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China's "Good Neighbor" Diplomacy: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing?

John W. Garver, Georgia Institute of Technology; Dennis Hickey, Southwest Missouri State University; Michael R. Chambers, Indiana State University; Bill Gertz (invited), The Washington Times.

Date & Time

Sep. 22, 2004
3:30pm – 5:30pm ET


China's new leaders emphasize the need to oppose hegemony in their foreign policy speeches less frequently than did their predecessors, while highlighting peaceful co-existence in a multi-polar world. This change, stimulated by China's economic growth and military modernization, reveals Beijing's growing consciousness of itself as a regional power. To ensure a peaceful external environment surrounding China, Beijing regards its relations with neighboring countries as the top priority in foreign affairs and continues to pursue the so-called "good neighbor" diplomacy.

Will China likely become a more responsible regional power, as its recent cooperation with the United States on the North Korean nuclear issue suggests? To what degree will China, as a rising power, challenge the existing regional political and economic order? Will China's military growth necessarily result in aggressive policies toward neighboring countries? What will be the probable impact of China's growing power on regional security and stability? To what extent has Beijing's good-neighbor diplomacy changed China's image in the Asia-Pacific region? How are Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, India, and Taiwan likely to respond to Beijing's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific? How can the United States better shape Beijing's foreign behavior in accordance with international norms?

At a September 22 seminar hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program, four speakers explored China's relations with its neighboring countries in the different parts of Asia. Two of them, Hickey and Garver, spoke on the same topic at a Capitol Hill breakfast meeting for congressional staff earlier in the day.

Hickey kicked off the seminar by examining China's relations with Japan, Taiwan and the two Koreas. According to Hickey, Beijing has played a more constructive role in East Asia over the past years. In many respects, China might best be described as a status-quo power in that region—opposing a militarized and rearmed Japan, supporting the idea of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and seeking to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. However, recent improvements in China's ties with Japan and South Korea could be reversed due to their territorial disputes and other issues. Beijing's deteriorating relationship with Taipei is even more worrisome. Hickey concludes that closer ties between China and its neighbors serve American interests in the region.

Chambers observed that China has made great efforts to demonstrate its good neighborliness to the countries of Southeast Asia. Beijing's purposes are three-fold: 1) to dispel any concerns among ASEAN of a "China threat," 2) to maintain a peaceful and stable regional environment in which China can pursue its goal of economic development, and 3) to promote Chinese leadership and influence within the context of an East Asian community. An East Asian community could be a strategic buffer for China if it comes under pressure from the United States in the future. Over the near and medium terms, China's growing influence in this region might present challenges, albeit not a serious threat, to Southeast Asian countries and the United States, Chambers maintained.

Garver argued that China's core interest in post-Soviet Central Asia is to maintain the status quo of non-Islamist and non-democratic states. Beijing is greatly concerned with the explosive growth of U.S. military presence in Central Asia after September 11, and hopes it is only temporary. Of greater utility to China's interests would be attempts to reassure the Central Asian States of China's benign nature. In South Asia, China seeks to uphold the existing balance of power by ensuring that India remains preoccupied with handling a strong and independent Pakistan. In the event of an India-Pakistan war, China would almost certainly stand by Pakistan. In addition, China could quite conceivably employ military force to protect its relations with Nepal and Myanmar against Indian dictation, Garver predicted.

Gertz highlighted China's potential threat to the United States and Japan, as defense officials in these two countries tend to believe. As a result of China's economic and military modernization, South Korea may be under more influence from China than from the United States, and Beijing's aggressive policies in the South China Sea will inevitably conflict with Japanese interests in that region. Moreover, China energy shortages in the future are likely to drive that country to expand southward and/or northward. Whether Beijing will use force against Taiwan will serve as a test point for the reliability of China's "good neighbor" diplomacy, Gertz concluded.

This seminar examined both improvements and problems in China's relations with its neighboring countries. Most speakers agreed that China is a status quo power in the different parts of Asia. However, all of them were uncertain about how long China will maintain its "good neighbor" diplomacy, particularly in light of China's uneasy relations with Japan, India, and Taiwan.


Hosted By

Indo-Pacific Program

The Indo-Pacific Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on US interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

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