Driven mainly by domestic imperatives, China has emerged as a new economic and political player in its region. This rise coincides with a tendency towards autocratisation in Asia that has been facilitated to some extent by a convergence of the interests of China’s and its neighbours governments. Faced with this reality, the West should reflect on its strategies for the further enhancement of human development: it should integrate China into the donor architecture, help it to improve its domestic governance and pursue a more principled engagement in Asian developing countries.
China’s domestic politics
China has undergone impressive social, cultural and socioeconomic development during the last three decades. It has liberalized its economy and reorganized its state bureaucracy, and new social classes have emerged. While major transformations of its economic system have significantly affected Chinese society, the country’s political order of single-party dictatorship has remained intact. Despite its shift from totalitarianism to a merely authoritarian regime, the Chinese governance system continues to consist of a double structure in which the Communist Party’s monopoly of power is based on control over state personnel. The stability of this political order, which is built on a highly exclusive party, relies heavily on the repression of political and civil freedoms that might bring about organized opposition. Consequently, the Communist Party has replaced control over individuals, formerly exercised through the commune system, with a new security apparatus, including tight media control, trained armed police forces and a controlled judicial system. While restricting the political rights of the people, the Communist party leadership justifies its monopoly by referring to its benevolence. As the transformation of the socialist economy advanced, the Chinese government became heavily dependent on the economic prosperity needed to create the jobs that would eradicate poverty and improve living conditions. Its economic success and the enormous progress in poverty reduction notwithstanding, the Chinese leadership has come under pressure from increasingly visible social disruptions, income inequalities and widespread corruption. Confronted with a rising number of public protests, the government has tried to redirect domestic discontent in nationalist campaigns aimed at the outside world and responded to social discontent by promising more social justice and more balanced economic development. In sum, 30 years after economic liberalization began,China’s considerable international economic weight is not matched by political stability, and its domestic political order rests on a relatively fragile base.
China’s regional policy
China’s external relations, especially with its neighbours are strongly influenced by its internal development, and its regional policy is guided by its internal needs. Key factors driving the government’s regional policy are the quest for territorial integrity and internal security, domestic pressure to develop Chinese society further by providing jobs and the need for natural resources to feed the economy.
Irrespective of long historical ties, China’s engagement with its neighbours is relatively new, but has developed rapidly. In the first decade of adopting a more open approach, Beijing focused on relations with the USA, paying less attention to the developing world, but during the 1990s the Chinese government developed apronounced interest in its regional neighbourhood. Starting in the early 1990s with cautious attempts to normalise its relations with its neighbours, China was brought closer to its region by the Asian financial crisis. Since then, China has actively sought to engage with its neighbours and has increasingly initiated regional cooperation, which has been reflected in soaring bilateral trade and investments in the new millennium.
In China’s regional environment, territorial integrity is not only a reference to the Taiwan issue, a generally dominant consideration in its external relations: it also extends to China’s internal security, especially in the context of its huge and sparsely populated Autonomous Regions Tibet and Xinjiang. Rich in natural resources,these vast territories in the West of the country are strategically important. Home to ethnic and religious minorities also to be found in neighbouring Nepal, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, these economically disadvantaged territories are particularly unstable and prone to social or separatist unrest, as the protests in Xinjiang have recently shown. In its effort to remain in political control of these territories, the Chinese government is trying to reinforce its domestic settlement policy of assimilating and demographically crowding out minorities by bilaterally and multilaterally involving its South and Central Asian neighbours in measures to combat the “three evils” of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
From an economic perspective, too, China’s internal development strategy since the mid-1990s has incorporated its regional neighbours more explicitly than before. Its political order remains heavily dependent on its economic growth. An important aspect in this context is the ever growing disparity within the country between its industrialised East and its very backward West. Having directed foreign capital, technologies and know-how towards the country’s eastern coastal area in the first decades of reform, the government has tried to redress the development balance in recent years by enabling provincial governments to cooperate more closely with China’s geographical neighbours. Consequently, in no more than a decade, Chinese provinces have become, for neighbouring Asian countries, a major trading partner, one of the most important foreign investors and a valuable alternative donor. In line with its “going out” policy, designed to enhance the competitiveness of strategic state-owned corporations, especially in the energy sector, the Chinese government is concentrating its economic assistance and regionaloutward investment on developing new export markets and exploiting natural resources, which usually entailsthe provision of infrastructure, such as highways, railways, canals, ports and pipelines.
However, China’s cultivation of its regional environment,reflected in ever closer economic ties, goes well beyond economic interests in that it also pays political and geostrategic dividends. Since the Chinese government realised in the mid-1990s that a hostile regionalenvironment could seriously threaten China’s development if it were to endorse the USA’s containment policy, China has launched a charm offensive aimed at its neighbours. The Chinese leadership reacted to their fears of China’s growing economic and military power by peacefully settling its border disputes with all its neighbours except India, by revising its aggressive approach to the disputed oil-rich islands in the South China Sea with a multilateral agreement, by intensifying bilateral diplomatic and economic relations with all its neighbours and by acting as a promoter in such multilateral regional organisations as ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. In this context, the Asian financial crisis turned out to be a key event in China’s efforts to appease the region, since it presented an opportunity for the Chinese government to prove its peaceful intentions.
With its very successful charm offensive, the Chinese government has laid sound foundations for pursuing its more extensive geostrategic interests in neighbouring countries. Many of China’s foreign infrastructure projects, especially the construction of ports in Pakistan, Cambodia and SriLanka, are of a dual-use nature and could be of strategic value for the Chinese navy not only as a means of securing oil-shipping routes through the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but also in the event of military conflict over Taiwan.