I liked this brief piece from Peter Drysdale introducing a recent East Asia Forum Weekly Digest and asked if I could reproduce it here and he agreed.
‘Be not afraid of greatness,’ wrote William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. ‘Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.’ Whether the bard’s injunction is reassuring to those who have greatness in them, achieve it, or have it thrust upon them may be problematic and whether the three routes he suggests to greatness are unique and independent equally so. But certainly, in the end, it appears that greatness is thrust upon those that come to exercise its power.
As Jonas Parello-Plesner writes in this week’s lead essay, great powers, too, are moulded by events as much as, if not more than, by grand strategy. In 1898, the United States — at the time an isolationist and anti-colonial power — entered upon the world stage after Spain allegedly sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. This event propelled Theodore Roosevelt into the historical firmament and was a driver behind America’s emergence as a great power.
The commercial adventures of the East India Company compelled the British state to intervene in China in the 1840s, sparking the Opium Wars. In 1850, the British foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, ordered the British navy into the Aegean in order to protect Don Pacifico, a British subject born in Gibraltar, and to reclaim his lost property. After an eight-week blockade, the Greek government paid compensation to Pacifico. When challenged in Parliament, Palmerston justified his actions referring to the declaration ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’), a declaration that would protect a Roman from harm anywhere in the ancient Roman empire.
All were defining historical moments in the emergence of great powers. They demonstrate that the greater a rising power’s economic interests in a foreign land, and the more nationals it has involved there, the more likely it will feel compelled to act should events threaten either.
Has China’s defining ‘great power’ moment been thrust upon it by the Libyan crisis?
This week China joined the international community in voting for a unanimous UN Security Council resolution that includes a travel ban, an asset freeze on Muammar Gaddafi and his family, and referral of Gaddafi’s actions against his people to the International Criminal Court. This takes China’s exercise of its international responsibilities to an unusual and an entirely new level.
The crisis forced China to bend its principle of non-intervention, and to launch its biggest-ever rescue mission of some 32,000 Chinese nationals in Libya. A Chinese frigate participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden was deployed in the rescue efforts. Four Chinese military transport planes were also dispatched from Xinjiang. This marked a departure for China as a great power, as it sought to square principle with the practical reality of finding solutions to immediate problems that arise from its global reach.
All this is in stark contrast with China’s past stance against interference in the affairs of ‘imperfect regimes,’ such as those in North Korea and Zimbabwe. The need to get its nationals out of harm’s way in Libya — as well as its search for international respectability — have thrust China into its new role as a great power. Chinese citizens are starting to feel the same need for protection all over the globe, and they will expect protection, forcing Beijing to shoulder one of the many burdens of great-power status. In the Libyan crisis this is an entirely welcome development for the West. But it is a development that will have many consequences.
This is no trivial turning point. It is a significant change that will require a major re-assessment of China’s view of itself and the international community’s view of China’s stance in world affairs.