The sight of British Prime Minister David Cameron getting chummy with China's President Xi Jinping over a pint in a village pub last week prompted the Western conservative media to ask if London has "sold out" to Beijing and is "getting dangerously friendly" with the Asian power. Of course, the British are not alone in having feted Mr Xi on home turf. He has been welcomed in Australia, Russia, the United States, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Argentina and several other countries in recent years. Mr Xi is due here next week on a state visit. There have also been a number of heads of state who have gone to Beijing to formally advance ties. President Tony Tan Keng Yam did so four months ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was there this week and French President Francois Hollande will travel to China tomorrow.
This is all perfectly natural, of course, considering China's strategic heft and economic clout (from being the world's biggest economy if one considers its GDP on a purchasing power basis, according to the International Monetary Fund). That status, however, is still not reflected by its current role (undersized as it is) in world economic governance. US congressional resistance to voting reform within the IMF can be traced to Republican conviction that nations not sharing US interests ought to be denied any influence in global affairs. China's handling of maritime claims, human and labour rights, environmental issues, cyber-security breaches, and corruption as a tool to gain unfair advantage is often cited by its critics as sufficient grounds to withhold free rein.
That archetypal Western stance might well have prompted China to build up its world standing in other ways. Instances of these are the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, its Silk Road initiative, the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific framework it is pushing as a counter to the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the unabashed economic diplomacy it is pursuing around the world.
In spheres of global competition, it is fruitless to ask which factors ought to be contingent on others. From a pragmatic perspective, choices are determined by desired immediate outcomes; and taking diplomatic sides is not as simple as it was in the post-World War II order. Thus, nations see themselves as protecting their own interests, rather than selling out, in seeking deals with China. Given the current global dispensation, there is collective advantage when countries moderate their actions because they are deeply invested in each other's economic well-being. But if a bilateral relationship is lopsided and economic diplomacy becomes coercive, then one ought to ask what strategic interests are being sacrificed for the sake of short-term gains. If China targets those who do not share its own interests, it can scarcely complain about similar treatment meted out to it.