In recent years, China has seemed to take a more central place on the world stage. But is it really as important a player as its image suggests?
In a recent book review event held at George Washington University, Professor Robert Sutter talked about his new book: Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacy and Constraints of China’s International Policies since 1949. Sutter’s overarching assessment of foreign relations in China carries a negative tone throughout—for now, China is not as important in international affairs as it was in the past. To support his statement, Sutter provided an overview to address the following points:
- Does China have any strategy in foreign affairs?
- Has China come to follow modern world order/Is China a status-quo power?
- How is China important in world affairs?
- Does China have principles for its actions?
Sutter’s answer to the first point is a solid “no.” He argues that while China does have certain goals it desire to achieve, its policies change constantly based on circumstances inside and outside of China, causing competition between its different priorities. China positioning itself in a triangular relationship with the United States and the Soviet Union while its priority was (supposedly) nation building, according to Sutter, was an example of China’s lack of foreign affairs strategy. This assessment reminds me of Professor David Shambaugh’s lecture on China’s foreign policy—“policies in China are made by the top leaders, but its process remains a myth.”
While all four points are crucial in Sutter’s assessment, I am particularly interested in the discussion of the second point because he used free market in China as an example— a major theme that CIPE focuses on in its programs. In Sutter’s analysis, China uses its capacities in the realm of the military, economy, and technology only to fulfill its interests. China’s overall trade policies, Sutter said, “degrade the free market, which contradicts international norm.”
When push comes to shove, China does have the capacity to isolate a country where it encounters territorial issues by restricting trade with that country. The question i,s though, what implications will arise that could potentially backfire on China, and how long can China afford to isolate a country without retaliations from the country’s allies?
On the question of China’s significance in world affairs, Sutter believes that China is important, but its importance remains constrained to Asia for now. Statistics show that 70 percent of China’s foreign policies are directed at other Asian countries, addressing sovereignty, economic, and security issues. As such, Sutter argued that China will be an important world player only when it has a secured its basic regional position within Asia.
Nonetheless, judging by its not-so-pleasant image as perceived by neighboring countries, China is not yet in the leading position even in Asia. As both Sutter and Shambaugh mentioned, China’s victim mentality strategy is not credible to its neighbors.
China’s economy may have grown tremendously over the past few decades, but its position in international affairs may still not live up to its economic might.
Michelle Chen is Program Assistant for Asia at CIPE.