Does upsetting China matter?
May 14th, 2013
11:15 AM ET

Does upsetting China matter?

By Kerry Brown, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Kerry brown is executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney and associate fellow at Chatham House. The views expressed are his own.

Reports suggesting that India withdrew from a planned naval exercise with the United States last month out of fears it might upset Beijing are only the latest reason to grapple with an increasingly pertinent question: What are the costs these days of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people?

Finding the answer to this question – and a way to overcome associated potential problems – has become ever more urgent as China’s perceived assertiveness has grown. And two recent diplomatic spats in particular are worth paying attention to: the fights China has picked with Britain and Norway. Both involved differences over values and human rights. Both saw a stiff political response from Beijing. And both say much about China’s changing role in the international system.

For the U.K., the trigger was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in London last May. Almost immediately, high level visits from China were pulled. The former head of the National People’s Congress and second ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee at the time, Wu Bangguo, cancelled a visit. Over the ensuing months, there were no further high level visits. Last month, it was reported that Cameron had dropped a planned trip to Beijing because there were no promises he would be met at the right level. In view of the warm reception accorded earlier in the month to President Francois Hollande, this would have been a bitter pill to swallow.

Strangely, though, trade during this rocky period has carried on just fine. China's exports to Britain rose by 4.9 percent to $46.3 billion, according to a report in the China Daily, while “imports from Britain jumped 15.5 percent year on year to $16.8 billion, with growth ranking first among major trade partners in the European Union.” China may be upset, but has still been willing to engage – just not with the prime minister.

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This point was underscored in Beijing’s dealings with Norway, which found itself in the dog house after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in late 2010. This was despite patient explanations by the Norwegian government that the award was nothing to do with them. Ministerial and official visits effectively came to a halt until early this year. Yet similar to the British case, trade rose by 19 percent between 2011 and 2012.

These two cases raise a number of questions, not least how we should interpret the freezing of top level political links even as most other areas – business, educational exchanges, and cultural activities – have seemed to continue largely as normal.

One interpretation is that Beijing’s approach reflects a realization that China simply does not value official visits the way it once did. For years after China really started opening up in the 1980s, there was a belief that government involvement in trade and other matters was essential. Ministers from across the globe swarmed to Beijing, and a diplomatic industry grew up looking after them. But the treatment of Norway and the U.K. suggests that we may now have entered an age of the withering away of the official visit, where business people, academics and others are just allowed to get on with it. Yes, there will always be a need for some official involvement and high level engagement, but nothing like as intense as in the past.

A more pressing question for other governments, though, is how to respond to China’s displeasure. The U.K., for a start, might well now want to see questions about the acceptability of its treatment raised more aggressively through the European Union. After all, it is clear from so much of China’s own diplomatic behavior that there is safety in numbers. This is precisely why on contentious issues that it is best for a bloc like the EU to stick together and speak as one on the issues that matter most to it.

For all the internal differences over how to handle China on tough values and political issues, the EU should use its various high level political dialogues to argue that picking on one is unacceptable to all. (And, though Norway isn’t a member, it wouldn’t do the EU any harm to show a little support for the country). This sort of solidarity might even convert a few of the skeptics in the EU to the value of being a part of the Union.

But there is a final lesson from these two cases – it is clear that other governments have yet to find a constructive way of engaging on sensitive issues that really irritate Beijing, whether it be minority border areas, the treatment of certain dissidents or the whole discussion of human rights.

It’s true that upsetting China might not always have an impact on trade, but perhaps we can think of smarter and better ways of getting our point across to key groups within China on the political and social value issues that matter most to us. That, after all, is one of the main points of diplomacy, isn’t it?

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Topics: China • United Kingdom

soundoff (50 Responses)
  1. Manfred

    What are the costs these days of hurting the feelings in Great Britain? Great Britain and the Western World lost many key position in Asia (Hong Kong), due to unfriendly and unsuccessful US politics. USA cannot afford to play out NATO alliance countries, for the benefits of Chinese people. We in Europe and NATO do not want one USA that is being controlled from Chinese. No way – no go!

    May 14, 2013 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • Philip Nash

      Britain getting kicked out of Hong Kong had nothing to do with the USA, the lease was up and the landlord told the tenant to leave.

      May 22, 2013 at 2:05 am | Reply
  2. rightospeak

    Yes, they are our banker and they can do us great harm , like many bankers can .They can dump $3 Trillion dollars and cause a crisis.Of course, our media works for the oligarchs who want, it seems , for our country to collapse and they keep quiet about our real situation. As Ezra Pound wrote years ago " no country can supress the truth and live well". He also wrote : "After Lincoln's death the real power of the US passed from the hands of government into the hand of evil combine. the democratic system parished.". Both he and Wyndham Lewis mentioned the evil combine but most people seem to be blind to it , in spite of seeing the results in endless wars and a need to borrow money from Communist Chinese. He also said : a nation that will not get itself into debt drives the usurers to fury" .So the evil combine must be happy with our bankrupcy. I just wonder , after creating the current depression, what the oligarchs plan for the US is ? Selling of our farms to the Chinese ?

    May 14, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • Matthew Hall

      They are NOT 'America's banker'. Its a false metaphor.

      May 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  3. Matthew Hall

    Yes, Upsetting china is very important. It will force them to show their true colors so the rest of the world can see who they are dealing with and why they have to form alliances against China. This is Obama's strategy with the E.U./U.S. trade deals and T.P.P. He may not understand America, but he understands the world, thank god.

    May 14, 2013 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • Really?

      "True colors"? I think you have more to worry about on your home base than China... Such as the GOP, ongoing racial, abortion, gay rights among any other issues that are unsolved. Obama is looking like Bush now, policies that go no where and showing his "true colors" in aggressive policies in the so called pivot to Asia. Which btw is fueling your only growing industry, the military industrial complex.

      May 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  4. zhuubaajie

    The Chinese people have no bones to pick with the peoples of the world, and thus the show must go on, and well priced Made in China continues to improve the living standards of billions around the globe, especially those outside the 1%.

    The bone to pick is with boneheaded po's in hubristic Western countries. Why is there a need to host these clowns if they do not even have the decency to refrain from hurting the Chinese people's feelings? Let Cameron play with himself.

    May 14, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Reply
    • Matthew Hall

      You are hilarious. Where do you get your material? Do you write it yourself?

      May 15, 2013 at 12:38 am | Reply
      • fengcai

        If you have the right to do what you want, then we have the right to do what we want. If the british prime minister has the right to meet a Chinese separatist, then China has the right to not to meet him. What you're saying is that you can spite us but we are not allowed to react in response. It just shows how bigoted you are.

        May 15, 2013 at 12:51 am |
    • Julius

      No one needs 'made in china' crap.

      May 15, 2013 at 6:17 am | Reply
      • Obsi

        Then make your own, see if anyone will buy it (they wont), and throw away 80% of the stuff inside your house, including the computer and mouse and keyboard you're using to BS right now. If not, keep your hypocrite and bigoted mouth shut.

        June 3, 2013 at 7:51 am |
  5. pathFinder

    The author might only read Xinhua New, China daily for China news.
    Being hurt and irritated is Beijing rather than China or Chinese people.
    No ordinary Chinese people are irritated by Liu's Nobel prize, and few by Carmen and Dalai's meet.

    May 15, 2013 at 2:14 am | Reply
    • ADZ

      I'm chinese, I disagree! How can you think that we would support some white-ass-licking-dogs like those two?

      May 16, 2013 at 8:23 am | Reply
  6. Davidake

    "The author might only read Xinhua New, China daily for China news.
    Being hurt and irritated is Beijing rather than China or Chinese people.
    No ordinary Chinese people are irritated by Liu's Nobel prize, and few by Carmen and Dalai's meet."

    PathFinder, if you can read Chinese in Chinese websites, you will see how angry Chinese are for british PM meeting dalai. You guys have no clue and are brainwashed by your western media. Your media is even worse than 1970's Chinese media on brainwashing you. My advice is to learn some Chinese and go to Chinese websites to see how Chinese react to the world affairs and geopolitics. Chinese are much more informed than your guys in the west.

    May 15, 2013 at 6:19 am | Reply
    • Fenqing basher

      Yes sure ;-)
      No normal chinese citizen, without a party link would believe in what you wrote.
      So we can all chill and rely on relatively transparent information received through a uncensored internet that you do not have. And all that without knowing these un-rational cave symbols. ;-)

      May 15, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Reply
      • Ealoseum

        "No normal chinese citizen, without a party link would believe in what you wrote." You know this of course because you have met every single person in China. And then you go on to make a needless, irrelevant, jingoistic comment about Chinese writing. Free info apparently does not automatically equate to an intelligent and educated populace. And I see you learned how to use smileys, they REALLY add to your argument.(That was sarcasm, just in case you couldn't figure out, cretin.)

        June 27, 2013 at 3:48 am |
  7. Lila

    China is responsible for wiping out Rhinos and Elephants, they can go choke in their own smoke.

    May 15, 2013 at 7:15 am | Reply
    • Alex Moe

      Americans wiped out an entire race of people, much less some animals. What punishment do you suggest for them?

      June 27, 2013 at 3:39 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    It's all about nationalism. For the audiences at home the country wants to send the message that it's building a strong, proud China that will not be pushed around by foreign powers. For audiences abroad it's about deterrence, warning other leaders not to snub China – or they may suffer similar retribution. Yet there is a downside too. China might not win many friends in the international community by being strident.

    May 15, 2013 at 7:26 am | Reply
    • Jonquil

      The "rise" of China has been an entirely one-sided deal. Without their trade ties with the very countries they are currently insulting, their growth rate would plummet to 2%. And they are not a fully developed nation. I'm sorry to burst your propaganda fest, but that's the truth. China holds massive trade surpluses with everyone. The US hold massive trade deficits with everyone. They are not in the same place.

      June 5, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  9. cathy

    We cannot ignore rising China and some of us outside of the US and its Western allies are happy that we are actually moving from a unipolar world where America and its allies have terrorized the world by pretensions of fighting terror and tendencies of hegemonic behavior to a world that's multipolar.we have many countries now in Asia beginning with China,in Africa as well,etc..that have high growth rate and this is fantastic news...we only hope that in the process we shall then realise a more stable and peaceful world just like God had intended..that is for those of us who believe...

    May 15, 2013 at 7:51 am | Reply
    • Jonquil

      Yes, of course - decades of charitable aid and trade deals with unworthy people, who deceive us, only to then open their begging bags and make demands, makes us the bad guys. If those are the values of "The East", you can keep them.

      June 5, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  10. Deutsche Bier

    Cameron has every right to meet the dalai lama. China has every right to ignore Cameron.

    May 15, 2013 at 10:13 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      In fact Deutsche Bier, everybody should ignore David Cameron! He is nothing more than a stooge for the Washington bureaucrats who sits around waiting to carry each and every order that they belch out to him.

      May 15, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  11. Taishanese

    I'm trying to think of a similar situation of the reverse. What if, there was still turmoil in Britain with the IRA. And a Chinese President met with the leader of the IRA. How would the British people react?

    I doubt Britain would end the relationship with China, but they would definitely find a way to show their displeasure with China.

    The situation with Cameron meeting with the Dalai Lama is similar.

    So, does upsetting China matter? ..... well .... from a pocket book point of view, not really (as the author of this article attest to). The only thing that has changed, really, is the perspective. There was a time when a single major European country economically towered over China. Today, we are in a situation in which China alone could soon surpass the economic might of the entire European Union. Something that people in the West are still learning to get used to.

    May 15, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Reply
    • Obsi

      Well said.

      June 3, 2013 at 7:52 am | Reply
  12. KalanStar

    Rather than worrying about upsetting China, and "no", it doesn't matter, the free world should actually be poking a stick in China's many self inflicted wounds. Tienanmen Square massacre, for example, should be mentioned every time a visiting head of state meets with western officials in public... So too should things like the hundreds of thousands killed by the Party since they occupied the country, the children that died due to Party corruption in the Sichuan quake, the people who died in the high speed rail disaster, etc. etc. Mentioning truth is the surest way of upsetting the dictators of China and it should be done much more often.

    May 16, 2013 at 12:27 am | Reply
    • Really?

      My your ignorance is astounding! So every time a British government official should visit China, the opium war should be brought up? Every time a US official visits China, the wars in the Middle East, disposing the chemical agent orange on civilians in Vietnam, US blockade of China in the early 1900s etc... Should be brought up.
      People like you who keep on poking at Tiananmen is blissfully ignoring atrocities that their own countries are committing now! I'm going to give you three words, Middle East and Wikileaks, there are many more atrocities that I don't have the time to name.

      PS. Please crawl back to your cave or try to enlighten yourself.

      May 16, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
      • Obsi

        Not to mention slavery and basically mass genocide of Native Americans, leaving the rest to live in 3rd-world country conditions. Life expectancy of many Native American reservations is 40s for male and low 50s for female, with suicide rates through the roof. Look up Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on wiki.

        Of course no mainstream media likes to report those atrocities happening in their own backyard. Much easier to point fingers and stir up BS for a country half way around the world.

        June 3, 2013 at 7:57 am |
  13. jaques666

    If China was running a bilateral trade deficit with the UK or Norway, then I presume the situation would have been different. It's hard to get that annoyed with people when you are effectively exporting unemployment to them.

    May 16, 2013 at 5:43 am | Reply
  14. Jonquil

    China has trade surpluses with everyone and their promises of trade opportunities for others entering the Chinese market, has not met up to expectations; state sponsored companies always get special treatment and the CCP has even launched campaigns advertising against foreign businesses. I think they should check their manners and realize that their growth is almost entirely dependent upon all the countries and people they are now insulting and international trade laws they are ignoring and getting away with it, at warp speed.

    All it takes, is for all these countries - who are allies - to lock out China, at once, to clear-up this little "misunderstanding".

    June 5, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Reply

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