China's Foreign Policy
and Role in Southeast Asia
by Howard Fienberg, Spring 1997, for Professor Neil Robinson
It contains a huge chunk of the world's population - that
alone gives China
impact. But more so is its rapid economic growth (a quadrupling of per capita
GDP since 1978 and 16% per year increases in foreign trade between 1978 and
1994), and its military power (including a nuclear arsenal) make China a force to be reckoned with, most
importantly in Southeast Asia.
The first place to focus is on China's
policy towards Hong Kong and Taiwan,
both of which it feels are part of itself. Hong Kong, long a colony of the UK, is set to
be handed over to Chinese rule shortly. Under British rule, it was a financial
and commercial success, a bastion of capitalism, right on the Communist Chinese
mainland. No one is exactly certain of how China
will rule over Hong Kong. Most agree that China would be foolish to tamper with Hong Kong's economic success by intervening too much.
However, it is unclear whether China
can bear a zone of freedom within its own borders; it is doubtful that China stand to
allow the price of that freedom, even given the assumed economic benefit. While
China's rule of Hong Kong will affect many people beyond its borders
(investors, corporations), the handover is a moot point.
is a different story. As the refuge for Chiang KaiShek
and the "republicans" who lost the civil war in China in 1947,
it has evolved into a bona fide democracy and a major economic power. China has not
been impressed. It harasses nations that recognize Taiwan
(the Republic of China) rather than mainland China
(the People's Republic of China);
there is no compromise, and it is called the "One China" policy.
While China often feared an
invasion from Taiwan in the
past, nowadays it is the Chinese who threaten Taiwan. Experts agree that China
does not have anywhere near enough transport boats to mount an invasion of
Taiwan, but that does not make China any less frightening, if it wants to flex
its muscles. Last year's military exercises and missile drills in the Taiwan
Straits were intended as a warning to the Taiwanese, who were voting for a new
president. It was a warning not to give power to the most likely candidate, who
advocated finding Taiwan a
role in the world independent of the shadow of China. Although the US navy moved in to provide a buffer, the point
was made, and Taiwan
voted for a moderate. Taiwan
has extensive investment in the mainland, and China
relies on it for much, but there is little doubt that China holds the
better hand in this poker match.
Vietnam and China have been
squabbling for eons, and that is unlikely to change. Both countries were
formerly strict communists, and hence bitter rivals (Vietnam was aided by the Soviets
rather than Mao and company), but their difficulties are deeply rooted in
history. While they haven't gone to war in the last few years, their next
likely clash will be over the return of Vietnamese boat people, whom China wishes to eject from Hong
Kong when it takes over.
An important trading partner, and Japanese business licks its chops at the
thought of China's
untapped resources. Japan
feels guilty about its treatment of the Chinese in the past, and the Chinese
use that to milk Tokyo for as much assistance as
possible - it also doesn't hurt China's
own efforts at nation-building. China
takes its relations with Japan
carefully, because there is a growing public annoyance with a perceived
Japanese economic invasion, and the spreading conviction that it is Japan which is propping up the Beijing regime.
Islands in Japanese) Japan erected a
lighthouse on these disputed islands, and the Chinese public reaction was
vehement. Chinese authorities milked the issue for the nationalism it was
worth, but quickly reeled in the noisemakers when they proved troublesome - it
seemed that China
was not ready to start a fight about them.
The Spratley Islands.
These islands, which may turn out to be the Pacific region's largest oil
stockpile, are subject to disputed claims by a half dozen nations, including China.
friends, the Khmer Rouge, it was known as Democratic Kampuchea, a.k.a. mass
genocide at home. China
has tried to reign in the rebels in the 1990's, as people have tried to rebuild
the country. Whether or not they have really quit their support for the
guerrillas remains to be seen.
activity abroad has increased since the end of the Cold War, as China has felt
more emboldened. Most countries in the region fear China, militarily and economically,
and wish to ally with it in both areas where possible. Soft-pedaling is the
norm for SEA relations with China.
role in the region looks to be, for the foreseeable future, as a rather large
troublemaker and bully. It is unlikely to be checked by anyone else in the
region. For the most part SEA countries are trying to take China under their wing, to deal with China in a
friendly manner. This is aimed at the hope of reforming China, as well
as extracting economic gain. And everyone is praying that they don't get
stabbed in the back during the waltz.
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