What does China really mean when it calls on other countries to be ‘rational’?

China frequently calls upon other countries to be “rational”, but it is worth asking whether it is applying the same standard to its own actions.

Beijing’s requests for rationality are usually made of countries that China deems to be acting against its interests, and they are often made in the midst of controversies – from maritime disputes to espionage allegations – in which their interests have come into conflict.

But since most countries already act rationally in seeking to maximise their own interests, China calling on its counterparts to be “rational” often turns out to be ineffectual, appearing more like strategic positioning rather than a genuine appeal for calm.

Last week, Beijing urged Hungary, which is slated to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, to promote a “rational and friendly view” and adopt a “more pragmatic China policy”.

This came shortly after EU competition regulators raided the offices of Chinese company Nuctech in the Netherlands and Poland on April 23 to investigate allegations of unfair state subsidies.

An attendant walks past EU and China flags ahead of the EU-China High-level Economic Dialogue in Beijing in 2018. Photo: Reuters

The day before that, German authorities arrested three German-nationals on suspicion of espionage for Beijing, while British officials charged two men under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly spying on behalf of China.

For years, China has called on the United States to adopt “rational and practical” China policies, including in March when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Washington should view China’s development “objectively and rationally”.

Of course, the US sees China as a strategic competitor, with challenges between the two nations spanning the entire spectrum of their interests, ranging from political, economic and technological, to ideological, military, and security. From Washington’s standpoint, rational policies would involve putting its interests first.

In December, Beijing advised the Philippines to make a “rational choice” regarding maritime tensions in the South China Sea.

This advice came amidst months of maritime skirmishes between the two countries in the disputed waterways; just this week, Chinese coastguard vessels once again fired water cannons at a Philippine navy ship patrolling near the contested Scarborough Shoal.



Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of damaging its vessel in South China Sea

Philippines accuses Chinese coastguard of damaging its vessel in South China Sea

In July, China called on Germany to take a “rational” view of the country’s development after Berlin launched a 61-page strategy paper outlining its risk-reducing approach towards Beijing, including acknowledging China as a “competitor and systemic rival”.

In 2021, Beijing also urged Canada to “keep its eyes wide open” and adopt a “rational and pragmatic” policy toward China.

Those remarks were made after Chinese technology conglomerate Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was released after a three-year detention by Ottawa on fraud charges.

In international relations, countries pursue their preferences and national interests in a self-interested and rational way in order to maximise their advantage and minimise losses.

Nations are ultimately driven by practical factors, ranging from coercion and cost-benefit calculations to material incentives and strategic alliances, even countries thought to be irrational actors such as North Korea.



North Korea’s Kim Jong-un guides country’s 1st ‘nuclear trigger’ simulation drills

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un guides country’s 1st ‘nuclear trigger’ simulation drills

In urging other countries to adopt a “rational” approach, China seems to selectively overlook its own actions that instigated these nations to take measures they deem necessary to protect their own interests.

These include the EU’s actions against what it sees as Beijing’s unfair support for companies that undermine its European rivals and Manila’s increasingly confrontational stance in response to what it perceives to be aggressive behaviour by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea.

Beijing should reconsider, or perhaps even avoid, pressing for “rational” responses from countries with which it has ongoing disputes. Such calls often carry an admonishing tone and can come across as accusatory, which may only serve to exacerbate tensions rather than resolve them.

Countries already know what is in their best interests and do not need to be explicitly reminded. Exhorting them to be “rational” or keep their “eyes wide open” also carries the suggestion that they are either non-rational, or irrational, which is patronising and even condescending.

In geopolitics, where every action can have far-reaching consequences, true rationality involves acknowledging one’s own part in creating tensions and working constructively towards de-escalation.



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