China's Threat to World Order
Computer hacking is typical of Beijing's disdain for global norms.
By JAMIE F. METZL
Allegations that the Chinese government is behind the largest computer hacking operation in history will not come as a surprise to observers of recent trends in international relations. If there is one thing that China's actions across a range of fields have made clear, it is that Beijing will do whatever it takes to advance its narrowly defined economic interests, even if that requires riding roughshod over global norms.
Driven by the need to deliver economic growth as a major justification for its existence, the Chinese government has done a tremendous job of creating wealth and bringing hundreds of millions of Chinese people out of poverty. With over a billion Chinese aspiring to higher standards of living, the pressure on Beijing is enormous. But China's pursuit of growth at virtually any cost now threatens to undermine the very global economic system that has enabled the country's rise.
The hacking campaign, described in detail by the Internet security company McAfee, is a case in point. The five-year effort targeted 70 institutions in the U.S. and 13 other countries and stole arguably the greatest cache of intellectual property in history. As former U.S. cyber-czar Richard Clarke recently told the Huffington Post, "What's going on here is very large-scale Chinese industrial espionage. . . . They're stealing our intellectual property. They're getting our research and development for pennies on the dollar."
Outside of cyberspace, parallel Chinese efforts to seize economic benefits regardless of the international consequences can be seen across the globe. Beijing has laid claim to the entirety of the resource-rich South China Sea in clear violation of the U.N. Law of the Sea and used unrelenting diplomatic pressure to prevent the Southeast Asian countries whose territorial waters are being violated from coming together to address this issue multilaterally.
China's lack of respect for international intellectual property rights is also infamous. A recent report by the U.S. International Trade Commission asserts that Chinese piracy and counterfeiting of U.S. intellectual property cost American businesses approximately $50 billion in 2009. Beijing's policy of keeping the value of its currency artificially low gives Chinese exports an unfair advantage and is a primary cause (along with America's irresponsible debt and political crises and Europe's problems) of the instability we are now seeing in world markets.
Nuclear proliferation is one of the greatest threats facing the world, but China continues to shield North Korea from any meaningful pressure to give up its nuclear weapons. It acts as if even the smallest efforts to pressure Iran about its nuclear program are concessions to the U.S. rather than actions taken in China's and the world's interests. Although the West's record on human rights is far from perfect, China's financially motivated support for the violators of human rights in places like North Korea, Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe has undermined the already flawed international human-rights system.
The U.S. has made many mistakes in its years of global stewardship. But warts and all, the pax Americana has brought the greatest increases in stability, innovation and development in world history. As China is the second wealthiest and second most important country in the world, its failure to support global norms is undermining the international system.
It is no longer acceptable for China to claim global leadership in some areas but then pretend it is a weak developing country and shirk its responsibilities in others. A China that leads the world in the theft of intellectual property, computer hacking and resource nationalism will prove extremely destabilizing. If it continues on this course, Beijing should not be surprised if other countries begin to band together to collectively counter some of the more harmful implications of China's rise.
A better outcome for all will be for China to embrace its responsibilities to help lead the world in nuclear counterproliferation and rules-based-growth that can make the international system, or a modified version of it, stronger and more beneficial to all nations.
The U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, must get their acts together at home to be credible proponents of a rules-based international system. They must also recognize that China's rise can be an unbridled good if a more globally responsible China has a right-sized seat at the table.
Mr. Metzl is executive vice president of the Asia Society and worked in the National Security Council in the Clinton administration