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.


Greater China


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.

Taiwan 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. 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.


Japan. 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.


Diaoyu Islands. (Senkaku 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.


Cambodia. Under China's 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.

Basically, China's 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. China's 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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