Without Zoellick, who is going to hug the panda now?

Is concept of responsible stakeholder’ – coined to describe China’s role in world affairs – fast losing its relevance?

LAST December, United States Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick went into a meeting with Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo anticipating a grilling on American policy towards China.

The Harvard-trained lawyer certainly got an earful from Mr Dai. But Deputy Foreign Minister Dai and others in his delegation accepted Mr Zoellick’s concept of Beijing being a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in world affairs.

A senior US official at the meeting – the second in an ongoing series of top-level dialogues to resolve thorny issues – told The Sunday Times: ‘The Chinese made it clear that the US did not hold the moral high ground on issues such as human rights. But they were open to the notion of becoming a responsible stakeholder.’

But does China really have a clear understanding of what the term means?

Two months after Mr Zoellick has left office, it has still been the subject of differing interpretations in Beijing. To some, it means that China would be treated as an equal partner with the US.

Trouble is, the gulf in perceptions is even more glaring in Washington.

When Mr Zoellick coined the concept, he wanted to go beyond the engagement policy of the last seven US administrations for China to be an active participant in the international system.

China, however, needed to play by the rules of the game and address a long list of the Bush administration’s concerns, including Beijing’s huge trade surplus and its military build-up.

Mr Zoellick’s aim was to further China’s global integration. To encourage this process, he sought to divorce historical analogies often used by hard-line conservatives in the US in comparing China’s rise to Weimar Germany and the former Soviet Union.

But he also laid down the markers by which Washington would evaluate Chinese behaviour.

‘Uncertainty about how China will use its power will lead the US – and others as well – to hedge relations with it,’ he said.

This idea was used as support for maintaining a strong US military presence in Asia to balance potential Chinese military ambitions.

When Mr Zoellick first announced the stakeholder concept last September before the National Committee on US-China relations in New York, Chinese officials and academics were initially left dumbfounded. But after four years of trying to grasp the Bush administration’s policy towards Beijing, they have seized on the term.

There was one glaring problem: The Chinese, and most Americans, did not know what it meant. The Chinese language has no meaning for ‘stakeholder’. The State Department posted its own translation on a Chinese-language US government website: ‘liyi xiangguan de canyuzhe’ or ‘participants with related interests’.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal last December, some Chinese scholars sought subsequently to revise the translation to ‘participants with related benefits and drawbacks’.

That implied China’s interests might also suffer if it tried to meet Mr Zoellick’s ‘responsible stakeholder’ challenge.

In the main, however, the ‘internationalists’ in Beijing – that included policy advisers to President Hu Jintao, and the foreign and commerce departments – were receptive to the idea.

The term after all elevated China’s status in the global arena and was a starting point for building a more long-term relationship based on mutual interests. The stakeholder idea also dovetailed with Beijing’s recent drive for a non-ideological foreign policy under the motto of ‘China’s Peaceful Rise’, which Mr Zoellick embraced in his speech.

Publicly, Chinese leaders have stressed the twin goals of the Peaceful Rise: embracing economic globalisation and avoiding a Cold War-style confrontation with the West.

The inventor of the Peaceful Rise concept, former Communist Party propaganda chief Zheng Bijian, is a key adviser to President Hu. But Mr Zheng and other Chinese leaders have been uncomfortable with the use of the term, ‘responsible’, and China’s standing.

They made it clear to Washington that any cooperation with the US must be on the basis of equal partnership. When President Hu visited the White House in April, he took pains to highlight that China was not just a stakeholder but also ‘a constructive partner’.

The Americans, however, see it differently. Dr Thomas Christensen, the newly appointed US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, sought to address this when he testified before the US-China Economic and Security Commission last week.

‘Zoellick did not say that China currently is the responsible stakeholder that he envisions,’ he maintained. ‘Rather, he emphasised that US policy should focus on urging China to become such a responsible global stakeholder.’

This was seized upon by Chinese nationalists who fear its hands might be tied if force is needed to resolve Taiwan.

Casting aspersions on the concept, they see it as a thinly veiled attempt to get China’s support for an American-led international order. The US, they say, is only seeking to strengthen its hegemonic grip by offering Beijing a subordinate role.

Far from being a subordinate, they see China as being more than an equal. Fortunately for Washington, the internationalists hold the balance of power in Beijing. In fact, the diversity of views in China is held together by one thread: a recognition that China is currently in a unipolar world dominated by the US.

Over the last year, Beijing has tried to live up to being a responsible stakeholder.

On the trade front, it revalued the yuan and, diplomatically, it took the unprecedented step of voting against Iran and North Korea in the United Nations last month.

If anything, the Bush administration and its China policy face an even bigger challenge at home. There are sharp differences in government over tactics and the relative emphasis between pursuing engagement and balancing Chinese power in Asia.

Some see Mr Zoellick’s September speech as being directed not just at Beijing, but also targeting hard-liners who view China as a strategic adversary.

Mr Kurt Campbell, a former senior defence official in the Clinton administration, and now with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, noted: ‘Zoellick’s concept of responsible stakeholder constituted the pro-engagement camp’s first major counter-attack in the bureaucratic infighting over the future of US policy towards China.’

The phrase gained increasing ground in the White House and the bureaucracy initially. Even a clearly reluctant Pentagon used it, sparingly, in its latest Quadrennial Report.

But Mr Zoellick’s departure – together this year with the exit of Treasury Secretary John Snow and Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, who both advocated cooperation with China on trade issues – might signal a shift in power and influence towards the hawks in the administration.

The Vice-President’s office and the Defence Department have long held hard-line views on China.

Interestingly, just weeks before Mr Zoellick’s departure in June, the Pentagon issued its annual report to Congress on China’s military power. It revived the ‘China threat’ syndromeby pointing out China’s growing maritime capabilities that could challenge the power of the United States in Asia.

Mr Zoellick’s legacy in US-China relations could be profound if he is eventually credited for setting the rules of engagement between the two with his responsible stakeholder concept.

The window of opportunity might be closing, however.

In the US, various parts of the executive branch are pursuing their own interests under therubric of ‘responsible stake holder’, even if thes interests are somewhat contradictory to it.

And two months after Mr Zoellick quit, no replacement and no firm candidate appear to be in sight with the Bush government bogged down in the Middle East.

Of course, the prospects will be bright if his replacement is a strong Asia hand with a deep understanding of the complexities of US-China relations. Otherwise, expect a more hard line, and by extension, a more fractious relationship between the two giants.

At the same time, a contest is being waged in Beijing by two opposing schools of thought – and the outcome of this will also have a significant impact on bilateral ties.

With the passage of time, and with the balance of power shifting in Washington, there is the danger that Mr Zoellick’s concept might lose its relevance.

The prospects will be bright if Mr Zoellick’s replacement is a strong Asia hand with a deep understanding of the complexities of US-China relations. Otherwise, expect a more hard line, and by extension, a more fractious relationship between the two giants.

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