China: The Time For Noblesse Oblige

For the world economy to function smoothly, all members particularly the big ones have to behave responsibly and sometimes generously in the common interest

Published: Jan 16, 2012
China: The Time For Noblesse Oblige

When will China abandon its automatic Cold War attitude of hostility to the West and begin to play its part as a responsible great power with a big stake in the general prosperity of the world?

Most of China’s moves are still knee-jerk responses to events, with the objective of gaining petty advantages for themselves. What Chinese leaders have yet to realise is that there are no longer two sides, only one. We’re all members of the same world economy, run on broadly capitalist lines, in which China is the largest single participant after the US.

But in order for this world economy to function smoothly, all members — particularly the big ones — have to behave responsibly and sometimes generously in the common interest. This is especially true in times of trouble. To seek to exploit crisis for selfish advantage is the attitude of a minor player, not a big one.

In short, the Chinese need to become intimately acquainted with one of the grand doctrines of history: Noblesse oblige. Size, wealth and power carry their obligations.

It’s very hard for a once weak power to grasp that it’s become strong and no longer needs to act defensibly. China was weak throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. It was exploited by the colonial powers and by Japan. China is still in thrall to the mind-set it developed during that period.

It’s difficult for any nation to accept that its old role has become outdated, that it must — in its own interests, as well as everyone else’s — adopt a totally new one. The US learned this at great cost and pain.

The American colonies were mainly settled by Europeans fleeing oppression. When independence was won in the late 18th century the national instinct was to use the broad Atlantic to separate America from the Old World and all its bad habits and entanglements. The new nation sought to pursue a separate existence as a democracy, enjoying its advantages of vast resources and a free-enterprise economy.

Its refusal to participate in sensible arrangements for running the global show was one reason that Europe blundered into the First World War.

Only under intense pressure did the US finally join the other democracies in fighting the war, with President Woodrow Wilson a most reluctant participant. Eventually, however, he became a convert, working tirelessly — though unsuccessfully — to persuade the US Senate to vote to join the League of Nations in order that the world never be subjected to another global war. But the Senate repudiated Wilson and his vision, failing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles. The world again became engulfed in war because the US — by then the world’s largest power — refused to play its proper part. In the end, however, America was forced by events to enter the war — and at enormous cost to itself and everyone else.

Only after WWII did the US become a full participant in the world’s decisions.

The world banking crisis is the first big test of China’s willingness to take on its responsibilities as a power with obligations to the global community.

 We cannot force China to do its duty; noblesse oblige has to be a natural process of acceptance. But the US can point the way, drawing from its own experiences lessons that are relevant to China’s current position. President Obama should be the one to take the lead on this, but, alas, Asia’s history is alien and distant to him.

Fortunately, India has also emerged from weakness to strength and is beginning to possess the resources to play a major role in stabilising the world economy. India is feeling the pull of noblesse oblige and can be an example of public-spirited generosity, at the same time advising China to refashion its worldview.

Now is the time for Asian statesmen to step onto the world stage. Europe has failed; America is dithering. Asia’s time has come at last. Is it ready?

(This story appears in the 20 January, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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