Written by Beverley Loke.

In September 2005, Robert Zoellick urged China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system. The basic premise of his speech was that China should be more heavily invested in strengthening and sustaining the system from which it has benefited. This involved global stewardship: providing public goods, upholding existing norms and rules, and contributing to the maintenance of international order.

More than a decade on, the concept of responsibility has very much continued to frame China’s rise and impact on the international order. This is evident both in terms of US projections as well as China’s self-claims to be a responsible power. The Obama administration has at various junctures called China a ‘selective stakeholder’ or ‘free rider’ in the international system. And during Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the US last September, Obama had this to say: ‘we can’t treat China as if it’s still a very poor, developing country, as it might have been 50 years ago. It is now a powerhouse. And that means it’s got responsibilities and expectations in terms of helping to uphold international rules that might not have existed before.’

The Chinese leadership, in turn, has continued to emphasise China’s role as a responsible power in international affairs. While contributing to the existing system, it seeks to establish a ‘more inclusive framework of global order’ through greater integration and incremental reforms. And in response to US projections, Beijing often berates the US for failing to uphold some of the very norms and principles that it champions, a point most recently demonstrated at last weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue.

Both China and the US, it seems, are employing the language of responsibility. But are they on the same page or are they simply talking past each other?

The Ensuing Debate on Responsibility

For a China that has seen US policies towards it frequently oscillate between containment and engagement, ‘responsible stakeholder’ demonstrated some evolution in American thinking. It granted Beijing a seat at the great power table and acknowledged that US-China relations are not a zero-sum game. Zheng Bijian called Zoellick’s speech ‘the most definitive political comment by the United States on Sino-US relations.’

But it also sparked an intense debate, and we can cluster Chinese reactions into two key narratives. The first focused on the inherent tensions between domestic and international responsibilities. For the Chinese leadership, ensuring domestic economic growth and stability has been ‘the most important fulfilment of its international responsibility.’ Rising external demands for China to undertake greater international responsibilities would, therefore, divert attention away from its domestic development goals. The resulting approach was mostly a cautious one, calling on China to assume global responsibilities without becoming overly burdened.

The second reflected a growing indignation and dissatisfaction that China’s responsibilities were being determined by others. The idea of being a ‘responsible stakeholder’ bound China to an international system as defined by the US and inherently labelled China an ‘irresponsible power’ once Beijing failed to act in accordance with US values and interests. From a Chinese perspective, it also remained unclear whether China would genuinely be accepted as an equal partner. It was believed that Washington was projecting more responsibilities onto China but without the corresponding rights and benefits. In that regard, ‘responsible stakeholder’ was far more about burden-sharing and much less about power-sharing. The emerging consensus was that China should be able to define for itself—in negotiation with broader societal projections—what its responsibilities should entail and have greater ownership in key foreign policy relationships and global governance structures.

China’s Growing Discourse and Institutional Power

Clearly, this second narrative has become more prominent in the Xi Jinping era. One of the ways we can see this is through China’s growing discourse power. Xi Jinping’s ‘new model of major country relationship’, for instance, reflects a China that is more confident of its global position, one that is willing to articulate the basis upon which it will approach its foreign policy and to take the discursive lead in defining the US-China relationship.

This new framework has certainly been heavily debated and promoted by the Chinese. At President Xi’s state visit to the US, he mentioned the phrase ‘new model of major-country relationship’ twice at his remarks at the arrival ceremony and three times (twice in his speech and once during the Q&A) at the joint press conference.

Not unsurprisingly, it has been less well received in the US. During the state visit, there was no mention of the new model by Obama. This is partly because the model is rather vague in specifics beyond the standard ‘no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation’ script. An optimistic reading of the framework provides a continued basis for constructive cooperation. More pessimistic readings, however, wonder whether the new model seeks US deference and acquiescence to China’s core national interests.

In addition to discourse power, we are also witnessing China’s growing institutional power. Much more than before, China is now negotiating global governance and international order from a position of strength. Beijing will be hosting its first G20 summit in Hangzhou this September, with multiple opportunities for institutional leadership and agenda setting.

China has also initiated new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). By doing so, Beijing has sought to demonstrate greater leadership and responsibility amidst calls for greater reform in global governance, marking a turning point in how China positions itself in the global order.

The American response to the AIIB, as we have seen, was not handled adroitly. Indeed, China’s greater activism in global governance has led to concerns that a stronger China may be interpreting and shouldering responsibilities in ways that the US may be rather cautious about. While before ‘responsible stakeholder’ was about getting China to assume greater obligations and provide public goods commensurate with its growing power, some now fear that Beijing is becoming a responsible stakeholder on its terms.

Where to from here?

To be sure, China and the US are cooperating in some areas but not in others, and perhaps this compartmentalisation is key. But the US-China dyad is also one of the most consequential relationships in the world. Unless China and the US develop and act on shared ideas of responsibility, a stable international order will be hard to achieve. Both sides speak the language of responsibility, but what this actually means jointly, both institutionally and normatively, remains unclear. From a less optimistic standpoint, we seem to lack a clear sense of what joint negotiation and mutual engagement of responsibility and governance mean in a shifting global order.

Beverley Loke is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. Image credit: CC by U.S. Embassy The Hague/Flickr