China in Search of a Dominant Role

By Shuja, Sharif M. | Contemporary Review, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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China in Search of a Dominant Role


Shuja, Sharif M., Contemporary Review


In recent years, China has developed a mixed economic system in which power lies with a relatively small group of descendants of the founders of the present regime. The current preoccupation of Chinese rulers is to accumulate wealth, avoid chaos and to make China militarily strong. The agenda of the recent summit between Jiang Zemin and President Clinton included the implementation of the 1985 US-China Nuclear Co-operation Accord, a Military Maritime Co-operation Agreement, the purchase of thirty Boeing aircraft worth some US$ 2 billion and increased US support for China's admission to the World Trade Organisation.

China's large military budget and its March 1997 defence technological modernization programme with Russia, would make China more powerful. Russia agreed to sell China two squadrons of the advanced SU-27 aircraft which should increase China's strike power significantly. Similarly, China's capacity to project force at sea has been augmented by the purchase of 10-12 kilo class submarines from Russia. According to American sources, China has also recruited hundreds and perhaps thousands of redundant Russian specialists from the former Soviet military-industrial complex to assist in the technological upgrading of China's own weapons establishment. Actually, there have been and are many in Japan and the USA who view China as a threat. It is true that the military co-operation between the US and China broke down in 1989 after the Tiananmen square massacre and has just been resumed recently and that China's missile test near Taiwan caused much trouble and great fears in the US and Japan. On the other hand, under the heightened tension, as China's military capabilities are technologically dated and less reliable, the US navy has been able to control the manoeuvres of the Chinese navy. Despite these difficulties, tensions and fears, the exchange of military missions and ministers between Japan and China has been carried out recently without much domestic discussion. Thus military co-operation among China, the US and Japan has had ups and downs.

As Beijing seeks to regain what it sees as its proper place in the international community, and adopts economic and defence policies which will enable it to develop to its full potential, whilst ensuring the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), one could argue that China aims to be the strongest power in Asia by early in the next century. There is little doubt that the state with the greatest economic potential in East Asia is China. China contains 68 per cent of the East Asian territory and some 65 per cent of the East Asian population. It is now the second largest economy in the world and within the next fifty years will be the largest, passing the USA. As economic strength has become the major index of power, it might be reasonable to conclude that China's assumption of a major global role is inevitable. China is also one of the world's nuclear weapon states, as well as having a conventional military capacity greater than any other country in East Asia. Also, after decades of effective international isolation, China is exhibiting an activist - some of its neighbours would say aggressive - foreign policy. Thus, China's development as a superpower is beginning to concern the West and China's neighbours.

However, pragmatic observers, including the business community in the West and Japan, see the opportunities presented by China. They know that a more open China will benefit the West and Japan. The Clinton Administration's new realism in dealing with China shows that it has recognised America's interest in engaging China constructively on economic, security and strategic issues, instead of trying to isolate it. The US has long-term strategic and security interests at stake in maintaining good working relations with China, including obtaining Beijing's co-operation on key international issues, such as arms control, the development and transfer of missile technology, environmental degradation, political stability on the Korean Peninsula, etc.

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