Against Us or with Us? The Chinese Perspective of America's Alliances with Japan and Korea
Working Paper

Published By

Shorenstein APARC, page(s): 52

May 1998

China’s attitude toward the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea alliances, particularly the former, has drawn a lot of attention in the post–Cold War era. How China views the utility and function of these two security alliances and reacts to them could well shape the dynamics of the alliances. From a historical perspective, however, this is not a new issue. China has lived with these alliances for almost half a century. To better understand China’s current concerns about the alliances and to predict its future posture, we might look for clues in what China has done in the past. This paper attempts to provide a broad survey of Chinese perceptions of the two security alliances in the Cold War period to elucidate Beijing’s post–Cold War policy orientation. By tracing the evolution of the Chinese calculus of the U.S.-Japan and U.S.- Korea alliances, it hopes to find answers to the following questions. What are some of the important variables or conditions that defined China’s attitudes and approaches to dealing with these two alliances? How do these variables or conditions interact with each other? Have they been constant or changing over time? Are they still relevant in the post–Cold War era, and to what extent?

The paper draws its findings mainly from the Chinese official media. While this may not be an ideal source, it nevertheless provides a systematic data basis for a historical analysis of continuity and change. There is no question that the official Chinese media, particularly before the 1980s, was full of rhetoric and propaganda. There has always been a gap between rhetoric and behavior in Chinese foreign policy, as in other countries. Nevertheless it is equally true that behind rhetoric always lie perceptions, self-serving or not, that provide “diagnostic propensities” and “choice propensities” of the Chinese leaders and elites, and thus have policy implications.

The findings of the paper suggest that China’s perceptions of the targets, internal structures, and functions of the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korean alliances have changed remark- ably over time, from extreme hostility to high tolerance. These changes resulted from the interactions of such factors as China’s assessment of the world balance of power, the well- being of its relationship with both indigenous and outside powers, and the priority of its national policy. The evolution of Chinese perceptions also illustrates that China need not view the two security alliances as inherently hostile to its interests. Under some circum- stances they can be considered useful or at least harmless. Beijing’s attitudes are often determined not by the two alliances per se but rather by its perception of the sources of threat to its security and whether these security alliances can alleviate or aggravate the threat. On the other hand, given the nature of China’s foreign policy, Beijing does not have intrinsic love for these alliances. Since the 1980s, China has not particularly endorsed any bilateral or multilateral military alliance in the region. Normatively China is also uneasy with the reality of the American military presence in the region and tends to see it as a short-term arrange- ment rather than a long-term phenomenon. During the Cold War, the Chinese perceived the two security alliances as either against China or with China. In the post–Cold War period, they have yet to be convinced that the function of the two alliances could be neither.

Published as part of the "America's Alliances with Japan and Korea in a Changing Northeast Asia" Research Project.

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