China’s Foreign Policy: What Does It Mean for U.S. Global Interests?

11 08 2008

URL: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34588.pdf. Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists).

Since the late 1990s, China’s robust international engagement has caught many by surprise and prompted growing American debate over the PRC’s motivations and objectives. This international engagement has expanded while the United States has been preoccupied with its military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress and other U.S. policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned that China’s expanded international engagement could have its “soft power” projection and affect U.S. economic and strategic interests. Experience suggests that abrupt, unexplained shifts in policy occur with some regularity in the PRC system. Still, it is possible to point to some fundamental objectives that appear to be motivating Beijing’s foreign policy. These include an imperative to promote and enhance China’s economic development, particularly its voracious need for energy resources and raw materials to sustain its double-digit annual growth; an effort to separate the island of Taiwan, over which the PRC claims sovereignty, from its 23 remaining official relationships; and a desire to increase China’s international stature and compete more successfully with perceived U.S. supremacy. To achieve these ends, China in recent years has crafted a multitude of bilateral agreements and partnerships, joined and become more active in existing multilateral organizations, and become a founding member of new multilateral institutions in which the United States is not a member.

Of alarm to some, China’s policy approach has several competitive “soft power” advantages over the United States. The “unrestricted” nature of Beijing’s overseas loans and investments is attractive to foreign governments wanting swifter, more efficient, and less intrusive solutions to their development problems than western lenders will offer. And Beijing’s large state-owned companies, with deep pockets and no shareholders to answer to, can afford short-term losses in pursuit of longer- term, more strategic gains.

But China’s approach also has structural limitations in areas where the United States is strong. Beijing’s foreign development policy operates from a much narrower base, with China’s “win-win” approach tackling easy issues first and postponing difficult issues, perhaps indefinitely. Acquiring and maintaining an international presence also brings certain complications that are new to the PRC, including multiple opportunities for international misunderstanding, resentment, and cultural backlash. Finally, unlike the United States, China lacks the advantage of a substantial private-sector investment presence overseas.

Whatever policy options the United States adopts, China’s growing international political and economic clout poses demanding challenges and questions for U.S. policymakers. This report will be updated periodically as events warrant.

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