The past week saw a Chinese destroyer accompanied by a missile frigate and a supply ship all set off for the Hawaii archipelago. Although it may be tempting to make allusions to the Japanese navy approaching Pearl Harbour during the Second World War, this was part of a multi-national naval drill, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).
China has for some time now been regarded as key to the future of the international order. It is thus not surprising that every Chinese move, especially involving its military, is closely watched. The Sino-Vietnamese brinkmanship over the maritime borders in the South China Sea several weeks ago appeared to confirm China’s image of an increasingly assertive great power, attempting to push through its ideas for the East Asian neighbourhood. However, recent steps taken by Beijing did not fit this pattern. In addition to participation in US-organised multilateral naval exercises, China deployed 850 troops to boost the UN peace-keeping mission in South Sudan. These are, of course, very different types of political-military engagement but the similarity in their interpretation is remarkable. They are treated by observers and commentators as strong political signals from Beijing.
RIMPAC is indeed a significant event as it is the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise hosted and administered by the United States. It makes claims that it is crucial for sustaining cooperative relationships critical to ensuring the safety of sea lanes and security on the world's oceans. This was the first time that China decided to take part in RIMPAC. This move is interpreted as signalling Beijing’s benign intentions, especially given recent Sino-American tensions. It also suggests China’s growing readiness to become engaged internationally and reinforces the image of China as a responsible global actor. Peacekeeping in Africa is seen through similar lens, in terms of improving China’s credentials as a stakeholder in the international order. Beijing makes use of this to demonstrate its benign face to the outside world. Moreover, South Sudan is not the only instance of Chinese military engagement in UN peacekeeping operations. In 2013, the UN mission in Mali was aided by 500 Chinese troops.
The question is whether China’s participation in multilateral efforts to manage international security goes beyond the symbolic, whether China can make a tangible and meaningful contribution to peace and cooperation in the Pacific or to the solution of the Sudanese crisis. China has certainly been forced to leave its ‘splendid isolation’ from global high politics and to start sharing the problems of arranging the international order. It has to take care of its interests far away from the centre. The ubiquitous presence of Chinese workers worldwide makes it necessary for China to be prepared for contingencies. This was a lesson China took in the case of the 2011 revolution in Libya, when it had to evacuate its 30,000 citizens. The growing appetite for energy resources, oil in particular, is another thread which may explain China’s readiness to make more vigorous foreign forays. Beijing’s involvement in South Sudan was frequently interpreted as directly related to China’s overarching goal of securing greater access to natural resources. Regardless of its incentives, China’s engagement reinforces the Western ideas of how the international order should be arranged. Its acceptance of troops being sent to South Sudan followed on from a change to The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) mandate, which now covers the protection of civilians and human rights monitoring as well as support for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Against the backdrop of China’s embrace of multilateral co-operation, Russia has neither taken part in RIMPAC 2014 nor contributed to the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan; or, for that matter, last year, in Mali. Does this abstention testify to Russia’s diminishing interest in global issues and the ‘change of places’, with China gradually taking on more responsibilities globally? The reversal of Moscow and Beijing’s roles has been more and more visible in the aftermath of the global economic crisis. Russia’s economic interests around the globe are negligible when compared to China’s. Russia does not export its workforce, nor does it import resources. Moreover, Western expectations towards both states vary. When Russia took part in the 2012 edition of RIMPAC, this was interpreted as hedging against China, not as a potential contribution to the safety and stability of global sea lanes...