China's New Dictatorship Diplomacy

Is Beijing Parting With Pariahs?

China is often accused of supporting a string of despots, nuclear proliferators, and genocidal regimes, shielding them from international pressure and thus reversing progress on human rights and humanitarian principles. But over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies toward pariah states. It strongly denounced North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 and took the lead, with the United States, in drafting a sweeping United Nations sanctions resolution against Pyongyang. Over the past year, it has voted to impose and then tighten sanctions on Iran, it has supported the deployment of a United Nations-African Union (UN-AU) force in Darfur, and it has condemned a brutal government crackdown in Burma (which the ruling junta renamed Myanmar in 1989). China is now willing to condition its diplomatic protection of pariah countries, forcing them to become more acceptable to the international community. And it is supporting -- in some cases even helping to create -- processes that chart a path to legitimacy for these states, such as the six-party talks on North Korea, thereby minimizing their exposure to coercive measures.

China's changing calculation of its economic and political interests has partly driven this shift. With its increased investments in pariah countries over the past decade, China has had to devise a more sophisticated approach to protecting its assets and its citizens abroad. It no longer sees providing uncritical and unconditional support to unpopular, and in some cases fragile, regimes as the most effective strategy. An even more important motivator has been the West's heightened expectations for China's global role. Faced with the 17th Party Congress last October, the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and presidential elections in Taiwan also later this year, Chinese officials would have preferred to think about avoiding trouble at home rather than about developing a new foreign policy. But the nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran and international outcry over developments in Darfur and Burma have forced their hand: Beijing has no choice but to worry about its international image. China's fears about a backlash and the potential damage to its strategic and economic relationships with the United States and Europe have prompted Beijing to put great effort into demonstrating that it is a responsible power.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis