Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy since the Cold War

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Chinese Foreign Relations: Power and Policy since the Cold War, by Robert G. Sutter. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. viii + 437 pp. US$79.00/£52.00/ euro81.90 (hardcover), US$32.95/£21.99/euro34.63 (paperback).

This is an excellent survey of contemporary Chinese foreign policy, well-suited to use in university classes. With thirty-three years' service analyzing Chinese foreign policy, in both legislative and executive branches of the US government, Sutter's judgements are balanced and mature. His writing style is lucid and his presentation of arguments clear and systematic. Sutter frequently reprises different interpretations of various aspects of China's foreign policy, and does so with fairness and balance. He is not loath to come down on one or the other side of these debates, but does so only after clearly laying out both sides of the argument.

Sutter's overarching thesis is that China's post-Cold War foreign policy is determined through a pragmatic calculation of China's interests, possible gains, losses and risks, plus probabilities of outcomes, pretty much on a case-by-case basis, by a relatively small élite. He frames this in terms of two contending interpretations of Chinese foreign policy. The first is that China's leaders have adopted, and agree on by at least a near-consensus, a long-term strategy of "peace and development". The well-known imperatives of sustaining China's remarkably successful post- 1978 development drive underpin this "line", and mean that China will avoid serious conflict with its neighbors and with other powers, including the United States. Fear of China using its growing power to coerce other states, or to confront the United States over Taiwan, is thus misplaced, according to this interpretation. A second point of view (which Sutter eventually embraces) is that there are very different opinions within China's decision-making élite, with some influential voices, especially in the military, viewing the world as a very dark and hostile place in which China must be prepared to use force when necessary to defend its interests. Under certain circumstances, this more gloomy and coercive perspective might prevail.

Several sets of evidence tip Sutter's judgement toward the second point of view. One is occurrence of periodic debates over China's foreign policy line: in the mid-1990s over multipolarity and unipolarity, and again in 1999 over military spending and the nature of China's international environment. Whatever the nature of the "peace and development" line, Sutter notes that this "line" has apparently been challenged and debated continually within China's élite. We know exceedingly little about China's internal foreign policy debates, Sutter stresses, but what we know suggests the existence of strong opponents of the reassuring, non-coercive approach of "peace and development". …