The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a presentation by Michael Swaine, Senior Associate and Co-Director of the China Project at the Carnegie Endowment, on "China's Perspective on Northeast Asian Security." After Swaine's presentation, Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center commented on Russia's perspective on China. Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment, moderated the event.
Michael Swaine opened his remarks by outlining the three major components of Chinese foreign policy. The first, which relies on the presumption that a war between the great powers is unlikely, seeks to exploit the absence of major strategic threats in order to promote the internal stabilization and development of China. In order to ensure the continued growth of its economy and the security of the Communist Party, China has worked to deter ethnic and territorial conflicts and to improve relations with its neighbors. Beijing has shelved and/or resolved a half-dozen territorial disputes with bordering countries, and has recently agreed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to no longer unilaterally claim territory in the South China Sea.
Indeed, since the 1996-97 formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)-which seeks to ensure regional security and strengthen economic ties between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan-cooperation with its neighbors has become the second pillar of Chinese foreign policy. China has recently strengthened its security assurances to Pakistan, which receives military and political assistance in exchange for its help in balancing India and its pledge to maintain control over Islamic extremists. Beijing has worked to stabilize North Korea and increase political and economic ties with South Korea, ultimately hoping for a peaceful reunification of the peninsula. Although Swaine contends that the importance of the Sino-Russian partnership is often exaggerated, the growing ties between the two countries are clear. China has even worked to overcome its painful histories with Japan and Taiwan, initiating military and civilian dialogues with the former and expanding cultural and economic ties with the latter. China's participation in ASEAN has only improved its bilateral relations with its neighbors, providing a framework for a regional confidence-building dialogue.
These moves have made it more difficult for Asian states to consider China a major threat; in fact, China's booming economy now gives its neighbors an incentive to improve their relations with Beijing. In addition to its role in de-escalating South China Sea disputes, ASEAN has also promoted free trade with China and encouraged the emergence of a "new security concept" in Asia. With no real enemy threatening the major Pacific powers, China has encouraged its neighbors to jettison U.S.-based bilateral security arrangements, and focused instead on the development of multilateral economic, technological, political, and cultural relationships. Perhaps the most remarkable change has come in Sino-South Korean relations. The former enemies now enjoy regular business collaboration, mutually beneficial trade arrangements amounting to $30 billion a year, and similar viewpoints on North Korea.
The third-but less public-mainstay of Chinese foreign policy is its desire to maintain deterrence against what Beijing views as its greatest threats: Taiwanese independence, US nuclear blackmail, Japanese support for the US in the event of a Taiwan crisis, and Indian aggression. To this effect, China has deployed mobile short-and medium-range ballistic missiles that can be armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads. The short-range, conventionally armed missiles are being deployed as part of a deterrence and hedging strategy for possible use against Taiwan in a coercive campaign. Most analysts believe that China would only use the medium-range missiles for a retaliatory strike in a major regional conflict, but some fear that it might assume a more active nuclear posture should a crisis unfold with Taiwan.
The roots of China's new approach to foreign policy reach back over two decades, but the impact of 9/11 forced Beijing to make several major adjustments. First, the US presence in Central Asia-and the enhancement of its alliances with existing partners, including Japan-poses a challenge to China's security interests. Second, 9/11 dealt a serious blow to China's relationship with Russia, which was once based on opposition to US unilateralism; no longer a dependable critic of American policy, Russia raised nary a complaint about the direct deployment of thousands of US troops in Central Asia. Third, the attacks allowed China to gain US sympathy in its fight against Islamic separatists in western China, a move which has major propaganda value for the regime. America's mobilization against terror has also turned the attention of policy makers and citizens away from Northeast Asia, and China is no longer seen as the primary threat to the US. Despite the Bush administration's frustration at China's nominal efforts to resolve the North Korea crisis, then, Swaine argued that Beijing recognizes that it has probably gained more than it has lost in the last year and a half.
Dmitri Trenin began his contributions to the discussion by noting that 9/11 changed Russian perspectives on China as much as it altered China's fortunes. The last decade witnessed the thaw of the "Second Cold War"-the Sino-Soviet conflict, which Trenin contends was as dangerous and frightening as the tensions between the US and USSR. For the first half dozen years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, "multipolarity"-forging a partnership to counterbalance the US and its allies, that is-was a catch-phrase in both Moscow and Beijing. The process of rapprochement culminated in July 2001 with the signing of a "friendship agreement" replacing the Sino-Soviet alliance of the 1950s. However, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the US-and Russia's subsequent push for good relations and integration with the west-made a partnership with the Chinese look less appealing to Moscow. Trenin argued that Putin's instincts reinforced post-9/11 geopolitical trends: a fluent speaker of German, the Russian president naturally feels more at ease dealing with the west. Now, "multipolarity" signifies Russia's need to mobilize Japan and other Asian countries to balance China; now, Russia sees the SCO as a Chinese encroachment on Central Asia which needs to be carefully monitored. Thus, Russia did not object to the deployment of US troops in Central Asia, which it viewed, at least in part, as a deterrent to an attempted Chinese advance in the region.
Economic cooperation has been another flashpoint in Sino-Russian relations. Russia's exclusion of the Chinese National Petroleum Company from the Slavneft auction, its continuing threats to build a pipeline around the Chinese border, and a recent tightening in Russian export control regulations on products destined for China demonstrate Moscow's wariness toward Beijing. Furthermore, the most vocal supporters of Russia's integration into the west tend to be the most skeptical of plans to strengthen ties with China; Russian Sinologists tend to be holdovers from the Soviet era, and their numbers and influence are rapidly declining. Nevertheless, Trenin contends that bilateral relations between the two countries are not nearly as bad as they might appear at first glance. The eagerness on the part of the central administration and the presidential envoys to develop the Russian Far East, in particular, will likely lead to increased cooperation with Beijing. Overall, Trenin characterizes Sino-Russian relations as "healthy," but laden with potentially serious tensions. Whether the strengthening of economic ties between the two countries will result in a politically mature partnership remains to be seen.
Many of the questions raised in the discussion after the presentation focused on the North Korea crisis. Several asked precisely what assistance China has given to North Korea's nuclear programs. In response, Swaine stated that China probably offered the most assistance to North Korea in the 1960s, when the latter first developed its nuclear program. He suspects, however, that Chinese help since then has been nominal, because China hopes to prevent the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. It is Pakistan, he argued, that has provided the most technical assistance to Pyongyang.
Others wondered how to interpret the conflicting messages on the crisis emanating from Beijing, and asked if China would ultimately step in to diffuse the situation. Swaine acknowledged that some Sinologists believe that China's Korea policy is a Machiavellian plot to mobilize a unified-and nuclear-Korean peninsula against Japan and the US. He discounts this theory, though, and noted that in both public and private, high-ranking Chinese officials are skeptical of US claims that North Korea is close to developing nuclear weapons. Beijing's ultimate goal with regard to North Korea is de-escalation and reform; China strives to prevent the sudden collapse of Kim Jong Il's regime, steer the North toward reform, and work for the peaceful reunification of the peninsula on the South's terms, which might ultimately result in the withdrawal of US troops from Korea. Although China has been reluctant to create the impression that it is pressuring North Korea, Swaine believes that it will participate in regional talks, as long as they engage the US and the North in structured dialogue. It is also possible, albeit not likely, that China will push North Korea to talk to the US by cutting fuel and food aid.
Another meeting participant pointed out that China, which has the greatest capability to resolve the conflict, has done little to promote a solution, while Russia, which has relatively little influence in Pyongyang, has already done substantial heavy lifting. Dmitri Trenin agreed with this statement, asserting that Russia has been exaggerating its ability to make headway with Kim's regime. He suggested that Russia's eagerness to step into the fray was initially a result of Putin's desire to impress the G-8. It is also motivated by a secondary economic concern: Russia's dream to connect the Trans-Siberian Railroad with Korean railroads. If Russia cannot live up to the role that it is crafting for itself, however, its intervention in the crisis might result in its losing-not gaining-credibility.
Another attendee asked Swaine to outline China's perspective on Indian complaints about Chinese involvement in Burma. Swaine believes that India's grievances may be exaggerated, and stated that China has not deployed any of its forces on Burmese territory-or to the best of his knowledge, provided significant military assistance. China does maintain listening posts in Burma, sells it small arms, and has worked on improving its ports, but Swaine does not interpret these actions as excessively aggressive.
The meeting closed with discussion of China's relation to ASEAN and role in the SCO, and the future of free trade in Asia. Swaine pointed out that besides the obvious economic and security benefits that China stands to gain by cooperating with ASEAN, Beijing also hopes to develop a strong Southeast Asia that can effectively counterbalance the US and its allies. Although many Asian nations remain wary of China, a change in the situation on the Korean peninsula could well have an important impact on the region. A reunified Korea will result in Japan and the Philippines backing away from the US, and a domino effect could ensue, leaving Australia and Guam the US's only dependable partners in Asia. Trenin added that Russia's interest in the SCO is primarily strategic, and geared toward promoting Russian interests in Central Asia. Although regional trade will likely pick up, the formation of a customs union, he predicted, is unlikely.
Summary prepared by Faith Hillis, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment.