- China and the United Nations
- China and the Conference on Disarmament
- China and the WTO
- China and the IMF and the WB
- China and the ASEAN
Author: Veronika Štepková (IMS FSV UK)
China’s historical experience as Middle Kingdom, lack of clear tradition of rule of law and regional territorial disputes do not appear to provide sufficient stimulus for social learning within international regimes. However, Chinese attitude towards international organizations has evolved significantly in the last decades. This essay argues that Chinese international organizational behavior towards important global issues has varied from symbolic to substantive in various phases of its involvement in major international organizations. While being aware of domestic and broader international factors including trade and political pressure influencing the character of China’s participation in international organizations, this essay – due to its limited extent – is focused on the factor of socialization within international institutions. Socialization might belong to the most explanatory concepts of the real nature of organizational behavior in terms of compliance with organizational values as it focuses on non-material motivations. This essay attempts to analyze the evolution of China’s interaction with major international organizations and how this interaction affected both China’s political conduct and the institutional norms and policies. We could assume that if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) succeeded to promote these norms and policies, its behavior was substantive.
Substantive behavior is understood here as an assertive position in promoting values of an international organization or in revising them which is characterized by norms formulation and willingness to cooperate. Substantive behavior is also accompanied by a responsible approach towards organizational obligations. Symbolic organizational behavior is, in this essay, understood as a passive approach towards advancement of an organization’s ideology and norms formulation which is typified by avoiding obligations. While being aware of plurality of actors in global politics including multinational corporations, non-governmental organizations and many others, this essay concentrates on the interaction of governments in major intergovernmental organizations.
In order to explain the dynamic nature of China’s organizational behavior, each section of this essay analyzes the character of China’s involvement in a major international organization and in addressing important global issues. Following sections focus on China’s membership in the United Nations (UN), the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
This essay uses Johnston’s process-based constructivist theory which explains the effect of involvement in an international institution on both states and the institution itself through the process of socialization. This is, in Johnston’s understanding, social interaction where non-material factors stimulated by human contact provide a strong pull to conform to a policy or a norm. While providing a valuable explanation for the social aspect of organizational behavior, this theory often omits the spill-over effect from various areas – in China’s case mostly security and foreign policy. Still, due to the focus of this essay, Johnston’s theory remains most suitable for further analysis.
China and the United Nations
The potential of positive Chinese socialization within the global community of states in areas such as human rights, environmental protection and global peace were indicated by the UN as the main arguments for PRC’s membership. The analysis of China’s behavior within the UN framework towards these themes presents an important test of this assumption. The application of Johnston’s theory attempts to analyze the effect of socialization on China’s behavior within UN agencies.
China and the UN Peacekeeping Operations
From the beginning of its involvement in the UN Security Council (UNSC), the PRC had substantial reservations towards UN peacekeeping, which Beijing demonstrated by its abstention from votes. The reasons for China’s non-participatory posture towards peacekeeping operations appear both historical (experience from being a target of UN peacekeeping in the 1950s) and ideological (understanding UN missions as means of power politics). The points of disagreement included unbalanced military interventions conducted predominantly by the West, interventions without prior consent compromising state sovereignty, support for self-determination of states’ fractions, and unlimited mandates of UN missions.
From the available statistics, it appears that in the 1990s China became more willing to compromise. Since the beginning of the millennium, Beijing approved a majority of UN missions even if these included wider intervention led by the USA, Australia or France. Chinese attitudes evolved in mutual interaction with the international regime as Beijing participated in formulating the so-called Brahimi report that reformed the character of UN peacekeeping. The newly adopted strategy of peace support reflects Beijing’s demands for impartiality, limited use of force and role of large states, greater civilian component in missions, broader character of missions including transition support and increased respect for national sovereignty.
Chinese behavior towards UN Peacekeeping Operations has evolved in the last four decades from symbolic to substantive. In this process the PRC was influenced by its experience from various UN missions and also the conduct of these missions was partly reshaped in compliance with Chinese demands.
China and the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR)
Similarly to China’s position towards peacekeeping, Beijing’s behavior in the UNCHR has evolved in phases. According to Kent’s description of China’s involvement, the beginning of the 1980s could be classified as an era of symbolic engagement and the second half of the 1980s as an era of more substantive engagement. Paradoxically, rhetoric-wise the years before the Tiananmen incident probably presented one of the highest points of Chinese involvement in the UN human rights agenda. Similarly, in 1998 China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and just a few months later the government organized a new crackdown on political activists. The translation of official negotiations into practice often contradicts the official negotiations and introduction of new legal measures. Human rights violations are still repeatedly reported by Human Rights Watch. While Beijing has adopted increasing amount of legal measures since 1980s, China still does not appear to substantially succeed in the internationalization of UNCHR values.
In case of human rights, the effect of socialization described by Johnston is often limited to the release of several political prisoners as a consequence of US pressure. According to Möller and Zayas, China has acquired a more assertive position in negotiations with the rising interdependency of economic and human rights issues. China’s achievement in poverty alleviation might have also contributed to diminishing international criticism. In addition, as demonstrated by Beijing’s official documents focused on the primacy of the right to subsistence over other human rights, the issue is deeply infused with cultural relativism. Socialization within the UNHCR has had a limited impact on China. Beijing’s behavior appears mostly passive towards the organizational ideology and its values and therefore can be classified as mostly symbolic.
China and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
According to Kobayashi’s analysis, China’s early passivity in the UNEP was influenced by the ideological heritage of Mao’s era. China’s changing position then appears to reflect the interdependence of the political, economic and environmental realms in terms of trade sanctions for environmentally harmful production, the necessity of a representative image in the Third World and other factors. Among China’s most authoritative objections to environmental programs was probably the transfer of responsibility for pollution to developing countries which subsequently restrained their right to development. However, despite positioning itself into a role of the defender of developing countries’ limited environmental responsibility, China has developed a strong institutional and legal base for environmental protection in collaboration with the UNEP and other organizations. China clearly acknowledges the importance of the environment but often lacks the political and technological capacities to overcome physical and demographic obstacles. This is demonstrated by China’s increasing share in global pollution. Even though Beijing acquired a proactive position both in negotiations within the UNEP and in the domestic political arena, the implementation of environmental programs remains limited.
With the rising importance of China for global environmental issues due to its growing industry, Beijing was forced to assume an active position towards the UNEP. This was reflected in organizing “developing world coalitions”, demands to the West and also in the domestic implementation of progressive measures. Despite this newly acquired substantive engagement within the agency, environmental issues remain to be viewed as secondary by Chinese leaders.
China and the Conference on Disarmament
According to Johnston, “socially constructed motives” including international prestige, role of peace advocacy in the Third World and strategic considerations put pressure on Beijing to conform with the CD’s norms. Despite its initial reluctance to non-proliferation treaties, China’s position towards the CD has been significantly shaped in the process of socialization within the international security regime.
As noted by Kent, China’s reluctance and blockade of negotiations presented mostly a reaction to the conditions of the Cold War where the two superpowers possessed 95% of nuclear weapons.  With the negotiations of the SALT II treaty, China became an advocate of disarmament in the Third World. It appears that despite Beijing’s disagreement with many CD’s practices that are restraining national sovereignty, China decided to participate actively in order to ensure its international prestige and cooperative international environment. This strategy became especially evident after the Tiananmen incident. China’s official position has shifted towards greater engagement in interaction with the international environment.
China’s practical implementation of the treaty remains disputable in the view of transfer of nuclear weapons to North Korea and other states.  However, in this regard China does not present an exception as almost every member-state does not fully comply with the organization’s norms.
Cabestan in 1992 stated that China’s participation had been forced by international pressure that was then reflected in Beijing’s symbolic behavior towards the norms of the CD. In contrast, Johnston in 2001 claimed that the international influence as a part of the socialization process contributed to China’s substantive involvement and construction of “one attitude system” within the institution. From the above mentioned evidence and in the light of China’s economic rise, it appears that Beijing has changed its basic preferences from nuclear weapons to economic growth undisturbed by major disputes about nuclear power and substantively engages in the promotion of this ideology.
China and the WTO
Similarly as the CD, the WTO community has played a significant role in shaping China’s behavior. In terms of strengthening economic ties, Beijing has proven to be a substantive actor in the WTO. Nevertheless, in terms of administrative and legal policies, China’s behavior remains mostly symbolic.
Wang differentiates between “thick” and “thin” applications of WTO’s legal and administrative procedures in China – in this sense, the “thin” application can be identified as symbolic behavior. Wang also claims that given China’s low level of transparency, high complexity of legal sources and cleavages between the subnational and the national legal and political conduct, the “thin” application should be demanded by the WTO as the most pragmatic solution. However, despite China’s current incapacity to adopt a more substantive legal and administrative reform, these measures could also serve as a long-term goal in which the PRC can be helped by other members of the WTO. As noted by the US monitoring report, China has improved its institutions and regulations since its accession, especially in the free-market realm. Still, it does not attain the transparency and non-discriminatory standards promised in the Protocol of Accession. Beijing justifies the insufficiency of its “pro-foreign business” reforms by the claim that foreign business activities in China should comply with the government’s development objectives. China’s engagement with the WTO norms thus remains symbolic in many important realms.
In contrast, according to the level of its economic involvement in trade relations with WTO member states, China‘s behavior could be considered substantive. The economic impact of PRC’s accession is demonstrated not only by its foreign direct investment (FDI), but also by the rising diversification of its economy, rapid upward movement in the production chain and its rising role as an importer of raw material from developing countries.
Simply put, China is absorbing the “commercial side” of its WTO membership, but not yet fully complying with the new rules – this implies important consequences for the WTO itself. The Asian Development Bank report claims a strong correlation between China’s accession to the WTO and Asian multilateralism translated into greater regional security. IMF working papers present the effect of China’s accession on its trading partners including developed countries as generally positive, especially in the long run. While China’s participation might present some important legal and administrative challenges in the short run including intellectual property issues, it appears to substantially stimulate the regional export-oriented growth. The impact of China’s accession on the WTO is difficult to distinguish from the PRC’s economic rise itself. This presents the major drawback of many analyses. Therefore, given China’s position on some key aspects of legal and administrative reform, Beijing’s behavior in the WTO appears mostly symbolic.
China and the IMF and the WB
In opposition to Beijing’s position in the UN, the CD and the WTO, China appears to engage as an advocate of the developing world less substantively in the IMF and the WB. This contrasting attitude appears to at least partly originate in the competition for loans in which China frequently succeeded to gain the largest share at the expense of other emerging countries. Moore and Yang claim that China’s compliance with the WB and the IMF often remains limited to advocacy of its own financial interests, while trying to limit its obligations. An example is provided by disputes over dual exchange rate with the IMF and the graduation from official donor assistance (ODA) to International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) loans accompanied by interest rate imposition by the WB. Still, it appears that even without its usual diplomacy of a “developing world representative”, China succeeded to gain substantial authority within both institutions.
According to many observers, China succeeded to attain a “special relationship” with the WB and the IMF already during its accession. This claim is contradicted by Pearson and Jacobsen and Oksenberg who claim that similar treatment would be given to any larger state. However, compared to India, China appears to have succeeded to obtain larger benefits in loans and disposes with greater decisive power. China’s authority within these organizations has also recovered relatively soon after the Tiananmen incident. Kent explains the situation by the respect toward China’s economic rise and the Bank’s dependency on China as a major borrower and a stimulant of the global economy.  China appears to benefit significantly from its exceptional position.
However, China’s position in the WB differs from its status in the IMF. The WB has been understood by the Chinese leaders as an important forum for introducing new ideas and technologies. It appears that China has accepted national sovereignty limitations from the WB which it might not accept from the IMF which attaches substantial conditionality to its loans. The IMF loans have never been accepted by Beijing and the organization. Some also claim that China’s membership in the IMF was substantially enforced by international pressure in the form of allocation of the “most favored nation” status. While this appears as a plausible argument, it must be acknowledged that China has a good record in project application in both organizations including financial institution building which reduces the criticism for insufficient engagement. China’s involvement both in the IMF and the WB appears relatively substantive.
China’s membership in these Bretton Woods institutions differs from other organizational memberships as it ensures Beijing not only an internationally influential position and material benefits, but also know-how transfer. China has also importantly softened the Bank’s neoliberal viewpoints on privatization, the gradual approach to economic reforms and other issues. Some also believe that Beijing succeeded in persuading the WB about primacy of economic growth over poverty alleviation in case of the PRC. The cooperation between the IMF, the WB and the PRC appears profound as it shaped the ideological standpoints of both sides.
Still, the nature of China’s behavior in these Bretton Woods institutions seems to incite controversy in academia. The criticism of its behavior comes from unresponsiveness to the WB and the IMF criticism regarding equal distribution of resources and environment protection. While China has adopted many recommendations, it has demonstrated very limited compliance with vaguely stressed requirements – this is apparent, for example, from its low-level of transparency. But at the same time, Beijing significantly cooperated with the IMF during the Asian financial crisis. China also worked with both of these organizations in designing and implementing crucial economic policies. While there are many questionable aspects of China’s behavior, it appears more substantive than symbolic.
China and the ASEAN
In case of China’s approach towards the ASEAN, Johnston’s theory and the concept of socialization remain explanatory to a very limited extent. Beijing’s behavior appears predominantly motivated not by the interactions within the international environment but by economic security considerations reacting to ASEAN’s rising economic power, promotion of China’s peaceful image and elimination of Japanese and American competition in the region. Despite not being a core ASEAN nation, China appears to be pushed by strategic reasoning to be active toward this regional organization.
China’s initiation of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and its fast track proceedings stimulated by early tariff reductions probably present one of the most persuasive arguments for China’s substantive behavior toward ASEAN. According to Chin and Stubbs, China offered ASEAN favorable conditions which the states would likely not receive from Japan or the USA. China also introduced the Early Harvest Scheme which applied tariff reductions in the middle of a relatively fast negotiation process.
Besides politico-economic aspects, it was also socialization in a different sense than in the previously analyzed organizational behavior that influenced the nature of China’s behavior towards the ASEAN. The negotiations occurred mostly during an era of a global rise of regionalism and the creation of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) was preceded by China’s accession to the WTO and its rising engagement in the UN. Most likely, China’s proactive engagement was motivated by the above-mentioned strategic reasoning, which was complemented by social learning from other international organizations.
China succeeded in gaining substantial influence in ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3 and China-ASEAN Regional Forum despite historical tensions and the uncomplimentary structure of China’s and South East Asian industrial and agricultural markets. China-ASEAN regional integration in trade of goods and services contrasts with the situation a decade ago when China did not present a major trading partner for any of the countries. Chinese international organizational behavior in these regional groupings appears mostly substantive.
This essay analyzed Chinese international organizational behavior in major international organizations and came to the conclusion that currently, China’s behavior often appears more substantive than symbolic. However, the main findings that importantly complement this conclusion are three. First, even though the number of global issues and international organizations was adjusted to the limited space, the nature of China’s behavior even in this framework is extremely complex. China’s organizational behavior varies significantly especially according to the period of time, international situation and the realm of participation where differences are especially visible between the economic and the political sphere. The level of cooperation also reveals important cleavages between rhetoric, policies and their actual implementation. Second, despite being applicable only to some aspects of China’s international organization behavior, Johnston’s theory presents an important tool for analysis of Beijing’s foreign policy. It reveals how participation in an international institution might contribute to the internalization of its norms and compliance with its values. Third, China’s international organization behavior does not appear to follow one stable pattern.
This essay also attempted to emphasize that each of the examples of organization behavior is multilayered and can be estimated as symbolic or substantive only according to a relatively subjective weighting of each aspect. It can also be assumed that the above analysis shows just a limited applicability of the two categories –substantive and symbolic behavior – as these can be decomposed into various aspects of China’s international organization involvement. Therefore, these should be always used with the awareness of simplification which may be brought into the issue.
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