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Shaping China's Future in World Affairs: The U.S. Role

Authored by Robert G. Sutter.

April 25, 1996

37 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In April 1996, the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute held its Seventh Annual Strategy Conference. This year's theme was, "China Into the 21st Century: Strategic Partner and . . . or Peer Competitor."

Robert G. Sutter, a Senior Specialist in International Policy with the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, sets the scene for his discussion of the U.S. role in China's future by providing a comprehensive analysis of the key factors that shape China's domestic and international policies. He outlines a mixed picture--a regime today that is pragmatic in its international political and economic relations but highly protective on territorial and sovereignty issues. He also notes that it is a regime in transition and articulates the various interpretations of where that transition might be headed.

But if understanding China is vital to effective U.S. policy, so too are achieving consensus on U.S. objectives and framing coherent courses of action. On this count, Dr. Sutter finds several competing outlooks at work, both within and outside the U.S. Government. His review of these suggests that Chinese leaders will have as much difficulty predicting the future course of American policy as the other way around.

Dr. Sutter concludes his paper with several useful guidelines for those charged with formulating instrumental policy with respect to China. These insights complete a thorough survey of the major issues, interactions, and choices which will shape the U.S.-China strategic relationship.

Introduction

Backed by impressive economic growth and steadily increasing military power, China's international influence has grown substantially in recent years. Beijing's growing assertiveness in a variety of areas from trade policy to the Taiwan Strait has challenged important interests of the United States and others with a concern for international stability. Chinese power poses a set of questions markedly different than a few years ago when China's leaders appeared as an isolated and troubled regime following the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In many important respects, Chinese leaders since the late 1970s have followed generally pragmatic policies that have integrated China's economy more closely with the rest of the world. The result has been a foreign policy seeking greater economic advantage in order to improve the material standard of living of the Chinese people and to increase support for continued Chinese communist rule. Seeking economic advantage has prompted Chinese leaders to be more flexible than in the past on differences with neighbors and to curb actions disruptive to the prevailing status quo in Asian and world affairs.

Although optimists judge that China's growing economic and military power will be moderated by an ever widening web of international interdependence, skeptics suspect that greater power will allow Beijing to be more assertive in backing nationalistic, territorial or other demands. Of course, actual Chinese policy could turn out to be moderate on some issues (e.g., trade disputes) and more assertive on others (e.g., territorial disputes). Political and economic developments inside China will partly determine whether Beijing follows an accommodating or assertive foreign policy. Determinants outside China include the important role U.S. policy plays in influencing Chinese behavior.

Largely because of China's closer economic interaction with the rest of the world, especially with the free market states of Asia and the West, China's future is more dependent than before on external factors. Inasmuch as other international actors in Asia and the West generally refrain from confronting China on difficult issues without the backing of the United States, it seems clear that the United States will be a key determinant in whether or not the international system constrains and presses China in the future. Heavy international pressure led by the United States against China could prompt the PRC to recalculate the costs and benefits of its recent pragmatic and interactive approach to foreign affairs in favor of a more autarkic and assertive posture designed to reduce dependency and protect Chinese interests under U.S.-led pressure. On the other hand, the United States also has an opportunity to play a supportive role in China's development and interaction with the international system. This U.S. approach would involve a path of careful engagement, continuing vigilance against potentially disruptive and deviant Chinese behavior, and encouragement of PRC growth and influence with a goal of seeing China's power channeled along routes acceptable and helpful to broader goals of international development and peace.


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