Western Engagement Meets Chinese Obstructionism

Last Thursday, two weeks of talks to establish a 640,000-square-mile sanctuary off the coast of Antarctica ended in failure as three nations—China, Russia, and Ukraine—blocked agreement. The 25-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) will meet next July in Germany to see if it is possible to resurrect the US-New Zealand proposal to protect the Ross Sea, “the world’s most intact marine ecosystem.”

Chinese officials delighted in stopping the plan to create a preserve. As an unnamed official told AFP, “I think there was a little bit of ‘Don’t tell us what we can or can’t do,’ as well as keeping their options open.”

Beijing has traditionally played an obstructionist role in international organizations. It has, for instance, consistently blocked initiatives on Syria and Darfur from its seat on the Security Council, it has lent diplomatic support to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs from its position on the Governing Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and now it is taking on penguins and whales through its membership in CCAMLR.

How did China ever become a CCAMLR member in the first place? For four decades, nations have wanted to “engage” the Chinese and enmesh them into the international system. China was invited to join every international organization in sight and asked to sign treaties and covenants.

For a time, that enmeshment strategy seemed to work. For instance, China settled its trade disputes inside the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 2001. And Chinese fishing craft ended their pursuit of toothfish in Antarctic waters after Beijing became a member of CCAMLR in 2006. Beijing also participated in various multilateral talks that had been convened to solve the problems of the moment, such as those to “denuclearize” North Korea.

Yet as a Chinese saying goes, the fox eventually showed its tail. Beijing, the fox, went on a bender at the end of 2009. It dropped its “smile diplomacy” and acted arrogantly at virtually every opportunity. China, as a result, lost friends fast.

But China’s rapid loss of friends did not matter in one sense. Beijing had already been given—or it had taken—a central role in the organizational architecture connecting states great and small. It now can, as it pleases, act as an obstructionist. And that matters because Chinese obstructionism means these vital organizations can no longer work as they should. And because these institutions have become ineffective, they will eventually fail.

Ronald Reagan opposed the Soviet Union because he knew the form of its government mattered, that it prevented Moscow from evolving to better policies and serving as a reliable partner. Yet, despite all that has happened in the last two years, governments around the world still engage Beijing in the hope that China will not become a Soviet-like challenger to global peace.

The hope, we can now see, was misplaced. The issue is whether the international community can craft a new set of policies—and do so fast enough—to deal with Beijing’s increasingly destructive external policies.

The failure to establish a sanctuary in the Ross Sea is not just about the Antarctic. It is about a failed idea that hard-line leaders can become part of a liberal international system that they had no hand in creating—but which they can now destroy.

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