China engages Asia: A new regional order?

18 July 2004

David Shambaugh, Professor of International Affairs and Political Science and Director of the China Policy Program at The George Washington University, said that he was convinced that the relationship between the EU and Asia and particularly between EU and China was emerging as one of the principal axes in a changing world order. He was impressed by the initiatives the European Commission had taken toward China and Asia on the whole. “We are living through a time of fundamental changes and departures from certain characteristics that have defined the region since the 1950s. Structural changes and the erosion of established system that came with the end of the Cold War in Europe are now only hitting Asia. This comes with institutional changes and a replacement of traditional actors,” he said. He speculated that China might be on its way to returning to the position of a central actor in the Asian regional system, similar to the role it played before the advent of European colonialism.

The roots of a new regional order

“As China increases its influence in the region, other Asian governments are beginning to look to Beijing for leadership, at maximum, and at a minimum looking to China to take its views into consideration in major policy decisions,” he said. China’s diplomacy in multilateral organisations such as the UN now showed a confidence and an “omni-directionality” that was proactive. Economically, China was becoming the major engine of growth in the region and the “centre of an interdependent economic web” that was pulling along the Japanese recovery, Professor Shambaugh said. China’s military was also modernizing and its security policies now seemed more “benign” than ever before. “China is learning how to play the PR game in Asia, using its diplomacy and skill for media affairs.” One example was its launch of a propaganda campaign around “China’s peaceful rise” which had been developed by Chinese scholars as an alternative to the ‘Chinese threat theory’ on the one end of the spectrum and the ‘Chinese collapse theory’ on the other end. The Chinese government had felt a need to articulate an alternative vision, though there were still ongoing discussions on the implications of the term “rise” in selling what was to be a peaceful regional strategy. Countries in the region were adapting to these changing realities, Professor Shambaugh said and a new regional order was taking shape.

Changes in Asian regionalism

These shifts in regional order could be linked to increasing economic interdependence, an overall expansion and better integration of sub-regions in the area, which now engaged more closely, the growth of regional multilateralism and the accompanying institutions and an emerging regional security system. “There are still elements of the old that could rupture this peace,” Professor Shambaugh acknowledged, “but the willingness to preserve the peace is predominant.” Threats to peace in the region could only originate from three places – Kashmir, North Korea and Taiwan – whereas the region had been far more volatile a few years ago.

Is Asia becoming ‘China-centric’?

This assumption was premature, he said. China shared the regional stage with the US, ASEAN, Japan and India, and did not yet dominate the region or other partners. The US influence was on the decline in the region, although it was still a powerful force. The Japanese economic weight was still considerable and ASEAN’s normative power was significant. China was not emerging as a destabilising, but as a status quo power. In the 1950s and 1960s China had tried to undermine the status quo and spread the Maoist ideology, while it had been relatively passive and reactive to its environment in the 1980s and nineties. This had changed. All border disputes, with the exception of that with India, had now been resolved. He speculated that China might well be in a position to help in resolving the Kashmir crisis much as it is engaged in finding a tenable solution to problems with North Korea. China’s posture as an “exporter of goodwill and consumer durables” was growing, while its image of a communist propaganda machine was waning. China had managed to rupture with its “extreme introspection and insularity” after the June 1989 incidents to “put right” its relationships with other independent nation-states. Ties with the US and Europe, for instance, had never been better.

Returning to China’s diplomatic and military posture, Professor Shambaugh said that one rarely heard about the “looming angst” of other regional countries of Chinese military build-up or fears of a Chinese hegemony in the region. The country was increasingly seen as a “good listener” engaged in multilateral diplomacy. It had held high-level government meetings with 17 neighbouring countries and its diplomatic energy focused on sending high-ranking officials to these countries which were very active on the ground. China was increasingly exporting its conflict prevention strategies and means for sound sub-state relations rather than clinging to communist ideals as export goods. While the 1998 New Security Concept had been initially dismissed by others a propaganda, it was not taken seriously and embraced with the same normative energies as ASEAN principles. According to Professor Shambaugh, there was real convergence between Chinese and ASEAN principles.

Over the past few years China had made increased efforts to attract foreign students to its university campuses. While it still sent scores (70,000 to the US and 60,000 to the UK) of its students abroad, thousands of students from neighbouring and regional countries were coming in to the country, including 13,000 from Japan and 4,000 from Vietnam. This training would have an impact on regional elites in the long run, Professor Shambaugh said. Importing management structures and other ‘soft powers’ from neighbouring countries would pay off for China.

Retracing the development

The current situation was linked to core elements in an incremental process. Firstly, Japanese sanctions against Beijing issued following the 1989 incidents, were loosened within a year. Other regional powers had abstained from taking action. ASEAN had taken a different approach and chosen to engage with China instead of isolating the country. This had left China with an overall positive impression of its neighbours. Secondly, the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis had prompted the Chinese government to act in a stabilising manner – it decided not to lower currency rates and instead lent money to other regional powers. This did much to arrest the crisis, according to Professor Shambaugh, as it was the first time China had tried to become proactive on regional policy. Between 1997 and 2001 there was a fundamental evolution in China’s attitude toward multilateral regional institutions. Experts, scholars and officials were sent to observe existing institutions. This had gone hand-in-hand with the fourth point, namely the promotion of China’s New Security Agenda after 1997, which promoted the view that alliances were only necessary to shield against threats. Lastly, changes in China’s diplomatic outlook could be linked to the aftermath of the Chinese Mission bombing by NATO forces in Belgrade. This had stirred up a heated debate on a new diplomatic blueprint. While it had led to a reaffirmation of underlying policy paradigms, it had added a modern twist: an emphasis on peaceful relations with the neighbourhood and greater activity on the periphery. The stabilisation of relations with the US was an important component of this approach. China was now engaged with ASEAN + 3, which should evolve within the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC), Professor Shambaugh said. On the military side, China had tabled a proposal for consideration at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) suggesting that defence and other military officials from all countries might attend the annual meetings. The relationship between China and the US was still the most important to the Chinese government, though.

The "Chinese love affair with Europe"

Stanley Crossick thanked Professor Shambaugh for his interesting and optimistic overview of the situation in China. He had been right to stress the importance of the US-Chinese relationship. Nevertheless, with the EU as China’s biggest trading partner and China the Union’s second largest trading partner, relations between the two would become ever more important in the coming years. Reflecting on a seminar series he had attended organised by the European Commission in various locations throughout China on the impact of EU enlargement on China, Mr. Crossick praised the degree of knowledge of the audiences. “There is a Chinese realisation that China and Europe have much in common and China has a lot to learn from the Union’s experience in problems such as regionalisation,” he said. “There is also a disillusionment with the United States.” There was now a willingness to focus on the strategic relationship between the two, with ongoing visits and exchange of views. The “Chinese love affair with Europe” created opportunities for European businesses and NGOs to engage with Chinese society. But this required engagement from all EU stakeholders under the leadership of the Commission, he said. He felt that the new visa requirements in the US would have an adverse effect on attracting young Chinese talent to the US, which might in turn give Europe an opportunity to increase its influence.

David Shambaugh responded saying that he was increasingly concerned about the knowledge of China in Europe. Expertise in universities and think-tanks was atrophying and he strongly encouraged the EU to take a strategic decision to invest heavily in studies on China’s political system, security policy, culture and language.