China’s Recent Approach to Asia: Seeking Long Term Gains

China's Recent Approach to Asia
Seeking Long Term Gains

by Robert Sutter
March 1, 2002

In this essay, Robert Sutter, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, analyzes the domestic motivations behind China’s Asia policy and security framework.

The Chinese leadership has been developing a relatively pragmatic approach to China’s Asian neighbors for over twenty years. [1] Beijing has worked to sustain regional stability and has sought greater economic advantage and political influence, without compromising core Chinese territorial, security, or other interests. Its efforts encountered difficulties, notably in the early 1990s when China’s assertiveness regarding disputed territories along its eastern and southern flanks and its bellicose posture during the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995–96 alarmed its neighbors. Since then, Beijing has employed a new security concept based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence and has used high–level diplomacy and other extensive political, economic, and military exchanges to build contacts and influence throughout its periphery.

Some western assessments emphasize China’s determination to secure its boundaries from suspected U.S. containment and give pride of place to Chinese competition for influence with the United States. [2] In fact, the recent record shows keen Chinese awareness of the difficulties involved in China competing directly with the U.S. superpower, and there are instances where U.S. power and influence are beneficial to China. For example, Chinese leaders doubtlessly have mixed feelings regarding the recent expanded U.S. influence and military presence along China’s periphery in Central and South Asia, but, as was apparent during the cordial U.S.–China summit in Beijing in February 2002, they see China’s interests best served with a posture generally cooperative with the United States while pursuing improved Chinese relations and influence with the countries in the region. Overall, it appears that Beijing is determined to continue following a long–term strategy to pursue a range of Chinese objectives that in the process will broaden Chinese influence relative to that of the United States in the countries around China’s periphery.

The results of recent Chinese efforts have been generally positive for China. China has markedly improved its influence in Southeast Asia and in South Korea. Relations with Russia are much closer than many expected a few years ago, although Sino–Russian political ties are subject to change, depending partly on U.S. actions as both Moscow and Beijing give higher priority to their respective relations with the United States than they give to relations with one another. Assiduous Chinese efforts to build influence in Central Asia that would exclude the United States were set back as a result of the U.S. intervention during the war in Afghanistan in 2001–02, and efforts to improve Sino–Indian relations…

[1] Suisheng Zhao, China’s Periphery Policy, Taipei: Cross Strait Interflow Prospect Foundation, September 25, 2001 .

[2] Richard Sokolsky, Angel Rabasa, and C. R. Neu, The Role of Southeast Asia in U.S. Policy Toward China, Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corp., 2000.