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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 33 New Delhi August 4, 2018

Decoding the Shanghai Spirit: What does China Actually Mean by it?

Tuesday 7 August 2018


by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

While the Shanghai spirit has been in vogue since the inception of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001, only recently it was brought out of dormancy by the Chinese leadership. Both before and during the Qingdao Summit of the SCO held recently, the Chinese leadership marketed the idea in a mercantile fashion. However, an analysis and decoding of the Shanghai spirit raise doubts about its relevance in international relations. At best, it seems to propel China from a great power to a superpower! The Shanghai spirit, as adopted in the SCO Charter of June 2002, emphasises mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilisations and pursuit of common development. This was essentially a ‘politics of language’ to promote regional cooperation with a key role for China and subject to variable interpretation! Thus, for example, respect for diverse civilisation would perhaps imply accommodation of the Chinese totalitarian and autocratic political system as an acceptable practice. Similarly, pursuit of common development would imply willing partnership in Chinese mega schemes like the Belt and Road Initiative or the BRI.

However, noble words in the SCO Charter are not the reasons for China’s recent harping on the Shanghai spirit. As an established great power, China has been yearning for long to push forward its own perspectives on international relations and seek recognition for the same. These were contested by the larger fraternity of international relations. For example, the Chinese perspectives on security and development, based on successful experiment of the same for almost three decades, did not find much resonance. For the same reason, the ‘Beijing consensus’ that was juxtaposed against the ‘Washington consensus’ on development soon became redundant and inconsequential. China was not happy with this ideological isolation and often behaved as the ‘revisionist spokesperson’ in international relations.

Pitching of ideas, initiatives and institutions by states in international relations is often not easy! It depends upon relative power and influence of these states. Perhaps for this reason, only superpowers and, to some extent, great powers, have the capacity to push their agenda in international relations. For a long time, China was keeping a low profile in international relations but Xi Jinping’s leadership has changed the equations. According to Elizabeth C. Economy, a noted Sinologist, Xi has a dream of rejuvenating China. Time and again, Xi has stated and demonstrated the desire to shape the international system, to use China’s power to influence others and to establish global rules of the game. In this way, China distinguishes itself from global economic powers such as Japan and Germany and from military powers such as Russia.

The performance of the SCO in the last sixteen years shows that the Shanghai spirit was at best a ‘paper tiger’ incapable of moving out of the Chinese shadow. The current talks of the Shanghai spirit by Xi’s China, therefore, represents less of a standardised attempt for the regional cooperation mechanism and more of its attempt of writing the rules of the game and create a larger identity for China in global politics. In fact, under Xi Jinping, China is playing a blatant game of ideas (like the Shanghai spirit), initiatives (like the BRI), and institutions (like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the AIIB). Its formidable economic and military power add weight to the Chinese perspectives and practices in international relations.

The Chinese push for the Shanghai spirit notwithstanding, many factors hint towards difficulties in perpetuating the existence of the Shanghai spirit. First, China is expected to remain a totalitarian system for a foreseeable time and cannot provide moral leadership in a largely liberal international order. The contradictions in its domestic politics and what it preaches at the international level is simply too much to ignore. For example, absence of democracy and democratic values in China, supplemented with too many barriers and censors on the day-to-day lives of Chinese citizens make a mockery of Chinese arguments for equity and consultation in international relations. Second, on many occasions, China has not stood by the cannons of internationally expected behaviour. For instance, China refused to accept an inter-national tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines in portions of the South China Sea in July 2016. China, thus, loses the moral authority to lay down an international code of conduct or guiding principle for regulating regional cooperation on other issues. Third, China’s offensive and aggressive foreign policy behaviour also takes away the sheen from the Shanghai spirit. Beijing has a running feud with most of its neighbours apart from being a party in major regional conflicts. There has been little indication of China’s willingness to resolve them in a peaceful manner. Fourth, fantasies of economic cooperation with China are also not making sense to many countries. The BRI is being perceived as a neo-colonial tool in some host countries leading to local opposition. Hitherto, many countries are having trade deficit feud with China with the latter unwilling to turn the tide for a balanced trade. Also, Chinese involve-ment in regional cooperative mechanisms so far has failed to enthuse these gatherings (including the SCO). Fifth, foreign policy and strategic experts all over the world are learning to decode and contexualise Chinese foreign policy statements. Chinese euphemism on the Shanghai spirit is being interpreted as a hegemonic attempt by a restless wannabe superpower to facilitate a post-American world order or a Chinese commonwealth! Such apprehensions led to alternative perspectives on regional cooperation or the Shanghai spirit in the Qingdao summit of the SCO itself!

The Shanghai spirit is, therefore, nothing more than an ideological prop couched in normative language of high-sounding ideals but actually serving China’s strategic objectives of facilitating its consequential rise as a super-power. In the past, many such ideals propped up by China became part of the diplomatic archives. The fate and future of the Shanghai spirit, therefore, depends on China’s graduation into a benign and responsible superpower and doing away with the series of apprehensions related to its rise.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views conveyed here are his personal.

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