The picture emerging is that China’s international affairs are steered by divergent interests that haven’t been able to agree on a unified growth narrative. Chinese cores of power agree where they want to go, the ambition and drive are palpable. But the values, the narrative, the reason for going there, the mission, the moral “manifest destiny”, is absent.
If China had wielded a veto over the Libya resolution it would have meant days of horrendous television imagery from Benghazi, often constructed as being made possible by a Chinese veto, and hence for example no huge trade deals with Berlin. With the Arab League supporting intervention China had no real excuse to say no. China was paying homage to Western humanitarian values when it abstained in the UNSC vote. Not necessarily because it holds those values to be self evident.
China on the whole understands the need to present its rise to its Western consumers as a peaceful one. In complex or less relevant contexts such as Sudan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Pakistan and various other locales it can act without compunction because few consumers are watching. When cameras are present however, things are different. China needs the West to buy, its rise is powered largely by demand from abroad. It must cater to Western values and play according to the rules in order not to alienate its consumers.
The South China Sea is where China seems to be meeting a Waterloo already. It seems it has already gone too far as Vietnam, the Phillipines and others now see the US as indispensable in a new balance of power that will probably favour the smaller powers. China can’t make a fist without appeasing its neighbours and that, with its cards now visible, seems impossible. The potential value of Pakistan then is that it could provide China with an alternative route to the Gulf. Still if China considered Pakistan potentially fit to host an oil pipeline bypassing the Malacca straight and troublesome neighbours it might try to stabilize things there, which doesn’t seem to be the case right now.
In summation it seems Chinese foreign affairs are immature. It must raise a global values based profile like the US did and export a set of values that form a viable alternative to the US. That’s much more than being a responsible stakeholder, it is internalizing the notion that the outside world can not be fitted into an ideological framework but has to be approached with universally acceptable values. If China wants to trump the US, it has to become it.