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Regional 'godfather' or local bully?

Protesters set sail from Hong Kong in May 1997 for the islands known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan  

A look at China's relations with its neighbors

By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- China's policies concerning its regional neighbors appear, at first, to be quite idiosyncratic.

One year after its founding in 1949, the People's Republic entered a war on the side of Communist ally North Korea against an anti-Communist United Nations force. Three decades later Chinese troops clashed with forces from Communist Vietnam in a brief war that combined a border dispute with ideological issues.

Map: China and its neighbors

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In recent years China has quarreled with Japan over who controls a desolate group of islands 112 miles northeast of Taiwan. The islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu and the Japanese call Senkaku, are known historically as productive fisheries, but the area also may contain oil and gas reserves.

Beijing also has claimed total control over the Spratly Islands, an archipelago believed to be rich in oil and mineral deposits off the coast of southern Vietnam in the South China Sea. That assertion is contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, each of which claims all or part of the Spratlys.

China's mixed signals

Chinese warships
As a show of force in a confrontation with the Philippines in December 1998, three Chinese warships anchored within the Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands  

China officially pursues what it calls an "independent and peaceful foreign policy."

"China does not participate in the arms race, nor does it seek military expansion," said then-Chinese Premier Li Peng in a 1996 speech intended to clarify Beijing's foreign policy.

Li also underscored China's opposition to hegemonism -- one nation seeking greater influence over another. China, he said, was against "power politics, aggression and expansion in whatever form, as well as encroachments perpetrated by one country on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another, or interference in the internal affairs of another nation under the pretext of ethnic, religious or human rights issues."

Warren Cohen, professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says Beijing's regional policies are sending a mixed message.

"What you get is a signal that 'We have the power.' But there's a certain amount of restraint. They want very much to be the dominant power in East Asia without having to use force," said Cohen, author of several books on China, including "America's Response to China."

Michael Swaine, research director for the Rand Corporation's Center for Asia-Pacific Policy, believes China wants to assert its control over certain parts of East Asia without letting the process escalate into a military confrontation.

Swaine says there have been exceptions to that rule, such as China's brief wars with India in 1962 and with Vietnam in 1979.

"The Chinese have used military force in the past in the belief they could convey a lesson," he says. "They do believe military force can be applied in a limited situation to back up diplomacy."

Post-Cold War landscape

What has changed in recent years is an apparent shift in Beijing's world view as it copes with the new, post-Cold War era.

"China has viewed itself as both an international and a regional power," says Steven Goldstein, professor of government at Smith College and author of several books on Chinese politics. "As reforms started in the late 1970s and '80s, China's emphasis was on the global balance of power ... but there is a lot more for them to be paying attention to now in Asia."

Goldstein says the political situation in Asia is unusual because there are now two strong powers in the region -- Japan and China.

Japan's Imperial Army captured Nanjing in late 1937 and went on a two-month spree of brutality. At least 300,000 Chinese civilians died, according to the latest research.  

"Each of them sees themselves as a global power and a central regional power," he says. "Historically there has been a see-saw; when one is down the other is up. I think the central dynamic is two powers totally distrustful of each other. As far as the Chinese are concerned, Japan has never done what Germany has done, to take full blame for the [atrocities committed during World War II], so China takes a distrustful line toward the Japanese."

Goldstein suggests that China has also been able to take advantage of its own history -- specifically the intervention and exploitation of China in the 19th and early 20th centuries by overseas powers -- not just at home but also in international relations.

"There is this cultivation of victimization for two reasons," he says. "To drum up support for the regime and second as a bargaining ploy. When they sit down at the negotiating table [with other countries] they can use it to take the moral high ground -- 'Look what you've done to us.'"

Says Swaine: "The whole question of territorial claims for the Chinese in general are bound up with issues of equity and justice, based on the last 150 years of imperialist aggression. There's a lot of symbolic sensitivity. The [Chinese] leadership doesn't want to be seen as too weak, yet too assertive."

'Realpolitik' calculations

China's size and status have come to its advantage at recent negotiations between China, the United States and the two Koreas designed to bring a lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula. Korean diplomacy presents a challenge to China's foreign ministry. Beijing's trade negotiations with Seoul could be seen as running counter to China's longtime support of its former comrades-in-arms in North Korea.

"There's more of a realpolitik calculation in the Chinese mind," Swaine says. "They don't want to have North Korea go down the tubes. They prefer to have a buffer of sorts on the Korean Peninsula, a regime hostile to the U.S., and they don't want to be seen as turning their back on North Korean credibility."

Swaine also believes China's recent efforts to modernize the military are geared more toward showing its people that the country can defend itself and that it can remain free from overseas coercion.

"The Chinese do not feel this immeasurable self-confidence that they have the run of the roost in Asia," he says. "They want to attend to crises within 500 miles of their borders, and that really requires theater denial capabilities. They can't really prevent other sophisticated powers from dominating their borders [now] in a time of crisis."

Swaine believes China's policy toward its neighbors is ambiguous; it is more concerned with domestic order, political stability and economic development.

"I think China wants to be seen as a global power in the sense of its status," he says, "a global decision-maker because it has nuclear weapons, because it is on the United Nations Security Council, because of its sheer size and expanse. On that basis China thinks it should have a place in the global arena.

"But does that translate," Swaine asks, "into an aspiration for global military power, like the United States? I don't see the Chinese thinking in those terms."

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