Jonathan Holslag: China's charm offensive is not enough

TO MANY in the West, China seems to have gone from a country that "keeps a cool head and maintains a low profile", in Deng Xiaoping's formulation, to one that loves a good international bust-up.

Jailing an Australian mining executive for ten years, squeezing out Google, keeping the European Union at bay for an important dialogue and letting a mid-level official wag his finger at United States president Barack Obama at the Copenhagen climate summit is not, after all, the best way to convince partners of your constructive intentions.

Nor is it reassuring to recall China has watered down sanctions on Iran, invested in offensive military systems and pilloried western leaders for irresponsible financial policies and protectionism.

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These issues demonstrate the dilemma in which the country finds itself: if it behaves like a "normal" power, the world will forget the many hundreds of millions of people it still needs to pull out of poverty.

The Chinese leadership seems to be aware of this dilemma and is not, in fact, eager to be dragged into fierce competition with the West or its neighbours. During the recent National People's Congress, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao stressed China should not punch above its weight and that the People's Republic still needed stability if it was to become a society that offered a decent life to all of its citizens.

In recognition of this, China has stepped up its efforts to mend fences. President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington was a clear attempt to ease tensions with the US over American arms sales to Taiwan, the yuan's exchange rate and Mr Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama. China will probably go to great lengths to foster a more positive attitude among the dozens of European leaders visiting this year's World Expo in Shanghai.

In Brussels and Washington, one gets the impression the mission of China's diplomats nowadays is to meet and charm everyone. But charm will not make up for lack of progress at the official level. It is unlikely that cajoling western elites will mitigate the deep-seated uncertainty in the US and Europe about China's rise. And economic stagnation in the West will inevitably exacerbate distrust of China, as the relative gains from trade diminish and protectionist policies probably follow – no matter how much China smiles at the world.

China needs a mature strategic dialogue, particularly with the EU. This, at least, could help define common interests, identify policy options and create the conditions to achieve results.

If western companies do not gain greater access to the Chinese market, or if they feel threatened by heavily subsidised, state-owned enterprises, relations will continue to sour. And if issues such as Iran, Africa or other trouble spots are not managed better, the West will consider China a security threat.

For China, it will be hard to build confidence if Europe and the US doubt their own future. And China will remain prickly as long as it fears protectionism or a new containment strategy.

If Beijing is serious about building strategic partnerships with the West, it should back up its charm offensive with deeds and take the initiative in fostering more effective co-operation.

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• Jonathan Holslag is research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies and author of China and India: Prospects for Peace.