EDITOR’S NOTE: With China steadily strengthening its role in international development, it is perhaps worth noting how the Asian giant’s view of its neighbors and world powers such as the United States is shaping its policies on defense, diplomacy and development. In an essay for the Foreign Affairs magazine, political science professor Andrew Nathan and senior political scientist Andrew Scobell analyze “the sum of Beijing’s fears.” An excerpt.
The world as seen from Beijing is a terrain of hazards, beginning with the streets outside the policymaker’s window, to land borders and sea-lanes thousands of miles away, to the mines and oil fields of distant continents. These threats can be described in four concentric rings. In the first ring, the entire territory that China administers or claims, Beijing believes that China’s political stability and territorial integrity are threatened by foreign actors and forces. Compared with other large countries, China must deal with an unparalleled number of outside actors trying to influence its evolution, often in ways the regime considers detrimental to its survival. Foreign investors, development advisers, tourists, and students swarm the country, all with their own ideas about how China should change. Foreign foundations and governments give financial and technical support to Chinese groups promoting civil society. Dissidents in Tibet and Xinjiang receive moral and diplomatic support and sometimes material assistance from ethnic diasporas and sympathetic governments abroad. Along the coast, neighbors contest maritime territories that Beijing claims. Taiwan is ruled by its own government, which enjoys diplomatic recognition from 23 states and a security guarantee from the United States.
At China’s borders, policymakers face a second ring of security concerns, involving China’s relations with 14 adjacent countries. No other country except Russia has as many contiguous neighbors. They include five countries with which China has fought wars in the past 70 years (India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam) and a number of states ruled by unstable regimes. None of China’s neighbors perceives its core national interests as congruent with Beijing’s.
But China seldom has the luxury of dealing with any of its neighbors in a purely bilateral context. The third ring of Chinese security concerns consists of the politics of the six distinct geopolitical regions that surround China: Northeast Asia, Oceania, continental Southeast Asia, maritime Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia. Each of these areas presents complex regional diplomatic and security problems.
Finally, there is the fourth ring: the world far beyond China’s immediate neighborhood. China has truly entered this farthest circle only since the late 1990s and so far for limited purposes: to secure sources of commodities, such as petroleum; to gain access to markets and investments; to get diplomatic support for isolating Taiwan and Tibet’s Dalai Lama; and to recruit allies for China’s positions on international norms and legal regimes.
In each of China’s four security rings, the United States is omnipresent. It is the most intrusive outside actor in China’s internal affairs, the guarantor of the status quo in Taiwan, the largest naval presence in the East China and South China seas, the formal or informal military ally of many of China’s neighbors, and the primary framer and defender of existing international legal regimes. This omnipresence means that China’s understanding of American motives determines how the Chinese deal with most of their security issues.
Republished with permission from the Foreign Affairs magazine. Read the full article.