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Chinese Foreign Policy in East Asia: A 2016 Assessment of Strategy and Goals


By Daniel Urchick


The recent efforts of scholars and professionals to understand China’s evolving regional strategy have been impressive. China has never publicly released an official “Asia strategy,” yet the volume of literature analyzing the subject is extensive. A thorough review of the literature reveals a pattern that, while inconsistent in its application, illustrates China’s goals for the region and its standing in the global order. In the time since the Cold War, China has undergone at least one major regional policy shift, resulting in two distinct eras: one ranging from 1991 to 2008, and the other beginning in 2009 and continuing through the present. After 2009, it became overtly apparent that Chinese elites expected other nations in the region to voluntarily defer to the growing power of China. Belief that the United States had entered a state of decline further emboldened Chinese leaders, who began to act more assertively throughout the region. The purpose of this paper is to review China’s accepted, but unofficial strategy and policy goals for advancing its interests in East Asia. This paper also endeavors to assess the effectiveness of this strategy in achieving China’s primary goals, illustrated below. Finally, this paper will address what the world can expect from an increasingly assertive China in the future.

Core Chinese Interests and Goals

Before one can assess what China’s strategy in Asia is, there must be an end-game in mind. For China, the primary goal is arguably the continued survival of the Central Communist Party (CCP). This objective creates a need for the restoration of China as the primary power in the region, as well as the domestic goals of economic modernization and development for the nation. These goals are deeply intertwined, as the CCP relies on these forces to sustain its legitimacy (Blackwill, 2016).[1] China’s preferred outcome is a stable environment that permits its continued rapid economic growth and supports its increased regional influence (Saunders, 2014).[2]

The obvious impediment to the goal of regional primacy is the robust diplomatic, economic, and military presence of the United States throughout much of the Indo-Pacific region. To many Chinese officials, the United States continues to stand in the way of China rectifying the remaining vestiges of the 100 years of humiliation suffered at the hands of the West. The United States does this by supporting regional rivals and the existence of a Taiwan separate from the mainland, as well as leading an alliance system that prevents the rise of a regional hegemon. Thus, the limiting or removal of the United States from the region is a crucial goal of China’s.

Main Elements of China’s Regional Strategy

With an understanding of what China wants to achieve, it is now important to examine how it is going about advancing its interests in East Asia. China’s strategy is complex and multifaceted with both hard and soft power elements being used in tandem to achieve its goals. The strategy resembles what Joseph Nye defines as ‘smart power,’ a balanced mix of hard and soft power (Nye, 2011).[3] Early Chinese regional policy relied on a soft power dominated approach. It was not until 2009 that hard power elements fully emerged in China’s regional strategy, for the first time since the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis. From 2009 onward, China’s regional strategy took on a much more assertive posture, even after elites attempted to reign in this behavior. Joseph Cheng argues that the sudden shift in policy was a mistake because it did not follow China’s optimal strategy of gradual and limited change while maintaining the status quo image (Cheng, 2013).[4]

China’s strategy, from both hard and soft power sides, is heavily influenced by the perception that the United States seeks to not only balance against China, but to constrain and degrade China’s rise to its “rightful” place in the global order. This guiding perception in China’s regional policy is reflected in all points of China’s strategy. The removal of the United States from the region is not an easy goal to achieve, especially considering China’s heavy reliance on the United States to reach the position it is in today.

The bedrock of China’s post-Cold War regional strategy has been the exploitation of latent historical memories and behaviors in neighboring nations related to the Sino-centric system. China works hard to promote positive memories associated with the tribute system, while downplaying its quest for regional dominance. The voyages of Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty Admiral, serve as a perfect example. China portrays Zheng’s voyages as benign, peaceful goodwill missions, while glossing over the critical fact that the kingdoms where the fleet visited were expected to pay tribute, with the threat of attack luring over any nations that failed to do so. The Ming Dynasty’s voyages were merely a spectacle to showcase China’s power and wealth.

At the end of the Cold War, China’s economy was on the rise once again. As China’s economy rapidly developed in the 1990s and early 2000s, it sought to ease growing fears in the region that its economic clout would translate into offensive military power. China sought to frame its historical role as not just a primary power, but a benevolent one whose economic rise benefited the whole region. When the Asian economic crisis of 1997 struck the region, China used its newfound economic power to help struggling nations, rather than take advantage of them. The aid provided to struggling nations like Thailand and South Korea came with no hard strings attached, but mimicked the patronage Imperial China doled out, expecting loyalty and deference in return.

China’s economic power is perhaps the key pillar of its unofficial regional strategy. China has consistently focused on maintaining a stable international environment to support its economic development throughout the post-Cold War period (Saunders, 2014).[5] China argued that its continued economic modernization would be a windfall for the entire region, not just itself. The vast Chinese market would help it become a leading trade partner for every nation in the region since the turn of the millennium (Saunders, 2014).[6]  Cheng (2013) agrees, writing, “For the countries of ASEAN Plus Three, China’s economic development and rise in purchasing power have been serving as an engine for regional economic growth, a market for their exports, and outlet for their investment.”[7]

China’s economic strategy has served to promote a stable environment for continued growth; however, this is not its only purpose. China has quickly made itself the center of regional trade, forcing most nations in the region into dependence from. Even more importantly, China’s economic dependence on these nations has remained the same (Saunders, 2014).[8] By inserting itself into the middle of economic supply chains, China wields a large amount of influence over the other nations of the region. As a result, China regularly uses free trade agreements, trade facilitation agreements, and other economic tools as leverage implicitly or coercively (Saunders, 2014).[9]

China’s economic strategic pillar is augmented by the nation’s prolific effort to join multilateral organizations across the region. This effort began with efforts to become an observer, and later a partner country, of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since then, China has joined over 100 multilateral organizations, many of which are based in or profoundly impact East Asia (Chinese Outpost, 2016).[10] Most scholars agree that multilateral organizations help constrain nations in acting unilaterally or aggressively. By joining multilateral organizations, China can claim it will adhere to the rules and norms of the organization, keeping its economic and military strength in check; however, China is motivated by the ulterior goals of= influencing and manipulating member nations to its advantage, circumventing their constraining power.

Just as China hopes history influences other nations in the region to acquiesce to its dominance, China’s strategy is also influenced by history. Millennia of invasions around China’s periphery and the 100 years of humiliation have made the nation hypersensitive to the regional geography and perceptions of sovereignty, thus, China constantly looks to dominate its immediate periphery (Blackwill, 2016).[11] The intense focus on the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ regarding the oil chokepoint is a prime example of this paranoia. China’s restive minorities also invoke a sense of dread on China’s periphery. In particular, China worries that nations seeking to constrain it will take advantage of ethnic strife on the borders. The periphery sensitivity has manifested in China’s regional strategy in two ways since the end of the Cold War: one constructive and one considered counter-productive by many China scholars.

The constructive periphery strategy for China comes through foreign policy actions like confidence building measures (CBMs) with nations and organizations to help lessen the uneasiness of its military power potential. China also managed to settle many of the territorial disputes it had with nations on its border, many times in a gracious manner. CBMs helped build trust between China and its neighbors, making diplomatic actions simpler and easing concerns over military operations. China’s willingness to settle disputes, or at least mute them, further degraded the historical perception of China’s malicious domination in the region. China has also enthusiastically cooperated with nations in Central and South Asia to respond to ethnic and terrorist cross-border threats on its periphery. China has joined many multination organizations, but it has only helped create a few, notably including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which has taken on a clear anti-extremism, terrorism, and separatism (“three evils”) mission. Despite concerns that the SCO seeks to counter Western influence in Central Asia, Chinese efforts in the SCO, and elsewhere, to combat the three evils has helped it accrue positive influence in the region. These actions on China’s periphery, coupled with its economic, trade, and cultural policies constituted the main pillars of China’s vaunted Charm Offensive throughout much of the 2000’s (Kurlantzick, 2007).[12]

China’s constructive regional policy measures have been largely overshadowed by its more assertive tone since 2009, when China became much more unwilling to negotiate on issues, regardless of their nature. China showed that it was now willing to use the threat of its hard power advantage as leverage against the other nations of the region. China’s increased assertiveness in 2009 also brought the issue of Anti-Area/Access Denial (A2/AD) into the forefront, where it has remained. A2/AD doctrine calls for China’s military to limit or prevent an outside actor from entering the region with military assets. Directly aimed at the United States, a successful A2/AD doctrine would prohibit a U.S. carrier taskforce from operating in the area, allowing China to militarily dominate its smaller neighbors should it ever choose to carry out a more aggressive foreign policy.

China has coupled this military doctrine with renewed efforts to weaken the U.S. military alliance system in East Asia. Specifically, China has worked to isolate Japan from both the United States and the rest of the East Asian region, while co-opting South Korea through economic incentive. Saunders writes that China seeks to build positive relationships with current and potential powers to help create a multi-polar world that will prevent the creation of a U.S- anchored, anti-China coalition (Saunders, 2014).[13]

Effectiveness of Strategy in Achieving Interests and Goals

China has clearly put an immense amount of effort into reaching its goals in East Asia; however, the effectiveness of China’s overall strategy remains questionable. From culture, to economics, to conflict resolution, China’s strategy has had serious trouble, especially since 2009.

Looking at China’s cultural strategy in the region has fallen flat since 2009. China’s ability to persuade neighbors to adopt its culture has decreased dramatically. Many countries fear the overbearing nature of Han culture and nationalism, leaving much of East Asia cementing their unique cultures in opposition. Neighboring countries do not aspire to emulate China’s political system or evoke a sense of historical camaraderie with China. Right or wrong, more governments describe the Sino-centric era as one of forced obedience and have rejected a modern Sino-centric order in the region. Chinese modern culture is flourishing, but continues to lack the global attraction of American pop culture. For example, Kung Fu Panda, an American film, influenced U.S. perceptions of China more than any Chinese cultural effort (Shambaugh, 2013).[14]

China’s economy policy has been the most successful part of its unofficial regional strategy. China’s domestic economic modernization has been highly-dependent on a strong regional economy, as well as economic and trade relationships. The strength and importance of these relationships have muted many nations’ negative reactions to China’s more recent assertive behaviors. Much of the world outside of Southeast Asia is shocked that China’s neighboring nations have not taken more action against its island-building and rhetoric in the South China Sea. The easiest explanation for the silence of these nations is fear for negative repercussions on their economies, should China choose to retaliate by raising tariffs, ban goods or companies, or pull foreign direct investment (FDI). The economic relationships other countries, like Cambodia and Laos, have with China have these nations into virtual client states, with no other paths towards economic sovereignty. Across the region, governments actively consider how their policies will affect or be perceived by China, then adjust them accordingly.

Such a level of influence certainly points towards a successful Chinese strategy; however, China may be suffering from a case of “too much of a good thing is bad.” Currently, nations in the region begrudgingly acquiesce to Chinese demands because of the tight economic linkages, but most are actively looking to change that dynamic. East Asia has welcomed and encouraged renewed U.S. presence in the region, resulting in a much-analyzed “rebalance.” The U.S. economic portion of China’s strategy has led to the birth of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-national trade deal that will help many nations in the region balance against their deep economic ties to China.

The United States’ rebalance in Asia can be viewed as a failure in China’s regional policy to limit or remove U.S. influence in the region. The United States has deepened its alliances and strategic partnerships across Asia through military exercises: calling on ports, carrying out freedom of navigation operations, and the selling of arms. Polls show that the United States remains popular throughout the region, with some of its biggest supporters including Vietnam and South Korea, despite their importance to China’s influence (Stokes, 2014).[15]

The outlier to this reengagement is the Philippines and Pilipino President Duterte’s recent declared uncoupling from the United States. The United States Military continues to operate throughout the region unopposed, despite the A2/AD threat. In fact, the lengthy conflict-free duration since the introduction of the A2/AD doctrine has allowed the United States to use its strength in rapid innovation to begin developing technologies and strategies that will counter or neutralize China’s ‘home field’ advantage'. China’s efforts to push the United States out by way of A2/AD, along with other actions perceived as aggressive by the region, have led to a noticeable retrenchment in regional hedging strategies, which are counter-productive to China’s overall regional goals.

China’s effort to join and influence multilateral organizations has certainly been a successful element of its regional policy. Despite China’s territorial disputes with a number of ASEAN countries, the organization, which acts only on unanimous consensus, has been unable to issue a unified statement condemning China and its island-building efforts in the South China Sea. Because of China’s dialogue-partner status and critical economic links with Cambodia and Laos, it has been able to influence these nations to vote against any declarations that would criticize China’s actions in the region.

Like many other aspects of China’s strategy, however, there is a significant downside: China has become increasingly unwilling to follow the rules of the multinational organizations it has joined when faced with the organizations’ constraining powers. China’s refusal to accept an international tribunal’s ruling against it on the South China Sea and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) illustrated to many smaller nations in the region that China was willing to use its major power status to disregard other nations’ interests. China’s refusal to fully comply with trade laws and regulations, particularly when ASEAN is involved, has caused even further resentment in the local populations that have suffered from a drastic change in trade balances. China’s instances of negotiating bilaterally outside of the organizations is another aspect that negatively impacts its strategy and effectiveness.


While China has not put forth an official regional strategy for East Asia, there is an undeniable cohesive plan for the region. In every aspect of China’s approach, it looks to remove or reduce U.S. presence, while promoting and increasing its influence. Just as China’s strategy can be split into two distinct periods, constructive and assertive, the success of China’s strategy towards reaching its goals has a similar bifurcation. China has had a difficult time balancing hard and soft power, often leaning too heavily on hard power, leaving the country unable to create Joseph Nye’s ‘smart power’ strategy.

China’s early efforts to shape the region for its “rise” were undoubtedly successful as it acted in a gracious and cooperative manner. A miscalculation about the level of U.S. power led China to take on a more aggressive posture throughout all of its strategic avenues in the region beginning in 2009. Since then, this miscalculation has been difficult to overcome as China’s domestic situation continues to force the Central Communist Party (CCP) to remain assertive (Armstrong, et al, 2015).[16] Going forward, it appears that China’s regional strategy increasingly be focused on how it can balance the critical goals of regional stability and not damaging slowing growth while still forcing the United States out of the region or minimizing it without conflict. For its neighbors, China once again needs to address its perception problem. The key to this issue is not Chinese aggression, but arrogance (Rozman, 2010).[17] China and policy-making elites will need to relinquish their historically-driven sense of superiority. There cannot be another high-profile outburst of Chinese officials claiming ‘China is a big country and everyone else is small, and there is nothing they can do about it;’ as happened in 2010. Until this mentaility is repaired, China’s strategy risks another detrimental 2009-2010 outburst that could see their goals slip further out of reach.

Daniel Urchick is currently the Research Analyst for South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eurasia at Aviation Week and he is a Researcher on the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia Desks for the online crowdsourcing consultancy Wikistrat. Daniel received a Master’s in Political Science, focusing on international relations from Central Michigan University in 2015. He continued his education at George Washington University for a second Master’s in Security Policy Studies, focusing on Defense Analysis and Asian Security, which is expected in 2018. Daniel previously worked as an intern at the Institute for the Study of War on the Ukraine/Russia Portfolio during the beginning of the Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War. Daniel has also interned at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis on two separate occasions. He writing has previously appeared in Geopolitical Monitor, Small Wars Journal, Real Clear Defense, and Defence IQ.


[1] Blackwill, R. (May 26, 2016). “China's Strategy for Asia: Maximize Power, Replace America,” The Council on Foreign Affairs. http://www.cfr.org/china/chinas-strategy-asia-maximize-power-replace-america/p38124

[2] Saunders, P. (2014). China’s Role in Asia. In Shambaugh, David and Michael Yahuda (Ed.), “International Relations of Asia,” Rowman & Littlefield. Page 149.

[3] Nye, J. S. (2011). “The Future of Power,” Perseus Book Group.

[4] Cheng, J. (2013). “China’s Regional Strategy and Challenges in East Asia,” China Perspectives, (02). Page 54.

[5]   Saunders, P. (2014). China’s Role in Asia. In Shambaugh, David and Michael Yahuda (Ed.), “International Relations of Asia,” Rowman & Littlefield. Page 148.

[6]   Saunders, P. (2014). China’s Role in Asia. In Shambaugh, David and Michael Yahuda (Ed.), “International Relations of Asia,” Rowman & Littlefield.  Page 151.

[7] Cheng, J. (2013). “China’s Regional Strategy and Challenges in East Asia,” China Perspectives, (02). Page 60.

[8]   Saunders, P. (2014). China’s Role in Asia. In Shambaugh, David and Michael Yahuda (Ed.), “International Relations of Asia,” Rowman & Littlefield. Page 151.

[9]   Saunders, P. (2014). China’s Role in Asia. In Shambaugh, David and Michael Yahuda (Ed.), “International Relations of Asia,” Rowman & Littlefield.  Page 151.

[10] Chinese Outpost. “China's Membership in International Organizations,” Accessed: October 20, 2016. http://www.chinese-outpost.com/chinapedia/government-and-politics/membership-in-international-organizations.asp

[11] Blackwill, R. (May 26, 2016). “China's Strategy for Asia: Maximize Power, Replace America,” The Council on Foreign Affairs. http://www.cfr.org/china/chinas-strategy-asia-maximize-power-replace-america/p38124

[12] Kurlantzick, J. (2007) “Charm Offensive: How China's Soft Power Is Transforming the World,” Yale University Press.

[13] Saunders, P. (2014). China’s Role in Asia. In Shambaugh, David and Michael Yahuda (Ed.), “International Relations of Asia,” Rowman & Littlefield. Page 148.

[14] Shambaugh, D. (2013). “China: The Partial Power,” Oxford University Press, Oxford UK. Page 254

[15] Stokes, B. (July 15, 2014). “Which Countries Don’t Like America and Which Do,” Pew Research Center.

[16] Armstrong, Ian and et al.. (September 28, 2015). “China’s Foreign Policy: What’s Next?,” Wikistrat Inc., http://wikistrat.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wpcontent/uploads/2015/09/Wikistrat-China-Foreign-Policy.pdf

[17]  Rozman, G. (2010). “Chinese Strategic Thought Towards Asia,” Palgrave Macmillian. Page 235.

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