China and the Rogue States, by Paulo Duarte

Although the United States and China have never dealt collectively with sensitive issues, or even threats posed by rogue states, the situation is changing. China seems to be a good interlocutor, expressing an extremely useful support when it comes to negotiating with these so-called ‘difficult’ countries. One point that weighs in favor of the Middle Kingdom is, in practice, the good relations that Beijing maintains with states like Sudan, Iran or North Korea (Struye, 2009). Such relationships result from an action of charm, diplomacy and business, which make China a different partner, with which these countries can count on. In turn, Beijing seems to know how to take advantage of the “relative lack of competition among Western companies, concerned with the issue of reputation, or simply with difficulties at an operational level” (Small, 2008).

The fact that China is often accused of supporting despots, regimes who commit heinous practices, such as genocide or the systematic violation of human rights (even though the Middle Kingdom does not represent, itself, a good example), certainly weighed in the willingness of the Chinese leaders in wanting to discuss the issue. They see themselves, on the one hand, faced with economic imperatives but suffer, on the other hand, Western pressure. It is, therefore, prestige and credibility that China wants to conquer from Western countries, which influences in turn the investments that these states undertake in the Middle Kingdom. In this regard, China cannot have it all. China knows it has important diplomatic weight, not only as a permanent member of the Security Council, but also at a regional level, where China’s charm offensive seems to have a significant impact. Beijing is thus aware that if the world has its eyes fixed on its behaviour, a reckless move by China could affect its rise as a global power.

Recent years have witnessed the strength of the ‘new Chinese diplomacy’ with regard to the pariah states. After the nuclear test undertaken by North Korea in 2006, the Middle Kingdom proved to be, like the United States, exemplary in the defense of sanctions against Pyongyang (Small, 2008). Moreover, if in 2005 China politically supported any authoritarian leader who perceived its power to be in danger, or if Beijing had even threatened to oppose its veto against the UN resolutions concerning Sudan, the situation would immediately change. Indeed, three years later, in 2008, the Chinese strategy seemed to take on different contours. Suffice it to mention, for example, that China was in favour of heavier sanctions against Iran and that it supported, on the other hand, the deployment of a UN force and of an African Union force to Darfur (Small, 2008).

Currently, Beijing’s new diplomatic strategy appears to become more sophisticated in order to better protect citizens and Chinese interests abroad. This means that Chinese leaders are not considering further expressing an “unconditional support to unpopular regimes”, especially as the West seems to have “high expectations over the global role of China” (Small, 2008). But this new strategy also means that the Chinese attitude of non-interference in internal affairs is about to change. Indeed, “China is in favour, although in limited circumstances, of considering internal repression and atrocities as legitimate grounds for international intervention” (Small, 2008).

A path often difficult

Although there has been progress, the outcome of the ‘new Chinese strategy’ against rogue states remains, for the time being, mitigated. In fact, economic imperatives seem to be more important to Chinese officials. This does not prevent us, however, from affirming that China takes considerable advantage of its good relationship with certain rogue states, to encourage them to make concessions in fields where they feel some discomfort.

Another important point concerns the nature of the change in question. Despite the decisiveness that Chinese policy has demonstrated towards rogue states, it would be however rash to call it a ‘new doctrine’ of foreign policy. Nor is it a change in values ​​since, as already mentioned, the economic aspects still prevail over other aspects and, moreover, “China does not (as of yet) share the vision of Washington on human rights or democracy” (Small, 2008).

On the hard liners side, plans consist mainly in supporting rogue states to counterbalance the power of the United States, which implies that China should not impose sanctions nor exert pressure on countries like Iran or Sudan. However, this line of thought (which is in favour, for instance, of the interests of a pro-arms or pro-energy Chinese lobbying) is not, often compatible with the development of cooperation between China and the West on the rogue states issue (Small, 2008). In fact, if the Middle Kingdom seems to be more sensitive today to the issue of nuclear proliferation, this sensitivity remains, however, mitigated with regard to the sale of Chinese weapons to problematic states. Indeed, countries such as “Myanmar, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe continue to receive various types of weapons and technologies, originating from economic and military Chinese players” (Small, 2008). And although the U.S. has in the past punished certain Chinese companies that provided technological support to the Iranian missile programme, the lack of transparency in China does not help, at all, knowing to what extent, the Chinese government is or is not implicated in the transfer of technology to rogue states. This is not a minor point, since it allows one to understand if the Western World can indeed trust Beijing and its new ‘more responsible’ policy with regard to the ‘problematic’ states. Or, rather, should the West fear the possibility of China establishing relations with more dictatorial and unstable states? The answer is not an obvious one, especially since, despite all obstacles, there are many who see the Middle Kingdom as an indispensable partner in addressing the issue of rogue states (Sutter, 2003-04).

If the Chinese have already shown great ability to resolve complex situations, this does not mean, however, that China intends to help establish a democratic regime in Myanmar, or that Beijing wants to stop buying oil from Iran. However, a prudent conclusion would be that “Chinese foreign policy has progressed significantly” and that “more than debating whether or not real changes have been made, the aim must be to, first and foremost, seek to obtain the maximum advantage from developments already undertaken” (Small, 2008).


  • SMALL, Andrew (2008). Testimony before the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission China’s expanding Global Influence: Foreign Policy Goals, Practices and, Accessed 26 November. 2012
  • STRUYE, Tanguy (2009). “Offensive Chinoise en Afrique”, in Notes d’analyse de la Chaire Inbev Baillet – Latour sur les relations Union Européenne – Chine, Université Catholique de Louvain, numéro 3, avril.
  • SUTTER, Robert (2003-04). “Why Does China Matter?”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol 27, Nº1, pp. 75-89.

Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at ISCSP, Lisbon. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in Lisbon, Portugal (

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