A Shanghai consensus?

Author: Conrad Guimaraes, APYO

Whether it is exemplified by the US$45 billion World Expo last year, or its possession of the world’s largest (by tonnage) port, Shanghai is an outstanding symbol of Chinese growth.

Now an economic hub of the East, Shanghai’s qualities do seem to be a microcosm of China itself. Could the understanding gained through the city’s recent prosperity be extrapolated on to form the basis of something to the effect of a ‘Shanghai Consensus?’ The Shanghai Consensus would provide a framework for the understanding of Chinese foreign policy by taking into account China’s demonstrated behaviour in the international arena.

This could contrast with the controversial ‘Beijing Consensus.’ Depicted by Francis Fukuyama as a ‘mixture of authoritarian government with market economics’ the Beijing Consensus is limited in scope and not designed to offer a framework for the understanding of certain aspects of the Chinese government, including foreign policy.

Three key patterns are important to the Shanghai Consensus.

The first is the centrality of commerce in Chinese diplomacy. China’s moves in Africa appear to have focused exclusively on ‘commercial diplomacy,’ dwarfing old-fashioned diplomacy. This trend, if taken by recent Chinese moves in Africa, is being reversed, as China has been anxious to secure its huge commercial interests and energy security there.

More accurately, China is not abandoning commercial diplomacy; it is instead strengthening it by employing non-commercial means to secure its interests in Africa. Two recent examples of this trend are the deployment of the PLA Navy to patrol pirate hotspots around the Horn of Africa and UN-sanctioned Chinese peacekeepers in the African continent.

The deployment of the PLA Navy beyond the Western Pacific marks the first Chinese naval vessels to be deployed away from home since the time of the great fleet of Admiral Zheng He, nearly 600 years ago. Back then, as now, the primary reason was to secure a trade route, but it also served a cocktail of diplomatic goals, such as gaining military experience and enhancing China’s international image.

The second example of commercial diplomacy is China’s UN-backed presence in Africa. Here China’s involvement in peacekeeping missions has a close correlation to countries where Beijing has significant commercial interests, such as Sudan and the Congo. On top of official UN peacekeepers, a recent Eurasia group report estimated that ‘Sudan hosts between 5,000 and 10,000 Chinese workers, some of them decommissioned PLA soldiers charged with protecting China’s investments.’ This is evidence of China’s willingness to become more involved in safeguarding its national interests by non-commercial actions, even if through official channels.

The second pillar of the Shanghai Consensus is the international reach of Chinese diplomacy. This can be seen in the recent Middle East upheaval, especially in Libya, which prompted the evacuation of thousands of Chinese nationals. The swiftness with which the Chinese government operated to protect and ensure the safety of its citizens in this complex operation was hailed in national media as the biggest evacuation operation since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

Historically, transcontinental capacity is often linked to established or emerging superpowers. A prime exhibit is the Spanish-American War of 1898, fought in two continents. The Americans mounted an offensive attack against the Spaniards in the Philippines that resulted in the smaller (but modern) force under Commodore Dewey decisively defeating the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, which in turn proved the key to winning the Pacific Theatre of the war.

The history books credit the Spanish-American war for bringing the US in par with the Imperial powers in its own right. The historical parallels between 1898 US and 2011 China are compelling — an emerging and economically vibrant power finds itself rubbing against an established and declining power in control for pre-eminence in a key region of the globe. And while China’s military capabilities are substantially smaller its international projection is in rapid ascent. As in 1898 there is much debate over the nature of the emerging power: Will it establish a new empire or will it continue along the lines of its traditional rhetoric?

What is clear is that China’s active participation internationally will be the rule not the exception from now on. The nature of China’s own global web of commercial interests, huge diaspora abroad and assertive political nature requires its foreign affairs to be equipped to act in anyplace, anytime.

The final pillar of the Shanghai Consensus is maturity and stability of diplomacy beyond political rhetoric. Chinese foreign policy rhetoric has been unanimous on key issues such as territorial integrity and sovereignty since the early days of the PRC. A more recent example of this rhetoric has been China’s rejection of Kosovo’s independence. The Kosovo situation is symbolically important for China, as it has its own issues with Tibet, the Diaoyu Islands and of course Taiwan.

The Shanghai Consensus must take into account the effects of China’s domestic politics on the country’s foreign policy.  Securing China’s energy supply to its domestic market seems to be the only plausible reason for the recent visit of Vice-Foreign Minister Zhai Jun to the newly independent state of South Sudan. Arguably, China’s continued relationship with the secessionist country has shown remarkable maturity in respect of its goal to foster the construction of a harmonious world where China can enjoy prosperity and stability, playing down political principle.

These recent actions by China, collectively, suggest a new paradigm for China’s foreign policy in the form of a Shanghai Consensus which will certainly stay relevant while energy security dominates China’s economic growth and social development.

Conrad Guimaraes is Founder and CEO of the Asia-Pacific Youth Organization (APYO).