Zoellick on China: The Washington Consensus?

President George W. Bush is expected to appoint his former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick as head of the World Bank, replacing his former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz. Zoellick, who says has lived in Hong Kong, in previous speeches has regarded China the way the government has. In two speeches Zoellick pushed the “responsible stakeholder” rhetoric about China.

In a 2005 speech at a roundtable on China–U.S. relations, Zoellick remarked on the privilege of knowing Zheng Bijian, the international face behind the Chinese “peaceful rise” rhetoric. He used that contact as an introduction to a speech about China as a “responsible stakeholder.” He said:

China has been more open than many developing countries, but there are increasing signs of mercantilism, with policies that seek to direct markets rather than opening them. The United States will not be able to sustain an open international economic system—or domestic U.S. support for such a system—without greater cooperation from China, as a stakeholder that shares responsibility on international economic issues.

This served as an introduction to his criticism of China on points ranging from intellectual property to China’s “partnerships with regimes that hurt China’s reputation and lead others to question its intentions.”

But what is a “responsible stakeholder” to the folks at the U.S. State Department? In this speech, it seems as if the definition is accession to a variety of international laws and norms and considerable help in enforcing them. “[Responsible stakeholders] recognize that the international system sustains their peaceful prosperity,” Zoellick said. “So they work to sustain that system.”

The key here is not the words “responsible stakeholder,” but the words that come with it. Zoellick as U.S. deputy secretary of state said China should be a “responsible stakeholder in the international system,” (emphasis mine) and a “member” of that system. That system is often regarded, especially in economic commentary, as a manifestation of “the Washington consensus“—an ideology to which the World Bank is closely tied.

The unfortunate truth is that we can’t know how much of Zoellick’s speech reflected his own thinking and how much was State Department talking-points. Luckily we have another speech from when he was out of government and [probably paid handsomely to be a] vice chairman of Goldman Sachs. That one’s from nearly a month ago on May 2.

Paying tribute to the 2005 speech discussed above, Zoellick sought in this month’s speech to outline five topics that he believes make the United States and China “shared stakeholders.” The idea of being a “shared stakeholder” with the United States ought to be significantly different from being a “stakeholder in the international community,” but the topics vary little. He said the topics uniting the United States and China are: “economic policy; Korea; Iran; Sudan; and energy security.” (Korea, economic policy, Iran, and Sudan were in the 2005 speech, too.)

Sparing you the details, it emerges from this month’s speech that Zoellick as Goldman staffer was in agreement with his State Department self. He also made mention of his four trips to Darfur, Sudan, in a period of 12 months from 2005 to 2006. (Both speeches also reference the difference between U.S.–China relations in 1972 and now, the second specifically referencing Nixon and Mao.)

Zoellick is no shoddy politician, and no doubt this is part of the reason that he has been found fit to be nominated as head of the World Bank. What’s important now is whether his perspective as head of an “international” institution can jettison the U.S.-centric chops he’s been paid for for a long time and represent the interests of the citizens of the bank’s member states. If not, charges of a U.S.-dominated international economic system will only be strengthened.

[Speeches h/t Chinese Law and Politics Blog via China Law Blog.]

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