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Chinese Views on Asia-Pacific Regional Security Cooperation

Susan L. Shirk

China’s international status has been transformed by its dramatic economic growth. China’s economic potential, fettered for 30 years by the closed, centrally planned economic system, has been released. The success of China’s market reforms has transformed it almost overnight into the world’s eleventh-largest trading nation and, according to the International Monetary Fund, the second-largest economy. With the fastest growing economy in the world and a massive market of 1.2 billion people, China possesses a powerful attraction for investors from throughout the world, particularly Chinese from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao, and Southeast Asia. Economic inefficiencies and irrationalities remain, particularly in state-owned industry; and double-digit growth rates are partly caused by a bubble economy of speculation. Nevertheless, there is more substance than air in the Chinese economic miracle.

China’s national power also has been augmented by the military modernization program that has been funded by rapid economic growth. With new resources to spend, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is purchasing modern hardware in order to reverse years of stagnation and neglect. The Russians are eager to sell state-of-the-art fighter aircraft and other equipment to China at bargain prices. Having become a major trading nation and oil importer, China needs to protect its access to the sea-lanes of commerce from Asia to the Middle East. Although China’s leaders insist that the military modernization program is purely defensive, they have been making acquisitions, such as midair refueling aircraft and amphibious assault equipment, that are normally associated with the projection of force.

As an ascendant major power, China faces new opportunities and challenges to its foreign policy, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Although China’s leaders are preoccupied with internal economic and political issues, they recognize that a successful modernization program depends on a peaceful external environment. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has faced no overt external threats; yet like other countries in the region, it confronts an uncertain future, particularly regarding the United States, Japan, Russia, North and South Korea, and the relations among them.

In the past, China’s rulers preferred to manage relations with other major powers by relying on balance of power methods, not by organizing joint efforts. The communist leaders inherited the tradition of preserving security by "pitting barbarian against barbarian." Today China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and Chinese leaders go along with many multilateral agreements and processes at the global level. But until recently they have not shown any enthusiasm for regional cooperation on military or political issues.3 China continues to favor bilateralism over multilateralism in its regional relations. During the past several years it has improved its ties with Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia by establishing bilateral dialogues and confidence-building measures with them.

What is new in China’s regional policies, however, is a nascent and still tentative interest in cooperative approaches to managing the security and political relations among states. During a May 1994 visit to China I had discussions with approximately 20 senior officials and policy analysts on the subject of regional security cooperation. These discussions were instructive regarding how China’s general policy toward regional cooperation has evolved in a more positive direction; why China now sees regional cooperation as in its interests; and what constraints exist on how fast or far China moves toward cooperation.