Minxin Pei on China

How do you make a habitual free rider pay his fair share? It is the challenge the West now faces in dealing with China. Ever since China reemerged as a great power in the last decade, many in the West have hoped that a China with a stake in the existing international order would behave constructively to sustain it. Senior officials from the United States and Europe cajoled, flattered, and schmoozed with their counterparts in China. Unfortunately, the West has little to show for its efforts. Political engagement has failed to transform China into a more democratic regime. Google's fight with Beijing over Internet censorship is but the latest example of the ineffectiveness of the West's soft approach. Nice words may sooth Chinese egos, but they have not made Beijing behave like a genuinely responsible global stakeholder.

Consider the following.

At the United Nations' Copenhagen conference on climate change in December, China's opposition to mandatory emissions targets helped eviscerate an international agreement that could have become a milestone in the world's efforts to address the climate-change challenge.

As the world slowly climbs from economic recession, China's exchange-rate policy has become an obstacle to the rebalancing of the global economy, yet Beijing has refused to budge despite ceaseless Western exhortations that it revalue its currency. This beggar-thy-neighbor policy is now threatening not only the fragile recovery in the West but also the global free-trading system.

On sanctions against Iran, one of China's key energy suppliers, Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed the West's call for tougher measures. China appears to be far more worried about its economic interests in Iran than the potential catastrophic consequences of a military conflict over Tehran's nuclear program or nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

A popular explanation for China's reluctance to pay its fair share for maintaining peace and prosperity in the world is that, despite its torrid economic growth, China remains a relatively poor country on a per capita basis. Unfortunately, the argument does not hold water. A government that spent more than $45 billion on hosting the Olympics to burnish its image can hardly plead poverty.

It is more likely that the Chinese government's reluctance to assume greater burden sharing has deeper political roots. Even though Beijing believes that its national interests have been well-served by a global security order policed by American hegemony and a free-trading system supported by the West, Chinese elites hardly identify with the values embodied in this order. The West's commitment to democracy and human rights is something the Chinese Communist Party openly rejects. American hegemony, the cornerstone of global security, is viewed by Chinese elites as a geopolitical reality but is accorded little legitimacy. That is why Beijing has been promoting, at least rhetorically, the emergence of a "multipolar world."

Chinese leaders see little political upside in making China a more active contributor to the international public good. Only those who pander to a domestic (and increasingly nationalistic) audience have fared well in Beijing, and most Chinese officials don't want to be seen as lackeys of the West. As a result, Chinese rhetoric and behavior reflect a split personality: China enjoys the practical benefits of the current world order but refuses to share its costs.

The days when China can have it both ways—freeloading on global public goods and basking in international respect—are about to be over. Disillusionment is clearly setting. Even multinational corporations, resentful of China's undervalued currency and protectionist streaks are voicing their displeasures. Western governments have levied anti-dumping charges against Chinese exports and are contemplating other retaliatory measures if Beijing keeps its current exchange-rate policy. Pressures on the human-rights front could build up, as well. China's image has taken a beating because of its lack cooperation on climate change. Beijing had better take notice.