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Shaping China's Future in World Affairs: The U.S. Role

| April 1996

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Backed by impressive economic growth and steadily increasing military power, China's international influence has grown substantially in recent years. Beijing's growing assertiveness in a variety of areas from trade policy to the Taiwan Strait has challenged important interests of the United States and others with a concern for international stability. Chinese power poses a set of questions markedly different than a few years ago when China's leaders appeared as an isolated and troubled regime following the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In many important respects, Chinese leaders since the late 1970s have followed generally pragmatic policies that have integrated China's economy more closely with the rest of the world. The result has been a foreign policy seeking greater economic advantage in order to improve the material standard of living of the Chinese people and to increase support for continued Chinese communist rule. Seeking economic advantage has prompted Chinese leaders to be more flexible than in the past on differences with neighbors and to curb actions disruptive to the prevailing status quo in Asian and world affairs.

Although optimists judge that China's growing economic and military power will be moderated by an ever widening web of international interdependence, skeptics suspect that greater power will allow Beijing to be more assertive in backing nationalistic, territorial or other demands. Of course, actual Chinese policy could turn out to be moderate on some issues (e.g., trade disputes) and more assertive on others (e.g., territorial disputes). Political and economic developments inside China will partly determine whether Beijing follows an accommodating or assertive foreign policy.Determinants outside China include the important role U.S. policy plays in influencing Chinese behavior.

Largely because of China's closer economic interaction with the rest of the world, especially with the free market states of Asia and the West, China's future is more dependent than before on external factors. Inasmuch as other international actors in Asia and the West generally refrain from confronting China on difficult issues without the backing of the United States, it seems clear that the United States will be a key determinant in whether or not the international system constrains and presses China in the future. Heavy international pressure led by the United States against China could prompt the PRC to recalculate the costs and benefits of its recent pragmatic and interactiveapproach to foreign affairs in favor of a more autarkic and assertive posture designed to reduce dependency and protect Chinese interests under U.S.-led pressure. On the other hand, the United States also has an opportunity to play a supportive role in China's development and interaction with the international system. This U.S. approach would involve a path of careful engagement, continuing vigilance against potentially disruptive and deviant Chinese behavior, and encouragement of PRC growth and influence with a goal of seeing China's power channeled along routes acceptable and helpful to broader goals of international development and peace.