China's Pragmatic Rise and U.S. Interests in East Asia

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IS CHINESE FOREIGN POLICY undergoing a profound change? During most of the past five decades of Communist rule, China's foreign policy reflected a strong tendency toward bilateral relations and a readiness, if not a predilection, to use force to assert its will. Even as recently as the mid-1990s, China used military power to bolster its claims in the South China Sea and to threaten political stability in Taiwan. However, while this sort of assertive use of power still remains in China's quiver of foreign policy options, Chinese diplomacy has become dramatically more prevalent around the globe, especially in East Asia.

For instance, China was active in forming the Association of Southeast Asian Nations +3 (ASEAN +3) forum, which includes the ten ASEAN member countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia) plus China, Japan, and South Korea. The forum was created to prevent a repeat of the 1997 financial crisis that devastated East Asian economies, but it now increasingly deals with issues tied to security. ASEAN +3 recently participated in talks concerning the possible development of an East Asian Community (EAC), which would include the ASEAN +3 countries and India, Australia, and New Zealand.

China has also been active in multilateral diplomacy in Northeast Asia. The nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula prompted the creation of the Six-Party Talks, with China playing an important role in the negotiations among North Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. The talks gave China a chance to assume a good deal of responsibility for Northeast Asian affairs and the maintenance of a stable Korean peninsula. They also provided a venue for China to improve its relations with the United States, Russia, and especially South Korea.

All of these developments point to China's increased use of cooperative diplomacy, but does this shift in attitude portend a fundamental, lasting change in Chinese foreign policy? I believe that it does not. China's strategic outlook has always featured a pragmatic attitude about using military force to attain results. Its show of restraint now is a symptom of the environment its leaders face. Simply put, diplomacy and restraint have practical advantages for China's leaders.

China has long understood that change is inevitable. This outlook has influenced China's grand strategy, which has four goals: maintaining domestic stability, ensuring territorial integrity, developing a strong military, and increasing geopolitical influence. China has prudently perceived the post-Cold War era as a window of opportunity to make gains toward its four goals by using "soft-power" diplomacy. (1) This window opens wider the longer the United States remains enmeshed in the Middle East and Central Asia. In addition, China has come to view its participation in multinational organizations as an enabler not only for pursuing greater geopolitical influence, but also for countering U.S. influence. With this in mind, China is participating in efforts to develop the aforementioned EAC. Unlike the existing ASEAN Regional Forum, the EAC will include only countries from East and South Asia.

By acting as a responsible, cooperative stakeholder in the region, China also aims to re-shape its old image as a potential military threat. The old image dominated many Asian states' thinking about China during the Cold War, driving them to seek alliances with the United States. By adopting a more peaceful image, China is seeking to change these alliances.

From the perspective of U.S. interests, the greatest strategic challenge in East Asia is how to respond to increasing Chinese influence. The best U.S. strategy should entail improvement of its existing system of bilateral alliances and focusing diplomatic efforts toward resolving major regional security issues. The most pressing issues include limiting Chinese influence to ensure continued economic access, deterring conflict, and preventing a strategic arms race in the region. …