China revives regional clubs
Until a few days ago, most western diplomats in Beijing had never heard of a minor regional security conference established by Kazakhstan in the 1990s and known by the snappy acronym Cica.
But as Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and a dozen other heads of state or government arrived in Shanghai on Monday, many of these diplomats were scrambling to learn more about the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building measures in Asia.
The ceremony surrounding this previously obscure summit provides the latest example of China’s efforts to reinvigorate moribund multilateral organisations or establish new ones that explicitly and pointedly exclude the US.
The event also highlights Beijing’s growing frustration at the glacial pace of reform in existing, Western-dominated multilateral institutions such as the World Bank.
“As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China is supportive of existing international organisations but China is neither the founder nor the leader of any of these,” said Shi Yinhong, director of the Center on American Studies at People’s University in Beijing.
“Now China would like to find international institutions where it can play a more critical role and where it can focus more on its own rights, interests and expectations.”
Beijing’s search for multilateral organisations where it can play a more assertive and influential role is part of a more “active” foreign policy under the administration of President Xi Jinping, which took power early last year.
China will “broaden its horizons and be much more active” in “making the international order more just and equal”, said Wang Yi, foreign minister, in March.
Some of the alternatives to the US-dominated global order that China has championed include the Brics emerging markets bloc of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa; a “16+1” grouping of China with 16 central and eastern European countries; and the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which China is the chair of.
“The US has not paid much attention to Apec in recent years and China sees an opportunity; it has placed a huge emphasis on the importance of Apec this year,” said one western diplomat who asked not to be named because he was not allowed to speak to the media.
At an Apec meeting of trade ministers over the weekend, China aggressively pushed the idea of a new free trade-zone in the region, despite objections from the US, Japan and other countries engaged in their own competing trade negotiations.
China’s proposal to push forward with the ambitious Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific met an especially chilly reception from the US, which is focused on a 12-country trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which excludes China.
Many Chinese analysts see China’s efforts to establish alternative multilateral groups as a logical and restrained response to Washington’s economic and military “pivot” to Asia, which Beijing has angrily condemned as an attempt to contain the country’s rise.
“The US wants [to use the TPP] to tighten its alliance with Japan and the EU and deal with the challenge from emerging powers,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the EU Studies Centre at People’s University. “They co-operate with Vietnam and Malaysia but not China and other emerging powers. This is the game between the new world order and the traditional G7 order.”
People familiar with the Apec disagreements say the contest between the US and China in that forum is shaping up as a battle for who will get to decide future regional trade rules.
China is also pushing an agreement known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership between 16 countries in Asia, which excludes the US.
But compared with its efforts to have more say at Apec, China’s latest multilateral project is far more of a concern from Washington’s perspective.
With its explicit focus on regional security, its near-total exclusion of the US, and its welcoming of Russia and Iran, Cica can only be viewed as a challenge to continued US dominance in Asia.
China has assumed chairmanship of Cica until 2016 and on Tuesday, Bangladesh and Qatar both signed up as full member states of the grouping, which last convened in Istanbul in 2010 with just a handful of state leaders present.
While countries like India, South Korea and Israel are full member states, about half the 26 member countries are authoritarian regimes.
China’s arch-enemy Japan has only been given “observer” status, as has the US.