Thursday, December 21, 2006

China and the Region: A Talk by Prof. David Shambaugh

I attended a lecture by Prof. Shambaugh in New Delhi on 19 December 2006.

David Shambaugh is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Director, China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University.

Prof. Shambaugh spoke on the rise of China and its implications for the region (read Asia).The lecture while addressing China's vertical (in power) rise concentrated on its horizontal effects, in how China has interacted with its neighbours.

According to Prof. Shambaugh, China's regional relations are a recent phenomenon which he dated to about 1997-98. Being the most important state in Asia, China's engagement with the region was the most crucial marker of the future Asian order. The ancient Asian system was centered on and dominated by China and followed a patron-client relation, hegemonic as we understand it but not under coercion. The period of Western and Japanese colonialism in China is understood as internal chaos, invites external pressure.

The cold war had cut China off from the region and it was only after the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960's that resulted in some engagement but of the unstable kind as Chinese was exporting revolution in Asia through its support of communist parties in Burma, Indonesia etc.

Prof. Shambaugh then talked on three broad aspects of China's engagement with Asia. The first being the origins of China's Asian engagement, secondly, what are the elements of this engagement and then he finally concluded on its implications.

I. Origins of Engagement

Two pairs of mutually re-inforcing events mark the date of this engagement. The first was the mild Asian reaction to events in June 1989 at Tiananmen Square. Unlike the west, the Asian reaction was neither punitive nor condemnatory. Only Japan joined the western led sanctions against China but later later opted out after a year. The Thai and the Malaysian state thought the matter was an 'internal' affair and the ASEAN remained silent on the whole issue.

The above acted in tandem with the Chinese assistance to ASEAN countries during the Asian Financial Crisis 1997-98. These two events changed mutual perceptions for China and ASEAN.

The other two mutually enforcing factors was, increasing Chinese involvement in multilateral organisations (Chinese realized that they were not merely US tools for domination) and Chinese enagagement with key American allies in Asia-Pacific(Philipines/Australia/Thailand/S.Korea/Japan). The Chinese called for an abrogation of the alliance system as vestiges of the cold war era. But in their conversations the American allies made it clear to the Chinese that, that fact was not negotiable. Thus, The Chinese decided not to challenge the United States head on.

Another important reason was the Kosovo war in 1999, which started a major debate in the Chinese strategic community which realized that to avoid a Kosovo in China, it would have to be less passive in shaping their regional enviornment as well as stabilise and improve relationship with the United States.

II. Elements of Engagement

The first marker for Chinese regional policy is to avoid US startegic 'headlights' in Asia. Diplomatically the Chinese are enagaged with all their neighbours except Japan and North Korea. The Chinese are part of all multilateral organisations and engage with all countries on such fora. Chinese soft power has grown over the decades through media, food, tourism and foreign students. There are over 85,000 foreign students in China and over 78,000 are Asian and half of the Asian number comes from one country and that is South Korea.

Economically, China is the central economy of the region and gets a large portion of its FDI from the region and a large part of Chinese FDI and ODA also go to the region.

At the security level, they are concerns even though the Chinese are involved in bilateral security dialogue with most of the important states in the region, participate in the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) which involves a lot of track two interactions and conduct a number of military excercises with Asian countries. However, where the Chinese lack is in transparency regarding its military. This lack of transparency is the most important as it foments suspiciousness in its neighbours. The ARF has certain markers regarding military affairs, in terms of publishing military budgets, being transparent about the real numbers and arms trade. The Chinese in the opinion of Prof. Shambaugh do not even satisfy these ARF levels.

III. Implications of China's engagement

Is regional order in Asia Sino-centric? Prof. Shambaugh answered this in the negative and said, even if we persist with this line of thought, it is pre mature. The Asian system is a complex mosaic of different actors that China has to share with US (pre dominant power), Japan (Economic powerhouse), ASEAN (a regional normative power) and increasingly India (rising regional power).

China was categorised as a global actor and not a global power in the continum of regional power---->global actor------>global power. Shambaugh's final analysis was that when China has not been engaged with the region, Asia is unstableand therefore China's engagement with the region is a positive thing.

In response there are two or three important things were pointed out by scholars present at the lecture. A number of them disagreed with the date at which Shambaugh marks the engagement. A senior China expert Mira Sinha was of the opinion that the date of China's engagement go back to the Sino-Soviet Split and the inevitable engagement when American President Nixon visited China in 1971. The other important point which came up but was not well discussed due to the lack of time was defining the region. For American scholars studying China, Asia means Asia-Pacific. They interchangebly use East Asia/Asia/Asia-Pacific. Most of these terms carry different connotations. East Asia also sometimes referred to as North East Asia is Japan, China and the two Koreas. South East Asia obviously refers to the under belly of China with the states from Myanmar, Thailand to Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Philipines. These two regions sometimes are categorised as East Asia together. And this was a glaring lacunae in Shambaugh's lecture and it generally is a recurrent problem in Area Studies. The definition of the region assumes importance for a number of reasons. The first is that economically, the whole region from Japan to Singapore are linked by a thick network of trading ties. This region also centers on the blistering rise of China and its military modernization which is a cause of concern to all neighbouring countries. For us in India, China is a state with staggering military might and reach and of great concern also owing to disputes and their Pakistan connection. India and China also share over lapping competing security concerns in the region of South East Asia (very importantly in Myanmar) and Indian ocean region. Prof. Shambaugh's lecture also missed the key area of Central Asia in China's engagement with the region. As according to Mira Sinha, China's agreements with Russia are the most important marker of China's Asian ambitions and its key role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).


Omair said...

Nice report, Satya. Do you get the China Brief from the Jamestown Foundation? If not, I'd recommend you subscribe. It's at:

They have quite a few good people there. Their Eurasia stuff is particularly good.

By the way, let me know what you think of my book. Your critique is important. I will say that the editing mistakes are, by and large, not mine.


xanjukta said...

hey..omair..when are you in India??

Dr. Indu said...

India must stand up to China's threat but at the same time deal with it especially on issues such a trade (needless to say, it should be quality trade unlike what it is now)
Let us not forget the instability that China fosters in many of its neighbors sovereign territory