April 17, 2017

IS CHINA PULLING ITS WEIGHT IN THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM? In recent years, China has increased its contribution to United Nations peacekeeping, raised its foreign aid to impoverished countries, and made significant commitments to global arms control initiatives.1 Even so, a rising chorus of voices has charged that China is “free riding” on cooperation undertaken by the United States and other countries that provides benefits to the wider international community. Calling China a free rider is nothing new; scholars described China as free riding on nuclear arms control agreements and international environmental cooperation as early as the 1990s.2 Yet with the United States beset by financial and economic woes in recent years, allegations that Beijing free rides on the United States and other countries have grown more frequent and more impatient. Whether the issue is fighting terrorism or preventing nuclear proliferation, it has become routine—particularly in the United States—to complain that China is not doing enough to support international cooperation.3The number of articles containing both of the terms “China” and “free rider” in the Factiva database, for example, increased from an average of 39 per year from 2005 to 2009 to 75 per year from 2010 to 2013. Chinese observers, meanwhile, argue among themselves whether China free rides (da bian che) on the collective action of other states.4 Some agree that China should be seen as a free rider, at least in some areas.5 Other Chinese writers disagree and reject the notion that China should take on “even more responsibility” for global governance.6

Should China be understood as a free rider in the international system? If so, what kinds of calculations are driving its behavior? The most critical commentaries depict China as greedily seeking national advantage while the American hegemon staggers under the weight of its global responsibilities.7 Yet a failure to invest in collective action need not reflect a desire to limit costs and exploit others. It could also reflect other considerations, particularly distrust of the other actors involved, as discussed later. Such possibilities must also be considered in China's case. Experienced observers of U.S.–China relations have recently noted how pervasive distrust is in the relationship.8Moreover, as a new player in many international arenas, China might be expected to renegotiate current modes of cooperation rather than simply accept them as they are. Understanding the considerations behind Chinese behavior is essential if other countries wish to elicit more cooperative behavior from Beijing in the future.

To consider these questions more thoroughly, this article focuses on international collective action to provide energy security, particularly with respect to oil. More precisely, it employs a traditional definition of “energy security” and focuses on multilateral efforts to ensure that oil supplies are adequate, reliable, and affordable.9 It does so for three reasons. First, there are multiple international efforts that can be scrutinized in this regard, each of which provides an opportunity to explore China's role in global collective action. This article focuses on multinational efforts to ensure the security of the sea lanes through which oil shipments flow and coordination among the world's major oil consumers to cope with supply disruptions and stabilize markets. Second, China has recently been described as free riding on each of these efforts, as noted later. It is important to explore the extent to which these analyses are accurate and, if so, discern the kinds of considerations that are driving Chinese behavior. Third, participation in the world oil market and cooperation in the provision of energy security represents a key aspect of China's integration into the world economy and global governance.10 In 2013, China represented 12.1 percent of global oil demand, second only to the United States at 19.9 percent.11 China has also emerged as the world's largest oil importer, and net imports now regularly exceed more than half of its demand.12 China's prominence as an oil consumer and importer will undoubtedly rise in years to come, both because of its rapid demand growth and because it is poorly positioned to replicate the “shale revolution” that has made the United States more self-reliant in oil and gas.13 In short, energy security offers an empirically rich and politically important case study through which China's behavior can be explored.

The article proceeds as follows: It begins by reviewing the concept of free riding in more depth explains how one might discern the kinds of motivations that drive free riding in a particular case. It then considers how China has approached efforts to maintain global energy security with respect to oil focusing on the two areas mentioned earlier. The analysis finds that China can be described as free riding or cheap riding in these areas but China's behavior is better explained by distrust than by a preference for exploiting the cooperation of others. The conclusion sums up the findings considers the implications for cooperation with China going forward.


Andrew B. Kennedy

First published: 30 March 2015
DOI: 10.1002/polq.12286