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The dimensions of Chinese influence

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China's President Xi Jinping holds a welcome ceremony for US President Donald Trump at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 9 November 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst).

In Brief

One of the biggest questions in current global affairs is how a rising China shapes the world beyond its borders. The scale of China's rise has had huge impact on the world. Size brings its own natural and inevitable influence: its economic dimension transforms nations from being 'price-takers' to being 'price-makers' in the international economy and its political dimension carries heft through political and military power.


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But what kind of influence will China seek, how will it seek it, and to what ends as it gets used to its new found power?

These questions were central to the deliberations of the 19th Party Congress and its attempt to define a new and confident role for China in the international community. While the 19th Party Congress received notice most for its elevation of President Xi Jinping in the pantheon of China’s governing Communist Party, what Xi’s report to the Congress said about the principles on which China’s approach to world affairs would be based has been less well studied.

Core among those principles are respect for the multilateral system, a shared community and non-interference in sovereign affairs. All three overarching principles promise felicitous international engagement and cooperation with a newly rich and powerful China. Whether in responding to current threats to the international trade and economic system or dealing with the security and territorial issues that confront all parties in Northeast Asia or the South China Sea, these principles are worthy reference points.

But in some countries, prominently recently in Australia, China’s influence in sovereign affairs has become a hot-button issue following a string of media allegations about links between political players, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and members of the Chinese diaspora who are perceived to have mobilised to advance Beijing’s interests abroad.

The media coverage has raised alarms about Beijing’s intentions at a time when China has growing economic and political power and when China’s State President and CCP Secretary General Xi Jinping has advocated both a more globally engaged and a more assertive China. Xi’s signature policy platform is the ‘China Dream’, which is centred on the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The commitments to multilateral institutions and a ‘shared community’ seek to reassure the world about what China’s ambitions mean for it to seek engagement on equal terms.

In volume 9.4 of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, we examine China’s influence from these several perspectives. In global affairs, we address China’s engagement with the liberal international order and multilateral institutions (Andrew Nathan; Zhong Feiteng). We discuss China’s efforts to establish itself as the dominant power in East Asia (Richard McGregor), the importance of the Belt and Road Initiative in expanding Chinese influence (Evelyn Goh and James Reilly), the role of state owned enterprises in overseas markets (Brodsgaard), regional anxieties about China’s influence (Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar) and Southeast Asian responses to China’s new power (Renato Cruz De Castro). Chinese influence in Australia is a frontline issue, including in politics (Allan Gyngell; Peter Drysdale and John Denton), on university campuses (Brian Schmidt), in the Chinese media (Sun Wanning) and in the Chinese-Australian community (Ien Ang). The Asian Review features in this EAFQ also examine grand strategy in continental Asia (Calder), Southeast Asian political trends (Slater), Duterte and China (Cruz de Castro) and Asian global trade strategy (Chatib Basri).

Taken together, the discussion of Chinese influence in Australia urges greater sophistication in conceptualising the problem and greater maturity in formulating responses. The integrity of sovereign nations is significantly a product of their own making. If Australia has sloppy laws that do not cover foreign political donations, it needs to fix them.

Conflation of questions about the integrity of legal and political institutions with questions about the management of national interests in a geo-economic and political world in which China’s influence is a palpable and not entirely unwelcome fact of life is neither rigorous nor good diplomacy, as the recent Australian Foreign Policy White Paper acknowledges. Clear-headed understanding of the international economic and political frameworks that serve best to negotiate and mediate the mutual benefits of engagement with China and other powerful friends and allies is what’s needed now.

Debates about ‘Chinese influence’ in Australia, in the first dimension, will resonate wherever governments and communities are confronting the opportunities and challenges of China’s rise and its exercise of power with its different political and institutional history and systems. This problem is not now (nor ever was) uniquely a problem of dealing with China.

One factor that has intensified anxieties about dealing with Chinese influence in all its dimensions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and other countries is the unpredictability in the US alliance relationship under Donald Trump. Getting the China–United States relationship right at a time of risky transition on the global balance of power is at the crux of regional stability and security.

In our lead essay this week, David Lampton notes that the United States brokered the regime that contributed to global growth and the avoidance of great power war in the postwar world. ‘In doing so, it fostered the rise of a new constellation of powers, China notable among them, with which it must now deal. If the United States wants to see its interests met, Washington must win Beijing’s cooperation rather than try to compel it’.

As Lampton says, there are three core issues on which the United States must now negotiate its interests with China: fostering an economic balance of power in Asia that promotes regional stability, achieving more reciprocity in US–China relations and addressing the North Korean nuclear and missile problem. The first requires that the United States become more involved with China ‘in the construction of regional infrastructure to foster linkages that are not just north–south but also east–west from to Vietnam through Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia and on to Japan and the wider Pacific’. The second will push issues of ‘reciprocity’ and ‘fairness’ to front and centre in US–China economic relations. The third demands that Washington (in close consultation with its South Korean and Japanese allies) acknowledge ‘that North Korea has a modest nuclear deterrent, and that as a result the United States should shift its aim from denuclearisation to deterring the use and further proliferation of these capabilities’.

Lampton’s conclusion is stark: ‘the United States is no longer positioned to compel cooperation’ from China. Any policy changes from Beijing must be negotiated, and within this negotiation ‘Washington must seek a balance of power and interests’.

For Australia and US partners everywhere in Asia the message is crystal clear. Marshalling proactive and constructive influence with like-minded countries is now the top priority in persuading both China and the United States to take another path when their strategies court danger more than opportunity.

The EAF Editorial Board is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King, Liam Gammon, Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and Ben Hillman, and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

One response to “The dimensions of Chinese influence”

  1. The USA and Australia will now have to learn how to deal with China just like England and France had to deal with the rise of Germany. The governments of Europe and the USA and along with companies of those areas play a significant role in allowing China to become an economic power which it enables it to become a military power beyond its borders plus becoming involved in various projects in Africa and the rest of Asia. Because of foreign investments in China and demanding concessions from the foreign companies in exchange for allowing to have access to the Chinese markers and labor, the Chinese government has been able to become a creditor nation plus building up an enormous cash surplus while protecting its own industries and putting its people in a forced saving program. The western countries and the western corporations are going to regret the day they contribute to the rise of China.

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