The Good Neighbor: Why China Cooperates

By Wang, Lake | Harvard International Review, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Good Neighbor: Why China Cooperates


Wang, Lake, Harvard International Review


For much of Communist China's existence, ideology and revolution were cornerstones of the country's domestic and foreign policies. While aid and support was given to radical groups in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, wars were fought against India in 1962 and against the Soviet Union in 1969 because of trivial land disputes. The People's Republic of China (PRC) thus gained the reputation of an unstable and chaotic neighbor. The unpredictability of pre-1976 Chinese foreign policy was epitomized by the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s and rapprochement with the "great capitalist devil," the United States, in the early 1970s. However, in 1976, the death of the PRC's first leader, Mao Zedong, led to the ascension of Deng Xiaoping, a visionary who aimed to lead China on a path of pragmatism and economic growth in which foreign policy became less confrontational.

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The ascension of Deng Xiaoping in 1979-1980 meant that Chinese foreign and domestic policy was no longer dictated by political ideology but instead by practicality. Deng's "Four Modernizations," emphasized the growth of agriculture, industry, military might, and science over previous concerns regarding perpetual revolution and class struggle. This about-face meant that stability and economic growth would become the top priorities for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as the CCP could no longer rely on revolutionary ideology to legitimize government rule. More importantly, this pragmatic attitude led to economic liberalization and opened the Chinese economy to the global marketplace, permanently linking the fate of the CCP to its foreign policy. As the Chinese economy rapidly expanded, it became more dependent on international trade and began to prioritize stable diplomatic relations in order to ensure economic growth.

The importance of maintaining healthy and constructive relationships with other nations, especially the United States and China's neighbors, ensured that China has often had to adopt an accommodating and non-assertive stance on many international issues. For example, in a 2005 article published in International Security on China's compromises and territorial disputes, political scientist Taylor Fravel found that China "has offered substantial compromises in most of these settlements, usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land." Furthermore, China has tried hard to convince both its neighbors and the world that it is intent on rising peacefully by joining and encouraging multilateral organizations and also by working with the United States on issues such as terrorism and trade.

However, China's recent military modernization, as exemplified by the anti-satellite missile testing in January 2007, has led many observers to claim that China will become more assertive and aggressive in its foreign policy in the near future, especially with regard to Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. With a restless population that is often riled up by nationalistic propaganda, it is possible that the CCP will turn toward aggressive means in order to ensure survival. But even as it seems that China will begin to assert itself further in international arenas, it is easy to forget that the legitimacy and ultimate survival of the CCP rests on economic growth that is highly dependent on trade, foreign investments, and access to natural resources and foreign technology. As a result of these strong economic incentives, Chinese foreign policy will largely remain pragmatic and diplomatic.

Regional Multilateralism: Means to an End

With the Chinese economy growing at breakneck speed, the larger Asian economy has become intertwined with Chinese development. Raw materials and capital flow into China, and cheap manufactured goods from China propel the service sectors of the other Asian economies. In Northeast Asia, China recently became both Japan's and South Korea's primary trading partner, with commerce likely to pick up with the passage of a looming trade agreement between the Chinese and the South Koreans. …

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