in its neighbour. Reacting to Heilmann’s question if China had lost control over North Korea, Fu retorted with a smile, “we never control other countries and we don't want to be controlled.”, simply avoiding the question of China’s critically diminishing influence on North Korea.

In Munich, the Chinese diplomat did her best to convey that China is willing to partake in shaping the international order. But in European or, let’s say western policy circles, the “news” of China as an active player in international diplomacy still has to be spread. At the conference it once again became clear that many western policy makers still don’t have China on their minds when it comes to dealing with difficult security challenges like the ones in the Near and Middle East.

Some of them might not yet be aware of the fact that the region is of key importance also to China’s geostrategic Silk Road Project. The fact that China has already made small but constructive contributions, for instance as an intermediary in the Afghanistan conflict, is still widely overlooked.

The lively panel discussion was an important step to pull China into the limelight of the international stage. Yet the notion of China’s security role being confined to regional and transpacific affairs was not overcome in Munich. The conference may nevertheless become an appropriate platform for further integrating China into the global quest for solving security tensions. Fu Ying, for her part, seems to have realised that even conferences far from her home region can help improve mutual understanding: “If we don't tell the world, the others will suspect us”, she said at the MERICS panel. “We (China) need to be in Munich more often.”