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China’s Influence: Waxing or Waning?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
October 6, 2011

China's President Hu Jintao shows the way to South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 24, 2010.

China's President Hu Jintao shows the way to South Africa's President Jacob Zuma during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 24, 2010. (Jason Lee / Courtesy of Reuters)

One of the significant unresolved questions surrounding Chinese foreign policy is whether China’s influence is expanding or diminishing. Is China a model for other countries? Does its economic clout give it sway in other arenas? Does its growing military prowess have the potential to bend others to its will?

In the past two weeks, China’s influence barometer has been fluctuating wildly. In Zambia, Presidential candidate Michael Sata campaigned largely on an anti-China platform, proclaiming “Zambia has become a province of China…the Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them,” and won. Closer to home, Burma threw a wrench in China’s plans to populate the Irrawaddy with seven more dams, including the 6,000 megawatt Myitsone dam, when Burmese President Thein Sein announced the suspension of the dam until his term ends in April 2016. The dam would have flooded an area roughly the size of Singapore and provided energy primarily for China. The Chinese government was stunned at Burma’s betrayal. And of course, throughout much of Asia, China’s neighbors are forging new alliances and fortifying old ones to defend against a seemingly more assertive China. (That certainly sounds like influence…just not the kind Beijing wants to have.)

At the same time, the South African government led by President Zuma failed to provide the Dalai Lama with a visa to attend the 80th birthday party of his fellow Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, prompting an angry outcry from the Archbishop. In addition, my colleague Josh Kurlantzick has suggested that China’s influence in central and parts of Southeast Asia is expanding through Beijing’s programs to manage social instability. Although given the significant annual increases in numbers of protests in China, it’s not clear to me what they are teaching, exactly; and given the already authoritarian predilections of these states, China’s influence, while not negligible, is not terribly surprising. Finally, opening the newspaper on any given day, it is easy to get the impression that without Chinese investment, the entire world economy would be down under.

So, is China’s influence waxing or waning? The answer is that it depends. Relations between countries are forged at so many different levels among so many different actors; while influence may be felt in the economic sphere, for example, it may be non-existent on critical issues of security. China’s vast purchases of raw materials in Australia, which have contributed to an Australian economic boom, have certainly increased its influence on the Australian economy; when China sneezes, Australia runs for a handkerchief. Yet, the prime minister of Australia reportedly told Secretary of State Clinton that force might be necessary against China “if everything goes wrong.” Again, China has influence, but influencing the Australians to plan for the use of force against the mainland is not Beijing’s endgame.

We also need to consider influence in a variety of contexts. What is the time frame? What is the issue? Who is the intended target of the influence? What does the target have to gain? Influence in foreign policy is not only issue but also time specific. Prior to President Obama’s trip to China in November 2009, for example, he did not meet with the Dalai Lama in order to avoid offending Beijing. A few months after the trip, he met with the Dalai Lama and clearly annoyed the Chinese. China seems to have had influence before November but not after. What is that influence really worth in serious foreign policy terms?

“It depends” is rarely a satisfactory answer to anything. But sometimes, it is the right one. “It depends” is also an answer that will help keep us from becoming overly alarmist or overly sanguine. China’s “influence” in any case may be positive or it may be harmful—the devil is always in the details—and we need to pay close attention as we to try to parse out where China is going, what it will mean for the rest of world, and what we can do about it.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Bhaskar Menon

    There is very little reason to be hopeful that Chinese power will become more benign as it grows. The CCP’s history of domestic oppression and repeated use or threat of force against other countries is a solid reason for expecting the worst. The fear that to say that aloud will make it come true should be seen for what it is, cowardice.

  • Posted by Tomaz Strojnik

    I believe that countries see China as more of an economic partner and if the country tries to be more than just that, their partners will retract relations with them and create a defensive stance.

  • Posted by Marty Martel

    Rise of China is a real Cinderella story.

    Nixon-Kissinger’s embrace of China to counter Soviet Union in 1972 has come back to haunt U. S. with vengeance.

    The world history will record last forty years as the most momentous for the very fact that balance of power has started to shift from West to East because of West’s leader embracing China to counter Russia in 1972.

    While Russia could NOT make Communism to work, China rose to super power status precisely because of Communism and Nixon offered a one hell of an opportunity to China to make economic progress possible in return for China temporarily shacking up with U. S. to checkmate former Soviet Union.

    It behooves China to erect the statue of anti-Communist Nixon right next to die-hard Communist Mao in Beijing for speeding up China’s rise to super power status.

  • Posted by Marty Martel

    Afterall China was a pariah country in the world just like today’s North Korea until Nixon’s 1972 visit. All the West European and East Asian countries stayed away from China following the US lead until 1972 and embraced China after Nixon’s visit. While US would not give MFN status to Soviet Union (remember Jackson-Vanik amendment?) unless Russia shed Communism, it had no problem giving it to China’s Communist dictators with a capitalist mask. Trade with China expanded by leaps and bounds during 12 years of Republican rule beginning in 1981. After campaigning against butchers of Beijing in 1992 elections, even Bill Clinton became enthusiastic supporter of trade with China once he took lessons in foreign policy from Nixon in early 1993 during a special Whitehouse-arranged meeting. US also promoted China to a super power status by accepting it as a permanent UNSC member.

    Had it not been for that Nixon embrace in 1972, China’s rise to super power status would have been far more slower with all the US, West European and East Asian markets closed to cheap Chinese products. Had it not been for that Nixon embrace, China’s technological progress would have been far slower in the absence of West’s technology transfers. Had it not been for that Nixon embrace, China’s military progress would have been far slower in the absence of huge forex reserves that China accumulated from the massive exports of cheap Chinese products and China used those forex reserves to acquire latest military technology.

  • Posted by Marty Martel

    Now China has US by the tail – US businesses are hooked to huge profits that cheap Chinese products generate for them as a walk through any Walmart, Home Depot, Sears and Macy’s filled with Chinese goods prove and US government is hooked to huge investments that China makes in US governmental securities from the sales of cheap Chinese products to US businesses.

    China’s power is multiplying day by day and now there is NO power on earth capable to stop China, least of all U. S.

    Little could Mao or Deng have imagined that by wearing a capitalist mask, their followers will beat capitalists at their own game. Lenin used to say that ’capitalists will sell us the ropes with which we will hang them’. With West selling such proverbial ropes in the form of technology transfers, Chinese Communists have proven that Lenin saying quite prophetic.

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