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Foreign Policy

China has no Shortage of Strategic Opportunities

Aug 08 , 2012
  • Yuan Peng

    Vice President, Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations

Despite international exacerbation regarding the current global strategic environment and China’s peripheral environment, China still enjoys several promising opportunities today. On the one hand, China faces the urgent need to break through a tightening containment, while on the other hand, it must implement certain progressive reforms. What characterizes China’s present-day situation is a change in the connotation of its strategic opportunities, instead of their total loss.

Viewed as a whole, today’s international environment is currently defined by two major events: the eurozone crisis and the changes in the Middle East and North Africa. To cope with the former, the top priority for the United States and Eurozone countries in the coming three to five years is to rise up and rehabilitate from the crisis through economic revitalization, strategic contraction and system reform. China, meanwhile, enjoys some comparative advantages in terms of their overall situation, although it also faces major challenges in the field of economic restructuring. In the case of the latter event, the Middle East and North Africa will remain a predominant region of concern and contention for the major powers in the world, leaving some decisive marks on the strategic direction of the United States, Russia and European countries.  This focus will also create some historic opportunities for China to become involved in a creative, productive way.

Both events will produce transformative effects, of course, and unavoidably leave some adverse impact on China’s development. There lies herein however, a basic fact that must be clarified: the ‘epicenter’ of both events is located in other regions instead of China, and their influences on China will be felt more in the future than today. It is not a correct attitude for China, therefore, to get distracted before the potential crisis reaches China. History has proved that China capitalizes on its strategic opportunities by taking advantage of the changes in the international situation. So long as it maintains its position, sees the situation clearly and plans wells, China will be positively positioned to obtain new opportunities from all major changes in the international situation.

The same is true in the case of China’s peripheral environment. Many people see the current situation with a pessimistic eye, basing their pessimism on two observations: the eastward transition of the US strategy is designed for an all-round containment of China, and some countries have formed a temporary alliance with the United States for the purpose of permanent confrontation against China on the marine fronts. These observations may be right, but they are too simplistic.

The first to consider is the US strategic pivot to Asia. The rise of China is a major cause for the US repositioning, for sure, but by no means its sole purpose. As a major move of overall readjustment of US political, economic, military and diplomatic strategies, there are other important motives behind the pivot including: further integration into East Asia, domestic economic revitalization, renewed military deployment in the post-antiterrorist era, and prevent a possible collapse of the alliance system. Since the 1990s, there has developed an evident tendency of the US’ five regional allies – Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand – to drift apart from the US and closer to their Asian neighbors and China in particular. What President Obama is attempting, through his return-to-Asia strategy, is to rebuild this alliance system by exploiting the frictions between these Asian countries and applying the carrot and stick judiciously. By relocating its military presence from Okinawa to the Guam Island and extending the command of joint US-South Korean military operations to 2015, the United States is overtly targeting China and covertly trying to keep control of its allies, both for the purpose of serving its new strategic layout in Asia.

If the US move, taken against such a complicated backdrop, is simply viewed as a strategic enclosure of China and counter-measured with any excessive reaction as a result, the United States would only become overjoyed because it can easily achieve the double goal of intimidating China and stabilizing its allies at a minimum cost. If China takes an opposite direction by seeing the situation clearly and remaining confident, the United States will likely suffer a big drop in strategic returns. The history over the past 50 years has proved that the United States can never manage to reconcile the fundamental contradiction between its attempt to control its allies and the endeavor of the latter to get free. With the desire of South Korea and Japan to seek strategic independence never dying out, the United States will sooner or later do something to rectify its dilemma by attending to one concern while losing another.

A look at China’s peripheral environment produces a more positive view. In the north, China-Russia relations are at their highest in history, and so is the Cross-Straits relations in China’s southeast. In the northwest, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has continued to expand externally while enjoying in-depth development internally. In the northeast, China’s economic and trade cooperation with Japan and South Korea has kept gaining momentum and development potential. All these make it fairly difficult for the United States to weave a net to contain China.

How about the South China Sea issue, then? Tension is growing there, as countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are time and again going beyond the bottom line for provocations, and the United States is voicing its support for their claims. China’s marine sovereignty is seriously challenged, indeed. Viewed from a broader perspective, however, at least three important backgrounds must be considered. First, China has basically settled its land border disputes with nearly all our neighbors and can now shift its focus to the settlement of the South China Sea issue. Second, the situation across the Taiwan Straits has remained stable. And third, China’s marine strength has kept growing, a condition needed for China to concentrate on the present challenges.

In other words, for the first time China has acquired the national capacity and will squarely address the South China Sea issue. This is the inevitable outcome of the development of China’s national strength, interest and strategic development, as well as a natural demand and important mission for it to fulfill throughout the next-stage of China’s development. As a matter of fact, this stage has already started, as evidenced by the establishment of the Sansha City, the acceleration of efforts in marine law enforcement, and the growing awareness of marine rights protection among all the Chinese people. What China needs to do now is to deal with these issues from the overall perspective of its development, be determined and patient, well plan the tempo of its efforts, and refrain from rushing into action simply because of a change in its external environments.

‘Winds may howl and waves rage to frighten and scare, yet straight ahead we’ll sail with no efforts to spare,’ we may quote here, with some variations, two famous lines by the ancient Chinese poet Li Bai. It is our firm belief that having going through all types of winds and waves, China can surely find new development opportunities and spaces from the present-day chaotic international and peripheral environments.

Yuan Peng is the Director of the Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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