Social State — China International Institutions 1980–2000

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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Alastair Iain Johnston, a Canadian who became a top Sinologist in Harvard University as early as the late 1990s, is one of the first to look into Chinese state-craft in a detailed and systematic light. Going as far back as the Ming Dynasty, and proving that China is just as adept at realism, like any great powers, despite its constant claim of peaceful and pacific intention. The usual moniker that “China never invaded other countries”, is usually the foreign policy mantra of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In “Social States: China in International Relations between 1980–2000”, Alastair Iain Johnston, was able to demonstrate the manner by which China had acceded to international agreements one by one, often complying to the rules of engagement, and internalizing the international norms, from anything ranging from observing the prohibition protocols on radiological, biological and chemical weapons to nuclear tests. This is not a bad achievement.

After all, between the 1960s-1970s, China had positioned itself in the international system as a revolutionary power; one given to exporting its Maoism abroad, in aid of the ‘third world’. In fact, at the height of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, China severed its foreign relations with everyone except Pakistan and Egypt. The only embassy left functioning was the one in Cairo. Thus, China has come a long way.

But acceding to international agreements alone cannot be the telltale sign of absolute compliance, as many diplomats would attest. The Philippines and Cambodia are signatories to many international agreements too. Yet, their countries remain badly governed; often producing wrenching political and economic outcomes that affect the lives of millions, trapping them in cycles of mass poverty and destitution.

As a great power, China ought to be complimented for its attempt to be a “responsible stakeholder”, as former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick once affirmed. But like a great power, whose exclusive economic zones, is often spied on and violated by foreign vessels, especially the US, there is a limit to the tolerance of China too. Yet, strangely, China does not seem to take its transgressions of other countries just as seriously. Each year, thousands of fishing vessels and ships, bearing Chinese flags, are found wandering in the waters of ASEAN, indeed, as far away as Indonesia. Indonesia has taken to sinking these vessels to ward them off; but to no avail.

This book has produced a positive picture of China. But, the behavior exhibited by China, especially the People’s Liberation Navy (PLN), is at odds with the conclusion of the book. This can only imply that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PLN, and the State Council, appear to be operating in silos, and often, stepping on the toes of one another. With President Xi Jin Ping at the fore, perhaps the inconsistency will become markedly less. But, on the other hand, if President Xi Jinping is a hyper-nationalist, especially on the South China Sea, then the social behavior of China will suffer various lapses before it turns rightward again.



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