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China moves ahead on infrastructure initiatives in quest for soft power and security

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A Chinese laborer works at a construction site in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Oct. 2015.
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Getty Images / Buddhika Weerasinghe

As the inaugural meeting of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank sets to convene, Stanford researcher Thomas Fingar discusses findings from his new book that seeks to study China’s objectives and methods of engagement with other countries. Much of China’s behavior is determined by its own cost-benefit analysis of the perceived effect engagement would have on its security and development.

As China has pursued modernization over the past 35 years, patterns have emerged that shed light on the government’s foreign policy decision-making, according to new research by Thomas Fingar, a Stanford distinguished fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC).

Since 1979, China’s foreign policy has been underscored by two priorities – security and development. Knowing those priorities, analysts can attempt to better study and anticipate China’s relations with other countries even in the wake of unforeseen events in the global system.

“China’s increased activity around the world has elicited both anxiety and admiration in neighboring countries eager to capitalize on opportunities but worried about Beijing’s growing capabilities. Yet as is the case with all countries, what China can do is shaped by global and regional developments beyond its control,” said Fingar, the editor of The New Great Game: China and South and Central Asia in the Era of Reform.

The book, which has a total of 13 authors, is the first in a series published by Stanford University Press that examines China’s changing relationships in Asia and with other portions of the world. It is also an outcome of the research project “China and the World.” Fingar, who heads the project, draws upon his experience from five decades working on Asia and more than 25 years in U.S. government, including as chairman of the National Intelligence Council.

Framework to analyze China’s foreign policy

One dimension of the research project examines how China’s policies and priorities are shaped by China’s perceptions about how much a country threatens or addresses China’s security concerns; a second dimension examines China’s perceptions about how much a country can contribute to China’s pursuit of sustained economic growth and modernization.

To explore these relationships, Fingar developed a framework for analysis using a matrix that displays, on one axis, China’s perceptions about the threat to China’s security posed by a country or region, and on the other axis, China’s perceptions about a country or region’s capacity to contribute to China’s development.

By comparing the position of a given country or region from one period to another, the matrix both predicts the character of China’s policies and reveals a pattern over time. The figure below illustrates China’s views in 1979 and 2016.



In 1979, India and countries in Central Asia figured high on the threat axis because of their relationship with the Soviet Union and low on capacity to provide the resources China needed to jumpstart its economy, Fingar said.

At that time, China sought to address both its priority security concerns and developmental goals by improving ties with Europe, Japan and the United States. South and Central Asia were afforded lower priority, he said.

In the 1990s, however, China’s perceptions shifted as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union and a decade of economic success in China, Fingar explained. Shown in the matrix, China’s policies toward Central Asia changed as the region transitioned to a more favorable security position by 2000 and as China required additional resources (energy, technology, training, etc.) to fuel its growing economy.

Fingar said China’s increased engagement with South Asia was buttressed by a need for markets and investment opportunities, and furthered along by a reduction in the threat environment as India altered its relationship with Russia and Pakistan became a less valuable security partner.

Calculating who China will engage with and how has become much clearer, yet in some ways it has also become more complicated, according to Fingar.

“The countries that can do the most for China today often pose the greatest perceived long-term threat, namely the United States and its allies,” he said. “Conversely, China’s proclaimed closest friends—North Korea and Pakistan—can do little to assist China’s development and pose increasing danger to its security.”

Current policy applications

Over the past three years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on numerous projects with neighbors and other countries around the world, such as the “new Silk Road,” a trans-continental trade route that will link countries together, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank that plans to lend money to poorer parts of Asia for building infrastructure.

The objectives of both initiatives are consistent with the China’s prioritization of security and development, Fingar said. The AIIB and Silk Road initiative indicate that China assumes there are gains from economic integration, and this is largely due to the fact that China has already benefited from past projects.

In 2001, the Chinese government launched concerted efforts to improve its relationships with Central Asian countries because of China’s concern that the United States was seeking to “contain” China, he said. Outcomes have included newfound markets for China’s manufactured goods and increased stability in separatist areas near or on its borders.

“By taking such a big stake in building infrastructure, China has changed the dynamic of the region,” he said. “Anybody can use a road, railroad or bridge. China has helped stitch together the economies of different countries in ways they have never been before.”

For China, the AIIB and the Silk Road initiative are also a form of “soft power,” said Fingar. The approach by the Chinese government evokes memories of U.S. “dollar diplomacy” early in the last century and Japanese “yen diplomacy” when financial assistance was extended to developing countries.

But Fingar doubts that “buying friends by building infrastructure” will be a major contributor to China’s quest for security and development. Going forward, the Chinese government must face the growing paradox between its foreign infrastructure projects and its principle of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, he said.

“When working in other countries, China cannot afford to dismiss internal stability, governance, rule of law,” he said. “Those facets are the baseline for building infrastructure.”

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