This is part of a Globe and Mail series in which Beijing correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe looks at China’s present and future challenges before his return to Canada.
In 2013, China took a bold stride into solving one of Asia’s most difficult problems. It dispatched one of its most senior diplomats as a special envoy to Myanmar, signalling a new desire by Beijing to find a way out of decades of conflict in its neighbouring country. In the years that followed, China has cajoled, corralled and even coerced some of the dozens of armed ethnic groups to come together for talks, sometimes on Chinese soil.
But in 2015, on the eve of a landmark ceasefire agreement, it was China’s envoy who urged several groups to pull out. At the time, Min Zaw Oo, a senior official at the Myanmar Peace Center, said China was displeased by a clause that would have included Japan and other Western nations as peace observers. Beijing wanted to maintain its own influence. Eventually, only eight of 15 ethnic groups signed, with two others joining years later.
China’s paramount objective is “peace and stability” on the 2,000-kilometre border it shares with Myanmar, said an analyst in Myanmar who has been closely involved with the peace process. That “doesn’t mean they really want some kind of settlement.” The Globe and Mail is not using the person’s name because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
China has all the trappings of a superpower: vast economic influence, globe-spanning networks of investments and media interests and a military whose reach is rapidly expanding. But China has frequently frustrated expectations that it take a leadership role commensurate to its standing.
In Myanmar and elsewhere, it is growing clear that Beijing, even as it demands global respect, has little interest in replicating the model of the Western powers that it has started to rival.
At the United Nations, for example, Western diplomats have criticized China for interfering with the global response to tragedy. On Myanmar, China has softened United Nations Security Council statements of condemnation and prevented the imposition of sanctions after a military coup earlier this year that dispatched a civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I don’t see them wanting to move in and to put things right,” said George Yeo, the former foreign minister of Singapore who, in 2018, helped lead a major urban-development project in Myanmar. “Firstly, you won’t succeed. And secondly, you yourself will be hurt by being embroiled in internal disputes.” China would prefer not to take sides, he said.
“Chinese leaders are preoccupied by domestic problems,” and their response to external issues is often “very defensive” in nature, Mr. Yeo said.
That is not to say China’s influence will not continue to spread. China has become more assertive in defending what it sees as its core interests — in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and elsewhere.
This assertiveness is evident in the transformation of China’s relationship with Ottawa. In 2018, Canadian officials arrested a senior executive of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., a leading Chinese telecom firm, at the request of U.S. officials. In apparent retaliation, Beijing arrested two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, on allegations of spying. The two men have now been imprisoned for more than 900 days. Canadian public opinion of Beijing has plunged.
Beijing has also used biting rhetoric toward international critics to demand respect and deference, although its failures in that respect have also been notable. In Myanmar, China’s bids for influence have encountered widespread resistance. The military, now back in power, has been “very, very suspicious and cautious about China,” said Richard Horsey, an expert with International Crisis Group.
In other matters, Beijing’s internal focus has led it to work against global interests. During the pandemic, it has refused to provide full access to international health experts investigating the source of the coronavirus pandemic. And Beijing, while pledging support for international vaccine distribution, has excluded countries with diplomatic ties to Taiwan from access to Chinese-made inoculations.
At the same time, China’s size also means Beijing can help remake the world when its objectives align with international priorities.
Take climate change. In 2009, China “wrecked” the Copenhagen talks, gutting its international targets while protecting its domestic coal industry, according to Mark Lynas, an author and climate-change adviser who wrote an insider’s account of the negotiations. Within a few years, however, China had completely shifted course, seizing an opportunity to use climate change action to address its own smog problem while boosting its electric-car makers and manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines.
China’s commitment last year to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060 “completely changed the dynamics” among developing countries, altering the path of climate action, Mr. Lynas said.
China is “the linchpin of the entire world climate effort,” he said. “Decisions made in Beijing will have more influence on the eventual outcome for the world’s climate than decisions made in Washington or anywhere else.”
In other areas, too, China has marshalled considerable international support, including the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the promotion of its Belt and Road Initiative – which smoothes the way for new trade and investment far beyond Chinese borders – and the conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest free-trade agreement.
China is “pretty good at being a leader when it’s based around its core competencies, like economics and trade and investment,” said Peter Martin, the author of China’s Civilian Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. “It’s much less at being a leader when it comes to shaping people’s ideas.”
More: A parting view from Beijing
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.